Whatever the artifice of the presidential drama The West Wing in terms of its granting a certain articulate sophistication and moral imperative to what seems like an inarticulate, business-like operation of politics, there is something at times quite compelling in watching these leaders and their lieutenants lend a narrative coherence to the chaos of political life. It is more than likely that White House staff members do not rush around bantering like Nick and Nora Charles refugees from a Thin Man movie and, while this is of course the conceit of most television dramas, the lending of wit and grace to the all too often confused, awkward, graceless human encounters of everyday life, it is interesting to note how fanatically popular these programs which deal with authority figures are, the Law and Orders and the medical dramas as well as The West Wing. People seem to want to believe that their leaders, doctors, detectives, and district attorneys suffer the same moral dilemmas as they do and yet are more eloquent, intelligent, and determined enough to, more often than not, make the right decision in the end. It is the ultimate fantasy, far more illusionary than any science fiction escapade, and yet an undeniably successful formula in terms of what people agree upon as serious, reality based drama.
But as drama is indeed the calling here, The West Wing must be counted a success in terms of drawing the viewer in and involving them in characters, if only because it manages to regulate its own complicity in the heavy-handed moral posturing and smarm of a show like ER and the self-righteous, pat-on-the-back crusading of Dick Wolf’s constellation of cop and lawyer shows. When the occasionally facile, self-consciously witty banter dies down, one may be left with the feeling that however compromised the program may be by its audience pandering, offering a bright reflection of the best of us only slightly begrimed with darker smudges of deficiency and failure, there is a dialogue established between the political and the personal, the contradictions, successes, and missteps of both individual and national experiences. Aaron Sorkin’s oval office is a fantasy that attempts to realize a kind of “presidency perfected,” spiritually and intellectually if not always in the day-to-day human affairs of the characters. At its worst, this can make for pedantic preaching and scriptwriter agenda pushing, yet at its best this tension gives The West Wing a constant potential to be bold in symbolism and rhetoric. Certainly flawed, the program has its fair share of moments leading viewers into corners of insight.
The fourth season of The West Wing saw several important developments, foremost among them being the reelection of President Bartlett, the exit of Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn and the arrival of his replacement, Joshua Malina’s Will Bailey, the resignation of the Vice President in one of the season’s finer episodes, and the political and moral consequences of the Qumar dilemma left over from the end of the third season, namely Bartlett’s approval of the assassination of a foreign terrorist, an action that becomes a kind of creeping shadow over the administration. Behind the scenes, the season also saw the departure/removal of creator Aaron Sorkin, who up to that point had been doing most of the primary writing chores for the series.
Sorkin and his directors are certainly good at sustaining a kind of organized chaos, yet the reelection arc that opens the fourth series, with its naturally inbuilt shifting tensions, the stuff of campaigns, sharpens the general sense of everyday urgency, starting the season off with a pleasant rush. The season has its share of high points, of particular note: “Debate Camp,” an episode that meditates on the shakier, uncertain times of Bartlett’s political life; “Privateers,” one of the season’s lighter programs wherein first lady Abby Bartlett tries to squash an aid bill of her husband’s due to what she decries as a fatal compromise at its heart while having to deal with the fact that the Daughters of the Revolution have discovered that she is related to an 18th century pirate; and “Life on Mars,” the aforementioned Vice President resignation episode that manages to turn a sensationalistic plot twist into something more profound, an examination on the slanting pieces and almost nonsensical fragments of evidence that can lead to the revelation of a scandal—here the VP’s extra-martial affair—that can destroy the whole of a career and a life. The result is a strangely sad episode that seems appropriately half-finished and full of emotional ellipses.
There are also the qualified successes. “Game On,” an episode that sees the debate between Bartlett and his laconic opponent Governer Ritchie (James Brolin), is punchy and exciting and yet falls victim to some of the grandstanding that the scriptwriters could be accused of throughout the series, the encouraging of fashionably leftist ideas that are not wrong because of their politics but feel cloying as art; it’s like watching artists applauding their own work and patting themselves on the back for their intellectual bravery. The episode also saw the welcome addition of Malina’s Will Bailey, who brings a passionate albeit level head and a dry, horrified wit to the proceedings. “The Long Goodbye,” detailing C.J.‘s trip to see her Alzheimer’s-ridden father, is moving but a tad bit heavy on the sentiment. The season finale, “Twenty Five,” falls short on one major count, the ridiculous twist of having Bartlett’s daughter kidnapped, yet it is to the creative team’s credit that what amounts to an almost desperate gimmick still works in terms of character development. Whatever the narrative silliness, there is something quite moving about watching Richard Schiff’s sad, angry Tobey talking to his newborn twins and discovering just how much he loves them while in the shadow of Bartlett’s fears for his daughter’s life, a fear that could have international consequences. It is a clumsy but intriguing playing out of what happens when the President is forced to merge his personal and political identities.
The discs themselves look just fine, as the set naturally preserves the feature-like widescreen look of the show. The overall skillfully handled cinematography of the program, particularly when it comes to the use of exteriors, is well represented in the look of the set. While the discs may look good, though, they sound even better. One of the nicer things about The West Wing is its sparring use of incidental music, focusing instead on pockets of conversation and the background sounds of babbling voices and ringing phones. The audio is crystal clear, perhaps not surprising given the commercial release but welcome nonetheless.
The extras on the set are limited to two featurettes, one on the character of first lady Abbey Bartlett and another on the role of the President's speechwriters in the White House. There are also a handful of unaired scenes that are really only intriguing for archival reasons and as a lesson on how to cut the dead weight out of a show.
The set is a fine addition to the ever-growing legion of television programs hording the shelves at your local retailer. There is certainly something to be said for the weekly obsession and wait of watching broadcast television and yet something equally compelling about being able to study whole seasons as complete arcs. Certainly people now have a chance to see if the show was really worth all the hype (and all the Emmys).