Thursday, April 07, 2005

The West Wing

My friend and colleague Alan Sepinwall has been arguing for sometime that Alan Alda's character on ''The West Wing'' is going to be the next president on the show. After watching the season finale on Wednesday, I'm beginning to be convinced.
Sure, the finale found Jimmy Smits's character get a Democratic presidential nomination that had been considered an extremely long shot earlier in the series, so there's a possibility. And the show's being based in a Democratic administration has made it seem that the show would need to elect another Democrat to keep the core of the cast together.
But the show has already gotten around some of that by portraying Alda as a maverick Republican, one much closer philosophically to President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) than the usual Republicans we see on the show. And on Wednesday's season finale -- the show has been renewed for next year -- the series seemed to drive a stake in Smits's campaign by pairing him with the aging, often troubled Leo McGarry (played so superbly by John Spencer).
For fans of the show, and I'm one of them, Leo's selection was a sweet moment -- one more validation for a character who has come through personal problems, a serious illness and even exile from Bartlet's inner circle. But as wonderful as it was, it also made absolutely no political sense; Leo's history is laden with liabilities for any candidate running in this merciless modern era.
Of course, the whole episode was a fantasy about how politics might work, making even a convention seem exciting. And ''West Wing'' has more often than not been a fantasy, a show about the way we wish politicians were far more than about the way they are. I often watch it much the way I watch -- again and again -- ''Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'' utterly enthralled and moved, while not really believing it all; wouldn't Mr. Smith be crushed at the polls the first time he came up for re-election?
That said, it's been a very good year for "West Wing,'' especially coming off last season, which seemed to be a long struggle to find a new voice for the show.
The presidential campaign stories reinvigorated the series, for starters. And they were one of the ways the show tried to make up for old mistakes.
During the last presidential campaign on "West Wing'' -- which you can revisit on the fourth-season DVD -- the Republicans were shadowy, distant figures; even their supposedly formidable candidate, played by James Brolin, proved as flimsy as cardboard. I've long disliked the debate episode from that season because Bartlet so thoroughly rolled over his opponent; it doesn't feel like a fair fight, or a believable one.
The campaign this season has felt not only more fair but more interesting; we get to see Alda as a fleshed-out character. So I'm ready now for the next season, no matter who ends up winning that election.


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