Sunday, October 31, 2010

As The Campaigns Heat Up, The Bartlet Administration Fades On The West Wing Season 7!

The Good: Excellent character work, Great plots, Nice series resolution, Some truly great acting
The Bad: Low on bonus features, "Missing" episode
The Basics: In the final boxed set of The West Wing DVDs, the series presents a long arc away from the White House as two candidates run for President.

For those who have not read many of my reviews, I have become quite the fan of The West Wing. So, when I start my review of The West Wing - The Complete Seventh Season with a little gripe, it must be taken with a grain of salt and the realization that I'm still sore the show is over. The West Wing - The Complete Seventh Season is, in fact, NOT the complete seventh season. Featuring twenty-two episodes on six discs, this appears to be a complete season, save to the true fan of The West Wing. As the scant bonus features in this boxed set both deal with the episode called "The Debate" and admit that the program was originally filmed live, for both East Coast and West Coast audiences. As a result, there are two versions of "The Debate" and in the liner notes for the boxed set, the one on the DVD is differentiated as "The Debate (West Coast)." I suppose this is nice for establishing which of the two is cannon, but it would have been real nice to have both available for viewers (I'm still scouring Disc 2 to see if there's an easter egg with the alternate version!). But I get ahead of myself.

It is, simply put, impossible to discuss The West Wing - The Complete Seventh Season without ruining the surprise of the final two episodes of The West Wing - The Complete Sixth Season (click here for that review!). This is because the final episodes in the sixth season involve the harrowing Democratic Caucus which struggles to pick the Democratic candidate for President. Following that resolution at the peak of the sixth season, the seventh season deals with the campaign trail, so if you're one who is quite vested in The West Wing but is just now getting it on DVD and wants to maintain the surprise, you must stop reading now.

The Santos-McGarry Campaign is heating up, dogging Arnold Vinick and putting Santos within striking distance of the Presidency. Opening with only a nine point deficit, the once-unbeatable Vinick begins to sweat what looked like an easy win for the Republicans. Josh adds a new spokesperson to the campaign, in the form of Lou, and the deficit begins to close quickly. While Santos and McGarry - accompanied by Josh, Anabeth, and eventually Donna - crisscross the nation campaigning, the White House begins to lose relevancy.

The remaining staff of the West Wing, however, do not go gently into the good night, as the shuttle leak investigation heats up and China and Russia begin a military takeover of Kazakhstan which Bartlet uses the U.S. military to intervene in. When the astronauts on the defective space station are rescued by repairs made from the secret military shuttle, the White House is descended upon by investigators. When their attentions turn to C.J., Toby confesses and is fired. It is soon thereafter that Bartlet takes a moral stand to intervene in Kazakhstan, leaving a mess for the next President of the United States of America.

The West Wing - The Complete Seventh Season does what the prior six seasons did best, with the sense of transition for the show. With both Santos and Vinick establishing themselves and their staffs as realistic elements that could reasonably take over the series. Indeed, one of the weakest elements to the boxed set is that final episodes - which realistically chronicle the transition for the winner of the presidential contest - are not followed up on by a continued series. Vinick's staff includes characters played by notables like Stephen Root and Patricia Richardson who seem poised to take over the West Wing. Similarly, Santos's staff comes to include characters portrayed by the likes of Janeane Garofalo. Who will win the presidential election is realistically drawn out as a nailbiter (in fact, in the two-part "Election" episodes, it's something of an Electoral College mystery how the victor actually won) and the suspense is very real.

But like all great television, most of the moves and plots are motivated by character actions, not by plot exposition. As a result, outside one fateful plot twist that is exploited by one of the campaigns, the series progresses as a result of the actions of the characters. And The West Wing has a memorable collection of characters. Here is how the seventh season finds the principles:

Abbey Bartlet - Announces that daughter Ellie is marrying the fruit fly guy and otherwise sits most of the season out,

Charlie - Working under C.J., he finds himself trying to move issues, but often neglected and missing the President,

Toby - Confesses to leaking the shuttle information to the press, which earns him a ticket to jail, the loss of his job and ostracization from all his friends. Eventually, Josh begins to get advice from him for the campaign over the phone as Toby prepares for prison,

Annabeth - Now working for Leo, she finds herself smitten with the Vice Presidential candidate and eager to improve his image,

Leo - Now a candidate for Vice President, he finds himself working to support a man he barely knows while maintaining his fragile health,

Kate Harper - Is given the unfortunate task of keeping the President briefed on the deteriorating situation in Kazakhstan while she develops a relationship with Will,

Will - Is transferred from the Vice President's office to work as the new White House Press Secretary following Toby's firing. There he connects with Kate and begins to think about the future,

Donna - After months on the outs with Josh for backing the Vice President's candidacy and almost keeping Santos from becoming the Democratic candidate, Santos hires her to work for the campaign, forcing her and Josh together again, though now with a very different power dynamic,

Josh - Finding running the Santos-McGarry Campaign to be stressful and harrowing, he finds himself in the crosshairs of the DNC for how he allocates the advertising budget. At risk of coming undone completely, Santos begins to question his ability to do the job,

C.J. - The sole remaining staffer of the West Wing left holding together the Bartlet Administration from the original team, she finds herself stressed out as the target of the leak investigation and later the tensions between China and Russia. She is given the opportunity to question her purpose and her future, which comes to a head when Danny returns,

Santos - Campaigning revitalizes the young candidate as he becomes more and more presidential,

Vinick - Campaigning takes its toll on the older man as he finds himself in a real race against Santos and must compromise his beliefs or risk the conservative base of the Republican party not coming out on election day,

and President Bartlet - As his relevancy in day-to-day operations fades, he finds himself distracted less by his M.S. and more by his sense of betrayal from Toby, his joy over Ellie's marriage and the shock that comes when one of his closest friends dies. Not one to sit by and let genocide occur, Bartlet feels compelled to stop China and Russia from going to war over Kazakhstan and - much to Vinick and Santos's dismay - commits U.S. troops to an intervention there without an exit strategy.

For the first time ever, it makes perfect sense that neither Richard Schiff (Toby) nor Martin Sheen (Bartlet) won awards for their roles for a season of The West Wing. Schiff, by this point, was long past being nominated and Sheen is not presented with enough material to be a real contender this season. Instead, as the plots focused with dramatic intensity on the campaigns of Arnold Vinick and Matthew Santos for the White House, actors Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits found themselves bearing much of the acting burden in the seventh season. Alan Alda won the Emmy for his performance in the seventh season and episodes like "Two Weeks Out" and "The Debate" illustrate perfectly how much he deserved it. This was not a sneaky lifetime achievement award; Alda's performances are truly wonderful.

And more than anything, The West Wing - The Complete Seventh Season illustrates perfectly what can be accomplished with an exceptional ensemble cast. More than any prior season of the series, there are no stars for the show. Instead, most of the characters and actors are given equal weight and work together to tell the stories the show seeks to explore. And this work is a masterpiece of electoral politics, telling stories that almost exclusively focus on the Presidency in twilight and the rise of the next wave of potential leaders. The result is something that looks and feels very different from The West Wing most viewers know and are comfortable with. Instead, this is a season about the campaign trail and the diminished powers of a president following the election of a successor.

The real frustration for the viewer is likely to be that after all of the emotional build-up, we do not get to actually see the presidency of . . .

. . . I'm not ruining it!

But what is more disappointing than that is that the DVD set is utterly lacking in commentary. Instead, there are two featurettes that focus on how "The Debate" was made and nothing else. Fans of the series are likely to be disappointed by that.

But as we enter election season in the United States, The West Wing - The Complete Seventh Season on DVD appears as a model for how fickle election cycles can be. In a year when the fields are (mostly) wide open, it's refreshing to watch something with high-minded people acting honorably in the hope of bettering the nation, even if it is a fictional incarnation of it. This set is ideal for fans of The West Wing who may have gotten tired of watching reruns of the earlier seasons for years and/or want a chance to catch up on reviewing the end of the series. But for real fans of the show, it's easier to recommend The West Wing - The Complete Series (click here for that review!), which is a better investment for those who love great drama.

For other television reviews, please check out my takes on:
Lost Season 6
Star Trek Season 3
V The First Season


For other television program reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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