Wednesday, 21 September 2011
After 154 episodes and approximately six months' viewing - when exactly did I pick up Series 1 and 2 in a charity shop for a fiver? - our sole addiction to the telly screen of late has come to an end. The West Wing (hence 'wingnuts' = fans) went out with a stylish whimper, and organically as ever, with the conclusion of President Josiah Bartlet's sometimes compromised but by and large pretty ideal two-term reign and his handing over of the reins to...
Can't divulge, since it was a surprise to my fellow-watcher even if I'd snuck a look at the episodes precis. Suffice it to say that part of the series' natural evolution was to find a potential Democratic successor as charismatic as Martin Sheen's lovable President, Jimmy Smits's Matt Santos - modelled, I recently read, on the speeches of a then largely unknown Barack Obama, with the emphasis shifted from black to Latino - and a Republican challenger as sympathetic as Alan Alda's Arnie Vinick. Both proved more than equal to the rest of the fabulous ensemble.
The presidential campaign is eye-opening to us barely comprehending Brits, and bears out in its twists and turns the famous 'events, dear boy' saying (or as Thucydides put it, 'the persistence of the unforeseen').
Americans would have found special pleasure in the live debate where Vinick takes up Santos's gauntlet to drop the usual format and go uninhibitedly head to head (I understand two versions were filmed, one for the west coast and one for the east; we should have had both, as well as the promised extras about the making of this episode which were not to be found, on the DVDs).
Interesting, of course, but what makes The West Wing unique is the flexibility of tone in the behind-the-scenes dialogues and developments. I thought, for instance, that the old 1930s screwball-comedy flavour had disappeared somewhere in Series Five; and yet there it was again, in an achingly funny episode based around Josh Lyman's post-campaign burnout ('Transition', superb script by Peter Noah and actor Bradley Whitford at his peak). Then the focus shifted back on my favourite of all, C.J. Cregg (the ineffable Alison Janney), with whom I'm just a little bit in romantic love, and another superb instalment, this time in the sentimental-drama mode. We also got to see Toby of the sensitive eyes again - Richard Schiff, low-key and hardly on screen for more than a few minutes in later episodes, if at all, but powerful as ever.
Loose ends are all tied up, to a point, but the last episode is no wave-farewell-to-all-you-best-loved-characters; some don't reappear, and the end of run mood is pointedly subdued. The viewer is encouraged to share in the feeling that this is how it has to be, and no regrets. True, one imagines, to how it was and how it is. And there was never a point where I felt the classic series had dated or was no longer relevant to ongoing issues. No wonder Obama, currently taking up the constant gauntlet mentioned here of taxing the millionaires, adores the show. It actually made me love America again.
Postscript: a final word from Martin Sheen, long before a seventh series was so much as a glimmer (and yes, I have a second-hand copy of the 'official' West Wing Companion covering series 1 and 2; it was a present, if you must know):
One of these only comes along in a lifetime, let's face it...Why would I want to look back? What am I going to follow this with? I may as well go and do Shakespeare in Minneapolis or something.
Given Bartlet's Lear-like attack on God at the end of series 2, that might not be a bad idea. Could one do Shakespeare's greatest tragedy in a contemporary political setting, with Sheen Martin not Michael? There's a thought.