PTBN’s West Wing Rewatch: Season Six

The West Wing PTBN RewatchWith the 2016 Presidential Election approaching, we at the Place to be Nation decided that now would be a great time to go back and look at a television drama that presented an American political landscape that we all could be proud of. Join us month-by-month as we re-watch The West Wing together. Part companion piece, part reflection. Enjoy the show all over again or discover it for the very first time.

THE ADMINISTRATION AT THE START OF SEASON SIX

President Bartlet is focused on brokering in a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and clashes with staff who thinks it is a fool’s errand, most notably Leo who agrees to part ways with the administration and then promptly suffers a massive heart attack. After the peace accords are signed, Bartlet hires CJ to replace Leo as Chief of Staff as the eyes of the nation are on primary contenders who will vie to replace Bartlet as the next President.

THE PLOT

After Leo’s heart attack, CJ is promoted to Chief of Staff in a pretty implausible move by the show’s writers. The show’s entire format, in fact, is shaken up after the disastrous season five. Josh leaves the White House to run the campaign of a darkhorse candidate for President, Texas Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) against frontrunner Vice President Bob Russell who’s campaign is led by Will and later also Donna, who had previously quit working for Josh. Many episodes focus solely on the campaign as Santos rises in the polls, eventually overtaking Former VP Hoynes (who must drop out after another sex scandal) and vaulting into a showdown with Russell at the convention. The Republican frontrunner for President  is also featured, in the form of moderate California Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda.)

Back in Washington, Toby, Kate, and a promoted Charlie are left as the only members of the “old guard” in the west wing with CJ. And then the unthinkable but inevitable occurs when Bartlet’s MS flairs up, leaving him temporarily paralized en route to a China summit and later forced to work lighter schedules and use a cane, causing many clashes with the First Lady over her concern for his health.

Everything culminates at the Democratic National Convention when neither Santos or Russell have won enough primaries to secure the nomination. After a brief  surprise bid from a popular Pennsylvania governor, President Bartlet is forced to choose sides, eventually supporting Santos after a stirring speech from the nominee to the convention body. Josh asks a recovered Leo to join the ticket as Vice President. In the final moments of the season it is uncovered that a massive breach of national security has come from inside the White House.

BEST EPISODES

This is the first season where I won’t open this section of the rewatch by praising the season premiere episodes. The entire season, in fact, takes some time to get going but there are definitely some highlights. A Change Is Gonna Come, In The Room, and Impact Winter are all good episodes and the three-episode arc where Bartlet’s MS flares up in China and Josh decides to leave the White House. Drought Conditions is heralded as the new “best episode since Sorkin left” and surrounds Toby, distraught over the death of his brother, helping an insurgent Democratic candidate in the primaries leading to a literal showdown/fight with Josh. This episode is followed up by the criminally underrated A Good Day, one of my favorite episodes of the series, and two more winners: La Palabra and In God We Trust. Finally the season ends on a real high note with two great episodes about the conventions: Things Fall Apart and 2162 Votes.

WORST EPISODES

Let’s get this out of the way early: NSF Thurmont and The Birnam Wood are the season opening lumbering conclusion to the Israel/Palestine storyline. So you kind of need to watch them to see how the season five story arc ends and to see Leo’s heart attack. That having been said, they suck. Especially the Birnam Wood which is both boring and actually features Leo’s heart attack that is absurdly uncomfortable to watch in light of John Spencer’s real life heart attack that killed him less than two years later. Ninety Miles Away, an episode that I had long held was the worst episode ever in the show, upon rewatching I have deemed to be simply bad and not “worst ever” although it is quite preposterous and includes an actual scene with Leo meeting Fidel Castro. Pretty much everything else is watchable. Nothing is as good as the Sorkin years but not worse than any but The Supremes in season five.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

Season six, especially from the midway point onward, is a really great season of television. Sure, it’s not really the SAME show as the four Sorkin years. But rather it is now a different great well written television show about Presidential politics. The split between the campaign and White House episodes reinvigorated the show and made for some great drama (even though it is pretty obvious that a big name star like Jimmy Smits wasn’t joining the show to NOT end up the Presidential nominee when it was all said and done.)

The one unfortunate side effect of the campaign storylines being added to the show is that an influx of new characters meant much less focus on many individual people. It would get worse in season seven, when I literally cannot think of a thing Charlie does all year before I start watching it. Here though it feels as if the season could have been 6, 8 or even 10 episodes longer. We spend a lot of time in New Hampshire and Iowa, getting the Santos campaign off the ground, and then jump to a huge plot twist in California when Hoynes drops out and gloss over everything else until the convention. On the Republican side, we meet Vinick and briefly see his campaign in action but we never even meet his Republican challengers. Maybe John Goodman was busy because Walken is mentioned but never actually seen. Cliff Calley, Mark Feurstein’s character from season three who briefly dates Donna and works for the Congressional committee investigating Bartlet’s MS, returns and replaces Josh as Deputy Chief of Staff, making good appearances in a few episodes but ultimately disappearing to Mandyland. Kristen Chenowith joins the cast as Annabeth, who would have made a great replacement to CJ as Press Secretary (and is introduced as a candidate for that job) but ends up being some kind of a random catch-all Communications assistant before somehow morphing into an assistant for Leo. It is randomly revealed that Charlie and Zoey get back together but it is never explained or expanded upon.

Season six stumbles a bit out of the gate but winds up being a well done and thoroughly enjoyable season of television. It was mostly for naught though. Season five did its damage and with the critical acclaim gone and losing viewers, it was announced that season seven would be the show’s last. We’re almost there!

Author: Neil Trama