Saturday, May 23, 2009

What Went Wrong for West Wing V?

When my wife and I started into West Wing Season Five a month or so ago I was curious to see if something went wrong with the show. I remember that it was sometime in season five that the ratings started to take a dip and they first started talking about the show's longevity. It ended up going seven, but I'd have liked to have seen it go eight.

I used to think it must have been the loss of Rob Lowe in season four that caught up to them, but I don't think so anymore. Certainly his absence was felt, but that's not it. A better theory is that the loss of writer Aaron Sorkin led to the loss of viewers, but, as good as he was, the writing didn't suffer enough to cause the show to lose the people who would already have been sucked in. No. I think the loss in ratings was a loss of the casual viewer. And in season five something happened that I think made it happen.

It wasn't a drop in quality, it wasn't a shift in time slot, it wasn't any of that. It had everything to do with the story and the characters of the show themselves, and this is it:

The goings got tough.

At times it was even hard to watch. The season began with the President's daughter being kidnapped, and while that sounds like a ratings grab, it transcended such gimmicks by turning itself into an interwoven group of character studies. If it was a series of novels, this would be the one where the characters went through the fire. Sometimes they came out shining, sometimes their flaws were exposed. Always it was smart writing.

Always it felt like life and entertainment were meeting and making art. I'm not totally opposed to entertainment being escapist, but I do prefer the smart, real, stuff; the stuff of classic novels; the stuff of developing characters and story webs. It doesn't get the ratings as much, I suppose, but it is right up my alley.

Perhaps the highlight of the season, thematically, is the fallout from the aforementioned kidnapping, where the President steps down in order not to do something rash to save his daughter. What results is that the person who takes over does what is best for the country first, and the daughter second. In the end they do get the daughter back, but the family is never the same.

The cost of leadership is seen at its highest, and the President is seen for his commitment to his job and his country. But the cost is high, and it takes the family a long time to recover. It feels like a modern parable of Abraham and Isaac, achieving through a contemporary storyline what Soren Kierkegaard with Fear and Trembling and Fredrick Buechner with his novel Son of Laughter achieve with the old one. The depth of it is profound, while still being great entertainment.

That said, it was a tough year for the characters and the storylines, and so I can now why viewers dropped off. But as a fan of the West Wing, it is sort of gratifying that it lost viewers because of an increase, and not a decrease, in quality. Bravo.


joel said...

Hey Jon, I wrote a post for you.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

My favourite-ever West Wing episode is in season five: 'The Supremes,' with the appointment of the supreme court justices. 'Shutdown' has always been a favourite as well, even if it is a little too on-the-nose.

The narrative which claims The West Wing declined after season four is not one I adhere to. There were always dud episodes, even in the best seasons.

word verification: riancot

Anonymous said...

Oh no! You are reading "How to be Good"! I really hated that book.

It actually ended a long-standing book club I was in with a gentleman from Hadford.

I hope you don't hate the experience as much as I did (I felt it was a total waste of my time reading it).

jon said...

anonymous: are you a fictional character?

how to be good isn't amazing, but it is funny in parts and perceptive on the quirks, foibles, and minor events that can be either the pitfalls or miracles that make up every day (domestic) relationships.

matthew: those are good episodes. definitly the series goes with "on the nose" drama (its not like it isn't trying to be an entertainment program), but when it does it usually does it very very well.

off the top of my head, my favourite all time episodes are "Somebody's GOing to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail" from season one, and "Han" from season 3 or 4. But the stuff with John Goodman, in season 5, is amazing.

and since i'm already passed the point of no return with sounding obsessively fan-clubbish, i'd be curious if you have a favourite character? (i know matthew and colin are fans. not sure who else)

for me it is Toby Ziegler, all the way. Last night we watched the season 6 episode where he has to do the press briefings and it is hilarious stuff.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Though I agree with your assessment of some of the reasons for the season five ratings decline, I also trace the problem to a change in TV viewership generally. Though it's always hard to place things like this, it was sometime around WW s.V that network TV began it's long, horrifying decline into staggering mediocrity. Though there are exceptions to this, they are few and far between, and they are based on show-formats that don't require much of the viewer. The only place you can find smart TV anymore is on the major American cable networks (and DVD of course), and if WW was pitched now, it would be an HBO or Showtime series, and not an NBC show.

Favorite episodes? "The Supremes" and "Someone's going to Emergency" would both be on my list ("No, I'm wondering where the hell France really is?"). I also absolutely love "20 Hours in America." I could go on and on about my early favorites, but since this is a post that's kind of about the change in ethos in the later WW, I'll weigh in with "King Corn" as one of my very favorite last episodes. Fantastic concept, direction, and story.

Fav character? From the main cast I'd pick Josh, with CJ and Charlie in a close tie for second. From the special guest cast, which is totally as important as the main cast, I'd pick Ainsley Hays for sure.

Here's a fun little WW tidbit. Did you know that Martin Sheen's role was only ever meant to be a special guest role, recurring every 3-4 episodes? The focus group reaction to his bit in the pilot was so favourable that Sorkin/Schlamme decided he should be regular character.

Now who's an uber-nerd?

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

You are an uber-nerd.

ummm... favourite character? Hard to say. Josh probably, but also Toby.

Easily my least favourite character is Abigail Bartlett. She rarely does anything that interests me. I don't know if it's the acting or the writing I should blame. Or both.

Best line in the series:
"Just so you know: 'Crime. Boy, I don't know' is when I decided to kick your ass."

jon said...

fully agree about that line, matthew! and about abigail bartlett.

Colin: Ainsley Hayes, yeah. Mind you, over the years I've become more and more fond of Margaret.

uber-nerds, unite!

Colin Toffelmire said...

I actually find that my favorite characters change a little each time that I watch the shows. I own all 7 seasons and watch them on and off pretty regularly (WW is the TV version of comfort food for me, and I like background noise when I'm doing drone work or when I'm really tired), and I find that sometimes I love one character and sometimes another. CJ would never have made my list in the past, but lately I especially enjoy what I call "the ascendency of CJ" in seasons 3-6.

Margaret's cool, and always makes me laugh. Second place to Ainsley, though, is obviously going to be Amy Gardner. Which reminds me, an episode which must be mentioned is "Dead Irish Writers." Another of my favorites and though I'm not a huge fan of the Abbey character either, all of the things that I do like about her are in that episode in spades, as is the Canadian national anthem.

jon said...

I don't particularly like Amy Gardner. I agree about shifting favs and CJ's "ascendancy".

I now realize my favourite supporting cast:
Fitzwallace and, #1, Danny Kinkanen

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Jon we're into season 2 (with the odd viewing of further episodes with him). Probably too early to pick favorites yet but i will say the show absolutely fascinates me. It's so real...and honest about life...big issues or small. My favorite line tho is from season 5, episode 8 where Bartlet sticks to his guns and repeats the phrase "we had a deal!"...fantastic leadership. Stu.