Sunday, May 15, 2016

Nostalgia Theater: Ten Years Without The West Wing

Yesterday marked ten years since one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, aired its final episode on NBC. You already know what a big impact the show and its creator have played in shaping my persona, and my ardor for it is unabated even after this many years. I'm currently in the midst of another re-watch of the series now that it's available for streaming on Netflix, and the memories just come flooding back no matter how much time goes by.

More than just presenting likable, intelligent characters we want to know, it gives us a world we really wish we could live in, especially given the horrific, orange-hued turn that real world politicking has taken of late. Anyway, given that this is Nostalgia Theater, you can watch the show's title sequence below (that theme music by Snuffy Walden still gives me chills after all these years), and if you click past the jump, I've re-posted my 2006 reflection The West Wing's final episode:

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As every television season wends its way towards May and June, we inevitably see one or two workhorses or cherished favorites make their final fade-to-black. This year has been especially brutal for veteran series, with a veritable bumper crop of cancellations and finales.

This past week saw the last hurrahs for That '70s Show, Malcolm in the Middle, and Will & Grace, and tomorrow is the final episode of JJ Abrams' spy-thriller Alias. I'm sure I'm missing others. I never watched any of these shows with anything resembling regularity, so I can't say it means much to me that they're ending.

But then there's The West Wing, which signed off for good last Sunday.

I remember very distinctly the revelatory feeling I had back in the Fall of '99 as I tuned in to this much-ballyhooed series from some guy named Aaron Sorkin, who had previously worked on a show I'd never watched (Sports Night) and a couple of movies I'd never seen (The American President, A Few Good Men). It took mere minutes for me to realize that this Sorkin guy was the real deal.

In rapid-fire succession we were introduced to Sam Seaborne (Rob Lowe), Leo McGarry (John Spencer), CJ Cregg (Allison Janney), Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), and Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), the senior staff of a fictional presidential administration, along with the equally-rapid-fire walk-and-talk style that became the series' hallmark under director/executive producer Thomas Schlamme.

By the time that first episode ended, with its closing minutes serving as our first introduction to President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), intoning "I am the Lord thy God..." with his trademark twinkle, I was hooked. Somehow Sorkin, assisted ably by his journeyman cast of famous and familiar faces, had managed to make me care about a show I had no business caring about. Those first few seasons were about as perfect a collective of television episodes as has ever been produced. Ever. And they have the raft of Emmys (24) to prove it.

I've made mention numerous times on this blog over the past year-and-change of the creative resurgence the show underwent these past two seasons with its election plotline, a seemingly insurmountable task given the sizable shoes Aaron Sorkin left behind when he and partner Schlamme departed the show during its fourth season over "creative differences." The fifth season was almost painfully unwatchable, but somehow the show's creatives powered through and made The West Wing something great again.

It's truly a testament to the bravura power of creator Sorkin that he was able to create characters of such lasting vividity that three years after his exit that initial fondness diminished not one iota, not even through cast departures bitter (Lowe's salary-dispute led to his exit in year four) and sudden (Spencer's death by heart attack late last year).

Given all this, it's hard to encapsulate the feeling of sadness that washed over me as the final hour of The West Wing began to unfold, knowing this was the last time I'd be seeing these characters. I'm not usually the type of person who gets misty over a television series, yet here I was, getting, if not emotional, then nostalgic.

Of course, that pump had already been primed by NBC's decision to air the show's award-winning 1999 pilot immediately before the finale (this itself a last minute decision after the cast refused to participate in a clip-filled retrospective, the one sour-note in an otherwise dignified transfer-of-power).

So, with that lengthy preamble out of the way, what did I think of the episode itself? It was what it was. An ending, and appropriately, a beginning. With Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) already having won the election several episodes ago, there wasn't much drama remaining to be wrung from that, other than whether Santos would or wouldn't wear an overcoat to his swearing-in (he didn't).

Thus the only big decision remaining was whether or not the departing President Bartlet would pardon former-Communications Director Toby Ziegler, following his leak of classified information. This too wasn't exactly the height of drama, given that a flash-forward at the beginning of this season already gave us the broad strokes.

So, bereft of any real tension, this was simply a chance to say goodbye -- the characters to each other, and us to them. Was it perfect? Not quite. Several creative decisions remain perplexing, such as Richard Schiff's curious absence from the entire episode, while Rob Lowe made his long-anticipated returned to utter a mere two lines of dialogue. Still, the show paid nice tribute to the departed Spencer, whose presence was felt 'till the very end (and whose visage never left the opening credits), and it was also nice to see creator Sorkin in a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo during Santos' inauguration.

Ultimately, as President Santos took the reins of office (appropriately enough, asking Chief-of-Staff Josh Lyman the series' trademark, "What's next?"), and President Bartlet flew off into the television sunset, pondering what "Tomorrow" would bring, we in the audience were left to reflect on the remarkable legacy the show left behind.

Looking back at real-life events of the past six years, from 9/11 to Afghanistan to Iraq, from rendition to torture to domestic spying, it was always reassuring to cast a wistful eye towards The West Wing, and imagine a White House where intelligence prevailed over belligerence, and what was right was more important than what was expedient. It made us believe that public service was something honorable. Maybe it was misguided idealism, but idealism is something I think we place too low a premium on. The West Wing made us believe in idealism as a trait that's worth having.

And so, as he heads off to the Valhalla of syndicated immortality, let us stop to bid a hearty hail and farewell to Jed Bartlet, the greatest president we never had.

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The epilogue to this reflection is that I sent a version of this piece to star Martin Sheen just under a year after writing it, and he was kind enough to send back the autographed picture you can see to the right. More than that, however, he also included a handwritten note thanking me for my "extraordinary" letter. So, y'know, kind of a feather in my cap. I still have that note, naturally. Anyway, that's it for now, but be sure to check back later in the week for an all-new Nostalgia Theater Podcast where I reflect on ten years without The West Wing with my good friend Zainab F. Chaudary!

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: AfterMASH Loses the War

Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Godzilla: The Series -- A Horrible Remake Spawns a Not-Bad Sequel

Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: A Final Farewell for Trek's First Family

Four Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Forever Knight -- Fangs for the Memories!

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