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Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits want lame duck Martin Sheen's job on "The West Wing"
on June 12, 2006
The difference in the style if not the substance of "The West Wing" in the wake of Aaron Sorkin's depature crystalized for me in the final episode of the series when I realized that Sorkin would not have simply referred to the inaugural address of the new president who replaced President Jed Barlett (Martin Sheen), he would have written it and we would have seen and heard it. This perspective becomes useful in looking at the last couple of seasons of "The West Wing" because while the show never ran out of ideas regarding the wonderful world of politics, the execution of those ideas was never quite as glorious as during the first Barlett Administration.
The Sixth Season of "The West Wing" was ambitious in two regards. First, it started off by attempting to solve the quagmire of peace in the Middle East, at least as it applies to the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians ("The Birnam Wood"). Then it moved on to getting an accord with China ("Impact Winter"), which would be following the lame duck game plan of trying to have an impact on international relations since everybody has stopped listening to you at home. I found the Middle East negotiations to be tinted more with pragmatism than idealism, but while Barlett's MS problems upped the ante on his negotiations with the Chinese, the nuts and bolts of how he got the detail were hidden behind closed doors. Certainly this added drama to the proceedings, but it also represented the tendency for significant things to happen off camera during this season. In retrospect it seems that since Barlett now had to share time with the men competing to be his replacement that there was an effort to have him deal with real big issues. As Barlett pointedly says, "Progress is not good enough for me now. I want to get something done" ("In the Room").
Second, the show established an entire second track having to do with the primary campaign to select the Democratic nominee for the upcoming election. That the Republican nominee is going to be Senator Arnold Vinnick (Alan Alda) is established pretty much from the moment he announces ("In the Room"), while the fact that the credit for Jimmy Smits appears right before Sheen's at the end of the title sequence in the "with" section gives away the outcome of the Democratic side before the last delegate vote is counted ("2162 Votes"). I found this much more interesting than the re-election campaign from the third and fourth seasons, mainly because I knew from the start that as soon as Barlett got on stage to debate his opponent, and I was right ("Game On"). The flaw here, again determined through the value of hindsight, is that Matt Santos wins more by default than by the merits of his education plan. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Governor Eric Baker (Ed O'Neill) drops out, John Hoynes (Tim Mathewson) had to resign the vice presidency), and the frontrunner is "Bingo Bob" Russell (Gary Cole), the veep forced on Bartlett by the Republicans in Congress. That whole machination had to do with stopping Bartlett from making his Secretary of State (William Devane) his vice president and heir presumptive, and I suppose it would be tacky for two senior administration officials to be fighting over this particular bone. I loved the description Leo gives of Vinnick as sounding "smarter and more honest than any Republican they've ever seen, because he is," but we got to see little of that because the emphasis more on what alienated Vinnick from conservatives in the Republican Party ("In God We Trust").
In addition to the newcomers Alda and Smits, the Sixth Season was defined by two other pairs of characters. It seems strange to say that after a pair of Emmys wins for both Supporting Actress and Lead Actress that Allison Janney as C.J. Cregg emerges as a stronger character, but become Chief of Staff will do that. The moment at the end of "Third-Day Story" where Bartlett asks her to jump off a cliff for him is one of my favorites from the season, but I also liked how when you go back and watch the episode again they set her up as the obvious choice for the job over Josh and Toby. Less surprising was that once Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) got out from under Joss's wing and join the Russell campaign, she would prove to be capable of doing substantial things (like dress down a heckler in a chicken outfit in "Freedonia"). You also have Annabeth Schott (Kristin Chenoweth) and Kate Harper (Mary McCromack) giving women more prominent positions in the White House, making up for seeing less of Abby Barlett (Stockard Channing) and Debbie Fiderer (Lily Tomlin). For that matter we have Helen Santos (Terri Polo) and Sheila Brooks (Patricia Richardson) making substantial appearances as well. In contrast, Leo (John Spencer), and Charlie (Dule Hill) have less to do in the White House this year, leaving Tony Ziegler (Richard Schiff) a bit more to do. There is also good news that Ron Silver is back as Bruno Gianelli, even though he is now working for the other side. It also has to be said that watching Leo's heart attack in "The Birnam Wood" is now a chilling scene because of Spencer's death this past year.
The other characters that come into their own in new ways would be Joss Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Will Bailey (Joshua Malina), who are running competing campaigns for the presidency. Ultimately they are more important than their candidates. Obviously that is true about Will with running the Russell campaign, but I think it is even more true about Josh coming into his own, if only he could call down without Amy (Mary Louise Parker) having to tape him into a chair ("Freedonia"). I have to say, as much as the Lemon Lymans would hate to hear it, give Will and Josh candidates of comparable competence to run and I think the results would be different. Ultimately my biggest complaint about this Sixth Season is that when it comes to the primary campaign stories I wish they would show more and tell less. If you have an entire episode about candidates getting to debate, then seeing the debate would be a good thing (this is why "The Debate" episode from Season Seven was so much fun and exactly what I had hoped they would have done in Season Four--yes, the election happens a year "early" in "The West Wing" universe). There were plenty of similar opportunities to show more of the campaign and to make Santos look like more of a winning candidate, and the pattern continues throughout the rest of the campaign and the series.