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‘West Wing’: a Love Letter to American Democracy

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Allison J. Waldman

Special to TelevisionWeek

The first year “The West Wing” was eligible for the Emmys, the NBC drama received a staggering 18 nominations. By the end of the award presentations that night, the Aaron Sorkin creation about the lives of the people who work for the president of the United States had won a record nine Emmys, the most for any season of a television series.

“It was unexpected,” said the show’s executive producer John Wells. “We were surprised to be able to stay on the air past the first year.”

“The West Wing” did stay on the air. In fact, it thrived, attracting 17.6 million viewers that first season and going on to win a plethora of industry gold, including multiple Emmys, Golden Globes, two Peabodys, Writers Guild, Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild awards, Humanitas Prizes and GLAAD recognition.

After seven years on the air, “The West Wing” has officially wrapped, but with six Emmy nominations-including its seventh in a row as outstanding drama series-it may be ending as it started: at the top.

“It would be a surprise if `The West Wing’ managed to win again, but considering the year they had, they could be a sentimental favorite,” said Brad Jacobs, senior editor of Us Weekly. The past year was one of transition and tragedy for “The West Wing,” with Jed Bartlet’s (Martin Sheen) presidency coming to an end and the focus switched to the election of a new commander in chief. Would it be dynamic Hispanic Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) or the strong, experienced Republican senator from California, Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda)?

The contest made for entertaining television, but it was the real-life, unexpected death of actor John Spencer (Leo McGarry) that made “The West Wing” compelling viewing. His passing had to be dealt with on-screen, giving the final episodes dramatic heft even as everyone realized the show had likely come to an end.

“When John died in December, we all sort of looked at each other and said, `We’re done even if we get renewed,”‘ Mr. Wells said. “He was such an essential part of what we were all doing. It felt done at that point.”

Mr. Sheen felt the same way. “It’s probably the best way to go out. I think John’s death signaled that it was time to leave, for all of us,” he said in a recent CanWest interview. “We were the parents. We were the oldest guys. We had been around the longest and we lost one of us. It’s hard to go on without a family.”

At its core from the first day it began shooting in 1999, “The West Wing” has been a love letter to American democracy. It showed people on both sides of the political aisle wheeling and dealing and spinning and arguing. When “The West Wing” was criticized, and it was, it frequently was by those who thought the show was too idealized. But that’s precisely what Mr. Sorkin intended.

“The show is kind of a valentine to public service. It celebrates our institutions. The characters are flawed, to be sure, because you need characters in drama to have flaws. But they have set aside more lucrative lives for public service. They are dedicated not just to this president, but to doing good,” he said in a PBS interview.

“The West Wing” was created from spare parts. “The American President,” a 1995 Michael Douglas/Annette Bening romantic comedy scripted by Mr. Sorkin, was much too long. The first draft was 385 pages and had to be delivered in a shopping bag. Once he cut it to a reasonable 120 pages and the film was done, Mr. Sorkin realized he still had stories to tell.

“I’d really fallen in love with my own voice and went on talking for a while,” he said to CNN. “I was also enjoying being the president; I was starting wars, ending wars [and] fixing the economy. I had opinions about everything.” Those opinions-and stories-developed into a pilot for “The West Wing.”

Mr. Wells and company made their White House as realistic as possible, employing the likes of real-life political aides such as Dee Dee Myers, former Clinton White House press secretary, as consultants. Her input and that of others added a verisimilitude that has yet to be matched by other political shows.

“It was exactly like watching work,” said Adam Levine, a Washington communications specialist who was an assistant White House press secretary for two years under President Bush. He told The Washington Post, “You’d sit there and you would have just come out of a meeting in the Roosevelt Room, and you’d flip on the show and they are all sitting there having a meeting in the Roosevelt Room.”

President Present

While it is surprising to think of it now, the original plan for “The West Wing” was to have the president rarely appear. His presence would be felt in every episode, but the focus was going to be on the senior staffers, particularly Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), deputy communications director. Mr. Lowe thought he was going to be the star of the show, but it didn’t work out that way. The president dominated from the pilot on. Sidney Poitier, Alan Alda and Jason Robards were all considered for the commander in chief, but it was Mr. Sheen who was cast as President Bartlet.

“I was very involved in the casting and was a champion of Martin,” said Thomas Schlamme, who directed most of the episodes in the first few seasons. “Aaron was not interested in a show about the American president-he had already done a movie about that,” he said in Directors World. “Through Martin’s involvement in the process, we were actually able to humanize the office while at the same time maintaining a high degree of respect for it. Aaron is not interested in what we all see about the president; he’s interested in what we don’t see, what we imagine.”

“The West Wing” was an immediate success. The critics embraced it and in its first season it ranked 29th in the prime-time Nielsen ratings. If the show was attacked for anything, it was its depiction of a Democratic White House. Political conservatives labeled the show the “The Left Wing,” but Mr. Sorkin didn’t agree.

“The characters on the show are capable of arguing all sides of an issue. Oftentimes their position is not what you’d expect it to be,” he said in a PBS interview.

“In the third episode last season, Bartlet took a position on a military response that was so hawkish it frightened the joint chiefs. At a time when Hollywood is being scolded, I think it’s a good idea to notice that `The West Wing’ is a show that has no gratuitous violence, no gratuitous sex. It has featured the character of the president of the United States kneeling on the floor of the Oval Office and praying. This, I would think, would be exactly what conservative Republicans would want to see on television.”

“The West Wing” suffered its first real setback in 2001 when Mr. Sorkin was arrested on drug possession charges. The charges were eventually dismissed after Mr. Sorkin completed a treatment program, but the case contributed to tension on the show. It wasn’t only Mr. Sorkin’s legal issues; four key actors-Allison Janney (C.J. Cregg), Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler), Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman) and Mr. Spencer (Leo)-banded together to renegotiate their contracts. Warner Bros. agreed to bump their salaries to $70,000 per episode, but that ruffled Rob Lowe’s feathers.

In 2002 he announced he was leaving when his contract was up. He had reportedly never been happy with the direction of the show. He didn’t want to be one of the ensemble; he wanted to be the star.

“There is nobody at NBC, nobody at Warner Bros. and nobody on the show that wants Rob to leave,” Mr. Sorkin said in TV Guide. “Sam’s always been one of my favorite characters, but there are eight characters, 22 episodes in a season. This is a cast who could all carry their own show. You would love to be able to showcase all of them more.”

Mr. Lowe left at the end of the season, saying in a statement, “There was no longer a place for Sam Seaborn on `The West Wing.”‘ Soon after, Mr. Sorkin exited too. In 2003, his hectic writing schedule, which often led to cost overruns and
schedule slips, was too much for Warner Bros. to endure. In addition, NBC head Jeff Zucker felt the show had become too liberal-leaning and needed a change of direction. When Mr. Sorkin left, Mr. Wells took over the writing staff and guided “The West Wing” through its last two seasons.

The show wound up being bounced around the NBC lineup and suffered in the ratings. With the TV presidency shifting from the Barlet administration to that of either Santos or Vinick, the end of “The West Wing” seemed inevitable.

“We realized we ought to have some fun, and we did, doing things like the live debate,” Mr. Wells said. “It was an insane thing to try to do, [but] we just had a blast doing it.” Sadly, the good times the creators were having with the fictitious election came to an abrupt end with Mr. Spencer’s untimely death.

Bittersweet Finish

Executive producer Lawrence O’Donnell said in The New York Times that because of Mr. Spencer’s passing, the writers changed the election results. They decided that for Mr. Santos to lose both his running mate and the election would be too difficult for the audience to watch. In the final episode, President Bartlet leaves the Oval Office making way for President Santos. Flying home to New Hampshire, when asked by his wife what he’s thinking about, the character says, “Tomorrow.” It is an apparent nod to the Clinton years, the presidency “The West Wing” was so often compared to, and its “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” campaign song.

That sentiment was echoed in Mr. Sheen’s thoughts as well. “If `The West Wing’ did anything, as a TV show, it was that it provided a sense of hope, a sense that we’re better than this, that there are better days ahead,” he said in the CanWest interview.

“I remember reading the pilot, and what you often think in Hollywood is that it will never go,” Mr. Whitford said on TVSquad.com. “So on one hand it’s a miracle it went seven years. On the other hand, I feel it’s been underreported that this show went seven years, it had a cultural impact, it made a lot of people a lot of money, and we did it without really having a lead-in. So the emotional trauma of a show ending-and I hesitate using that word because it’s not like we had leukemia-It’s just a big show ended.”

It’s a big show that may still go out making history. If it wins the Emmy for outstanding dramatic series, that would be its fifth victory, setting an Emmy record.