Top critical review
10 people found this helpful
on 21 September 2007
The sixth season of The West Wing, while it certainly has its moments, is not, unfortunately, up to the calibre of its predecessors. For much of the time, the action the takes place in the White House is just dull. The dialogue, which once sparkled (mainly under Aaron Sorkin's penmanship) now seems old-hat and stale. It doesn't have the musicality it used to, and at times it seems like the actors don't know what to do with it - except say it, and hope that nobody will notice that it's not up to spec. The cracks in the series are visible early on: in the opening episodes, the drama is reduced to Bartlett and Leo shouting at each other in the Oval Office, which they seem to do a lot of. By the three quarters of the way through the season, the writers seem to have hit rock bottom, and by the time they have Toby and Josh indulging in a little fisticuffs, you can't help but feel that they're scraping the bottom of a very empty barrel.
The cast gets shaken up a bit too. Season 5 addition Mary McCormack's 'smarter than everyone else and sorts out all the problems' Kay Harper is not terribly convincing - and her running commentary on the Middle East peace process in the opening episodes is exactly the kind of polemic didacticism that Aaron Sorkin would have avoided at all costs (if nothing else because it's shallow thinking). And Kristin Chenoworth's Annabel Schott is annoying, and no replacement as a Southern belle for Emily Procter's Ainsley Hayes. Also, CJ's character seems to get dumbed down as the season goes on. And Richard Schiff, capable of so much as an actor (see his performance in Season 2's 17 People) is left floundering in the White House bullpen with very little to do except mumble and try and catch the occasional storyline that comes his way (but when it does, it's among the worst written episodes ever).
Thankfully, there are some new additions to the cast. Jimmy Smits as Congressman Matthew Santos is truly interesting and dynamic character, and he not only holds his own in the show, but he ends up stealing it. The interplay between him and Bradley Whitford's Josh Lyman is a delight. And it's nice to see Josh finally getting a storyline that makes use of Whitford's considerable dramatic and comedic talents. The other standout performance is from Alan Alda as Arnold Vinnick. Here, the writers have excelled themselves in creating a Republican presidential candidate who is both interesting and intelligent and also a man of integrity and principle. He is a million miles from James Brolin's one-dimensional Governor (`George W') Ritchie who Bartlett easily faced down in season 4. Alda seems to particularly relish the part, and has not been this good since the end of M*A*S*H. Donna too gets a proper storyline, as does Joshua Malina's Will Bailey. But it's Alda, Smits and Whitford who come to the show's rescue. It's in the Santos-Josh storyline and in the Santos-Vinnick storyline that the show comes to life again. These characters are fresh and interesting, and it's when the action shifts back to the White House the show is in the doldrums.
In truth, the show never recovered from the loss of Rob Lowe's Sam Seaborn. Lowe brought a much needed warmth and humour to the show, and also a healthy dose of Capra-esque naiveté. Without him, The West Wing is colder and more cynical. Some would argue that this makes it more realistic, but realism wasn't actually what the show was predicated on. The show also never really recovered from the loss of Sorkin as the principal writer and guiding hand. The show's current writers have their moments, but these moments are too few and far between. And it can be no coincidence that the best characters are the new ones: Santos and Vinnick. Try as they might (and they do) they can't imbue the original characters with the essence and life that Sorkin gave them. Hence, I only give this item three stars. The missing stars are for Rob Lowe, and for Aaron Sorkin.