There is no letdown in talent or skill for the third season of this blue ribbon drama. One could say these 22 episodes play as a continuation of the second season; there are no major new characters or earth-shattering plots and the Emmys rewarded the series with its third straight award for Best Drama (and unlike season 4, no one argued about the laurels). The third year starts with a stand-alone episode "Isaac & Ishmael", a special show created, shot, and broadcast 22 days after the 9/11 events. Although the final results tend to be sermonic, the fact the show was able to drop everything and commit to a new season opener is evident not only of talent, but of a disciplined work force operating at the top of their game.
President Bartlet's (Martin Sheen) decision to run for reelection after the disclosure of suffering MS fuels the fire for the first half of the season. Depositions are filed against the staff, minor mistakes take on more significance, and the White House consul (Oliver Platt) has the run of the table warning of worst-case scenarios. The focus soon turns to the First Lady (Stockard Channing) as the potential "Lady Macbeth" of the scandal. Channing aces her role and turns her birthday celebration ("Dead Irish Writers") into one of the season's highlights. Assistant Donna (Janel Moloney), her boss Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), and Press Secretary K.D. (Alison Janney) all have charismatic romances, but the ace supporting player this year is John Spencer as the relentlessly loyal Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. Whether delivering the hard truth, accepting the proverbial bullet for the President, or being our guide to how Bartlet ran in the first place (in another wonderful flashback episode, "Bartlet for America"), all roads lead to McGarry. Acting Emmys went to Channing, Spencer, and Janney, but the strength of this show is that the entire cast has glorious moments (Toby's taking on the President's mode of operation, Sam's belief in government, or the President's peculiarities of Thanksgiving are just a few). Recurring guest stars--the likes of Ron Silver, Tim Matherson, Mary Louise Parker, and Mark Harmon--deliver some of their career-best work. Crack writing, a breathless pace, plus you learn a bit about government. What else do you want from a TV drama? --Doug Thomas