TV The West Wing completed tonight and the final episode felt like my university dissertation, so much to do, so little time to do it and no guarantee that the finished product was relevant. After seven monumental years of programming there wasn't really a 'right' way of ending the series and although some characters certainly received a decent send off and there were some references to the past it felt like a slightly empty experience. The final episode of any series needs to look to its strengths and underline them, playing through the iconic moments, drawing them out and letting the audience know what they're going to be missing. Joss Whedon understood this, as did the producers of Friends. Hell even Kevin Williamson knew how to end Dawson's Creek.

As scenes drifted by with the odd nice character moments but no drama, it became clear that even writing the final episode of The West Wing, John Wells once again fundamentally misunderstood what Aaron Sorkin was trying to do when he created the series all those years ago. Sorkin was always able to tread the fine line between great dialogue and plotting and would certainly not have provided such a listlessly smooth transition between presidents. Here I was watching our favourite characters watching television sets of the presidential inauguration, passionately hoping that something interesting or surprising would happen -- I even entertained the horrible possibility as Santos stepped out onto the step for the ceremony that someone might take a shot at him. But no.

Instead we had an intermenable couple of minutes listening to some singer accompanying the dismantling of the Bartlett White House, seemingly hundreds of establishing shots of the kind that might fill out an episode that was running under time and no sign of anyone doing anything too controversial. Realistic? Possibly. Entertaining -- well yes in the way that adverts for Wurthers Originals can be. The biggest crime, other than not showing Toby finding out about his pardon, was probably having Josh just sitting around looking stunned and giving him about three lines of dialogue. I know he's had a busy time this year but you need to keep these characters doing something right through to the end -- we didn't even get a final moment of Donna and Josh getting frustrated with each other. It's true what they say -- never will your will they/won't they couples. And what's the point in dragging Sam back if he too just blends in -- again I ask -- realistic? Possibly. Entertaining? No.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh or I have an Aristotlian version of the show running in my head that it's never been. The episode was replete with great kisses to the past -- Mallory with the hint that she should say hello to Sam; Toby's ball. There were some nice Capraesque moments -- such as Santos' new secretary almost breaking down as she looked in the Oval Office and Donna realising how big her office will be and CJ and a passing tourist outside the White House. And the unwrapping of Leo's final present underscored another black hole in the middle of the episode -- john should have been here. Martin Sheen's performance throughout was the real winner (as was the rest of the cast with the material they had) and demonstrated that the real heart of the show was awol for most of the season. The moment when he handed his father's copy of the constitution to the equally awol Charlie tore me apart. And well alright some great dialogue: 'Home sweet home.'
Santos: "There's no 'Ask what your country can do for you'..."
Bartlett: "JFK really screwed us with that one, didn't he?"
But I wanted to the staff dealing with the usual hiccups that must occur in the change over; that final press conference in which Will had to deal with questions about Toby being pardon; the incident room just one more time. But the episode just lacked focus and at the last moment the show metaphorically crashed the bycicle. Shame.

That said, the episode before about CJ deciding what she wanted to do next? Amazing. Good to see her and Toby talking again and Timothy Busefield broke my heart as Danny. Should have got Debora Cahn to write the finale as well. She was there under Sorkin. Might have had an idea about how it works. At least there's Keith's amazing go at the first episode of season eight to keep me company. First scene:

JOSH strides in, smiling widely. He's met by MARGARET. They walk and talk?

Victory is mine! Bring me all the bagels and muffins in the land!

How often are you going to use that line?

Until you bring me all the bagels and muffins in the land?

Sam wants to see you in his office first thing. Lou and Bram are re-drafting The President's speech on Education Reform. And I may be able to rustle up a stale bagel and a half-eaten muffin from the mess.
That's more like it...


crossoverman said...

Well, I was going to be really harsh in my critique of your review of the final episode, but then you linked to my fanfic and... :-)

My review of the season finale is here: http://crossoverman.livejournal.com/37014.html

My general feeling is that I'm glad Wells didn't go for any cheap dramatic theatrics, because that would have seemed forced. What I feel he did lose over time was the humour the characters had in the early years. I think he was so scared about going down the melodramatic path, that he tried for realism over Sorkin's more artistic approach - making the characters a little larger than life in all aspects.

I'd also counter that I'm glad he didn't try to squeeze in all those moments you wanted because I see the last four episodes as an over-arcing wrap-up. So many series try to fit everything into the last hour, as if it can only go there. And then they end up feeling rushed. Friends worked, but Buffy's finale will always feel too packed with plot for me.

Anyway, my review says it better than I can right now.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

"What I feel he did lose over time was the humour the characters had in the early years."

I think you hit the nail on the head. There was a quiz on our channel beforehand about The West Wing with people like David Tennant answering trivia questions and it included clips from the earlier seasons, including the moment when Josh met Joey Lucas for the first time and there he is in a vest looking pathetic and half awake trying to work out whats going on. In the Wells years they would have just been introduced in an office somewhere and started talking about policy of whatever straight away.

I mean to a degree it was brave that Wells decided to make the series is in own way but he still needed to service the premise and the chemistry of the first four years if only for continuity sake. That he didn't is one of the great television tragedies.

crossoverman said...

I really feared that Wells would turn the show into some soap set in the White House - whereas he actually went in the opposite direction and played it even more straight than it ever was before. In fact, some of the first year episodes - as great as they are - look completely naive in the way such a high powered office would be run. However, that's the style that Sorkin chose and it's a pity Wells didn't have the sense to try to balance the two things - the drama and the offbeat humour. Not that the show was humourless, just that it didn't have things like CJ singing The Jackal or Josh's coffee emptying out of his mouth down his shirt front or Jed Bartless high on pain killers, etc, etc. I expected the snappy dialogue to go, but I didn't notice the loss of humour until I got to the end and went back to watch season one again.

Honestly, though, I think Wells did a damn good job overall. Seasons 6 and 7 are very good television. They just aren't The West Wing exactly. I think you said it best when you described the last two years as the show's own spin-off series. It doesn't forgive it, but it's much more satisfying to look at it in that way.