The winning streak for this veritable show continues through its fourth year. As with many long-running series, The West Wing
faces the inevitable--a cast member chooses to leave. But this show handles Rob Lowe's exit with such well-executed grace, a could-be-harmful experience (or at least sudden) is turned into an asset. The season begins with three staff members marooned in the heartland (played mostly for laughs) and ends with a dramatic cliffhanger even more powerful than the initial season's shooting. In between are 20 excellent episodes packed with the series' trademark wit and pace, and an uncannily ability to create excellent moments for the entire cast. The election nears and West Wing
ers brace for the final onslaught including a make-or-break debate. There's a horrible genocide in Africa changing the course of the Bartlett administration and a covert assassination with effects lingering throughout the season. There's also the now-annual flashback episode, this time to the first days at the White House (with another comforting appearance by Kathryn Joosten as Mrs. Landingham). The series also has its first episode set mostly outside the West Wing when C.J. (Alison Janney) goes back to Ohio for a high school reunion and visits her father (Donald Moffat) who is starting to feel the effects of Alzheimer's.
Lowe's Sam Seaborn picks a new fate at the spur of the moment and is eventually replaced by the very person whose verve he was swept up by--a harried, vastly intelligent campaign manager, Will Bailey (Josh Malina, best known for his work in creator Aaron Sorkin's previous show, Sports Night). He's an excellent fit for the West Wing, both fictionally and for the series. Part of the show's success belongs to the continuity, helped immensely by high-caliber guest stars continuing long runs on the show, including Mary-Louise Parker, John Amos, Marlee Matlin, Tim Matheson, Timothy Busfield, Lily Tomlin, Anna Deavere Smith, and Ron Silver (hey, that's a pretty good cast for their own show). One-time guest stars are also used to the fullest. Notice how a single-episoe appearance by Christian Slater (as a naval attaché who strikes Donna's fancy) turns into a three-episode arc. Matthew Perry delivers an Emmy-nominated performance in a key role in the season's final arc. This fourth season was capped by the departure of creator-writer Sorkin and producer-director Thomas Schlamme, plus another Emmy win for Best Drama, its fourth straight. Many were surprised or even angered that the series kept up the winning streak. Perhaps the series was not as relevant to the times as four years earlier, but the proof is in the pudding--the series was still in rarefied air by the end of this season.
Luckily, Sorkin and Schlamme were invited to air the commentaries for the DVDs, here on three episodes. It allows them to talk about their departure, a subject barely mentioned in the two making-of featurettes. One deals with speechwriters and other with Stockard Channing's role on the show. Note: the documentaries and deleted scenes are hard to find. Look for the pointer (>) at the bottom right of the special features menu of the sixth disc. --Doug Thomas