Can a new producer and a new president save "The West Wing"?
I used to love "The West Wing," I really did. Its first two years on the air it was a truly brilliant show, combining everything that's fascinating about politics with the formula of network television drama, and propelled by great actors to boot. Yes it came from a blatantly liberal perspective, but it was always fair and never turned into propaganda.
Somewhere around the third season though, trouble began, and the quality began to slowly slip. Then George W. Bush became president and the show's depiction of White House life began to move further and further away from the way things really were. Then September 11 happened, severing whatever links that remained to reality and even further establishing that "West Wing" was still living in 1999. This was underscored by a disgustingly condescending episode of the show that aired weeks after 9/11, in which the characters spent an hour "lecturing" a group of teenagers about "tolerance" in the face of terrorism.
Creator Aaron Sorkin was arrested on drug charges, several cast members, writers, and Sorkin himself got into disputes with the network and each other, and the quality of the show slowly began to decline: the third and fourth seasons consisted largely of the president's re-election campaign, weakly imagined by Sorkin as a fantasy in which the Clinton/Gore surrogate (Martin Sheen's President Bartlet) easily vanquished the dem-witted Bush stand-in (Josh Brolin's Bob Ritchie).
Ratings nosedived during the fourth season (last year), as star Rob Lowe left the show, and storylines became more and more lazy- Sorkin began resorting to the played-out "ripped from the headlines" shtick popularized by "Law & Order," and also wrote several convoluted, hard-to-follow episodes in which the action shifted between the present-day and flashbacks, despite the same characters appearing in both periods looking exactly the same. And Sorkin's habit of relying on long speeches instead of the usual rapid-fire dialogue soon became more grating than ever.
Then came several instances of desperate stunt-casting, as Matthew Perry, Christian Slater, and others were brought in for brief stints, and in an effort at "balance," their characters were all Republicans. Finally, the fourth season ended with an admittedly interesting storyline in which Bartlet's daughter was kidnapped by terrorists, the president invoked the 25th amendment in order to temporarily step down and, since the vice president (Tim Matheson) had resigned weeks earlier in a sex scandal, the presidency passed to the Republican Speaker of the House, played by John Goodman.