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When NBC’s “The West Wing” ends its two presidential terms with Sunday’s series finale, it won’t be just another show putting out the “closed” sign. Throughout its 156 episodes, “West Wing” has held office during one of real-life America’s more contentious and controversial periods — and attempted to mirror parts of that reality back to its viewing audience — while stepping through another kind of minefield: the politics of television.
Until “West Wing” surfaced in 1999, no series in the history of scripted TV entertainment had really made a go of telling an inside-the-White-House story. The president was merely a gray, shapeless figure onto whom dialogue beyond the most basic of orders was rarely projected; his staff seemed almost impossible to imagine as flawed, striving human beings. But the Warner Bros. Television-produced hour has proved through the years that it is possible to be artful and innovative with a subject as dry as politics — while reinventing the ensemble drama in the process.
Creator, executive producer and — for many of the show’s episodes — writer Aaron Sorkin already had enjoyed success with his humanistic approach to the Oval Office in his screenplay for 1995’s “The American President.” Plus, developing the concept for the small screen would give him a place for all of his unused plot elements.
“Television tends to cling to the artificial rules of drama, if only because the real rules of drama are much harder to master,” he asserts. “Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t do a show about a divorced person, a Jewish person or someone from New York. But those unwritten rules are made to be broken.”
Breaking them is what Sorkin did, crafting an inside-baseball look at those who fight the good fight in the nation’s highest office. Assisting him were Thomas Schlamme, his fellow executive producer and primary director, and a talented cast headed up by veteran leads Martin Sheen (as President Josiah Bartlet), Stockard Channing (first lady Abbey Bartlet) and Rob Lowe (Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn). Immediately, the show shot into the ratings top 20 during its first season, remaining in the top 5 thereafter as a Wednesday night network anchor.
Over the years, “West Wing” has received television’s version of the Congressional Medal of Honor (a Primetime Emmy) 24 times out of 89 nominations (with 17 of those wins in its first two seasons alone, and four as outstanding drama). It also has carted off Golden Globe, DGA, SAG, TCA and WGA awards, three Humanitas Prizes and a pair of Peabodys — all with a year of awards eligibility still remaining.
In 2003, the series managed to weather the disruptive and controversial exodus of Sorkin and Schlamme, which forced a midstream emphasis shift in the series from Sorkin’s snappy dialogue and sharp banter to executive producer John Wells’ more story-focused approach. Wells, who had previously demonstrated his writer-producer chops on the late-1980s drama series “China Beach” and NBC’s current hit “ER,” made it his life’s mission not to drop the ball (or at least, not fumble it too badly).
“My real difficulty was trying to live up to the standards Aaron set for writing the show,” Wells acknowledges. “He’s one of our greatest living writers — you don’t just easily step into those shoes. I have to believe we’ve done pretty well under the circumstances. While I don’t think we’ve done as well as Aaron did, at least we got to the runway without crashing the plane.”
With any change that major, turbulence was expected — and having the network move the show to Sunday night in 2005-06, which resulted in a drastic ratings drop, didn’t help matters. But then again, the plane was never expected to get airborne in the first place. In 1999, a show about politics was a hard sell in a market that knew ratings could only be squeezed from cops, doctors, detectives or lawyers. But Sorkin didn’t want to play it safe, and the larger story of “West Wing” is about revitalizing the serial ensemble drama. The series’ seasonlong story arcs and its large and vibrant cast of appealing characters ultimately would allow the pendulum to swing back from procedurals and allow programs such as ABC’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” to flourish.
Also notable in “West Wing’s” style: the “walk and talk” device (pioneered by Schlamme), which continuously tracked in front of characters over long sequences as they strode down hallways and from room to room. It was a stylistic conceit borne out of Schlamme’s refusal to allow scene cuts that relocated characters without explanation of how they got there.
“You almost never see how anyone travels from point A to point C (on most TV shows),” he says. “I wanted the audience to witness every journey these people took. It all had a purpose, even seeing them order lunch. It just seemed to be the proper visual rhythm with which to marry Aaron’s words. I got lucky that it worked.”
Luck, Schlamme adds, has been a proven factor in creating the “West Wing” phenomenon. “Shows that work are like needles in haystacks,” he reasons. “If one ingredient goes wrong, it can transform a really great show into a good or even mediocre one. Something in the zeitgeist has to come together for you.”
And luck aside, there also was Sorkin and his mighty pen. Prolific in an almost superhuman way, he wrote nearly every episode during the show’s first four Emmy-winning seasons (87 scripts in all), crafting an unabashedly idealized depiction of a virtuous Democratic administration that inspired some to dismiss the show as “The Left Wing.”
“I wanted the show to define patriotism as something other than a bumper sticker,” Sorkin recalls. “I also wanted to give a little sex appeal to the idea of trying to do the right thing. We were used to our leaders being portrayed in popular culture as either Machiavellian or complete dolts. It was nice, I think, to see them once a week as extremely capable, hard-working, dedicated public servants who thought about the country before they thought about themselves. And they were funny. In its own way, it was very romantic.”
Critics were nearly unanimous in their praise, despite a perception that “West Wing” carried an agenda that peered at the Clinton administration through a revisionist lens. The charge didn’t diminish the notion that the show possessed the ambition, as well as the savvy, to turn political issues into compelling mainstream entertainment.
“It was pretty clear to us from the start that this show was going to be something unbelievably special,” WBTV president Peter Roth recalls. “It has represented television at its absolute best: aspirational, educational, provocative, hugely entertaining and stimulating all at once. Reading one of the scripts for us here at the company was really like eating candy. A lot of shows have one or two elements nailed, but ‘West Wing’ had everything: great writing, brilliant story-telling, fascinating characters, superb acting.”
But “West Wing” never promised anybody a rose garden: The show weathered salary holdouts among its regular players and the departure of original cast member Lowe in a financial dispute after Season 3. (He returned this campaign to reprise his role in several episodes.) And that, coupled with the creative exodus of Sorkin and Schlamme, made many believe the series would not survive.
Wells, however, has continued to keep the show interesting. He admits that this has been “the most challenging thing I’ve ever tried to do in my professional life,” but the Wells era on “West Wing” has not been without its highlights — in particular, this season’s presidential election story line and November’s much-praised live debate episode featuring candidates Jimmy Smits (as Congressman Matthew Santos) and Alda (Sen. Arnold Vinick).
Hanging over the show during the past five months, however, has been the death in December of the beloved John Spencer, who so memorably portrayed Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. McGarry had served as Santos’ running mate, and Spencer’s passing (mirrored in the story line by McGarry’s) spurred a plot change that found Santos winning the election rather than Vinick, which had been the original plan. The writers decided it would have been too tough on viewers for them to swallow not only the bitter pill of McGarry’s death but a loss as well.
For NBC Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly’s money, the work of everyone on “West Wing” this year has been “as fine as anything the show has done and as good as television gets. I’m so proud to have had this series on NBC because it honestly never checked its ambition at the door. It obliterated all of the beliefs about doing political drama — that it’s too complex, it’s too dry, it’s too inside, it’s too talky. And it was also a great piece of wish fulfillment for the best of what our government can do and be. When the show was on my watch, John Wells kept the flow going and the quality high in such an impressive way.”
As “West Wing” prepares to take its final bow Sunday, Wells appreciates that praise. While he is reluctant to take too much credit for his contribution to the show’s legacy, he will allow that “the fans of the show are still enjoying it, and I think we’ve managed to live up to the basic premise that Aaron and Tommy originally laid down.”
It has long been commonly acknowledged among cast and crew that “West Wing” might likely be the best thing they’ll ever be professionally associated with — a sobering yet comforting idea. At a second season staff meeting, Bradley Whitford (who plays Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman) noted, “Guys, no matter what we do for the rest of our careers, this show is the first line of our obituaries.”
Today, Sorkin is perfectly comfortable with that idea: “I’d be very proud — though also dead — if that turns out to be true,” he quips.
And like Sorkin, Wells also is comfortable with that concept. “We’ll all remember and cherish this as a high point in our careers for the rest of our lives,” he says. “When you start out in this business, you’re never thinking about doing something that leaves a lasting imprint. You just want to be able to work, period. So, to be part of a ‘West Wing’ isn’t just the cherry atop the career sundae. It’s the whole sundae.”
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