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.