As a Christmas present, we treated ourselves to the complete West Wing box set. We already owned three seasons on DVD, but the price gap between buying the set and buying the four seasons we were missing was slim enough and the packaging so enticing that we gave in, and have been working our way gradually through it ever since.
Season Five remains, unfortunately, just as weak as I’d remembered. There was some decline in Season Four as Rob Lowe departed and Aaron Sorkin was aware of the impending end of his tenure, but Five was where that really sank in. Too many scenes lack the pace and the intensity of the show’s earlier days, and the writers seem to lack the insight into their characters that viewers expect by this stage. But that’s not what really lets it down for me.
On first viewing I’d thought the show really lost its footing when it tried to be less ideological, more bi-partisan. Revisiting it confirmed that sense. On traditional partisan issues like school vouchers, the older show would not have simply given in but instead would have found a new idea. In Season Five they simply surrender on that, just as they do on so much else.
The one standout episode of the season puts that weakness in sharp relief. Episode 17 (“The Supremes”) sees the Bartlet administration seeking a new Supreme Court Justice and coming to a middle-ground solution that works by re-connecting with many of the show’s previous strengths. They reinforce the oft-lost strengths of partisan politics, by showing that smart people of strikingly different opinions can really engage, and that everyone benefits when they do.
In some ways the show regained some of its earlier power in its final series. They claimed back some of the optimism about what happens when intelligent people engage on issues, and they solved the desires of the new people in control to be bipartisan by following two different candidates. But sadly it never regained its former strength, just like it never returned to that early conviction.