Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fractures In The Bartlet Administration Make For A Perfect Fifth Season Of The West Wing!

The Good: Exceptional character work, Good stories, Excellent acting, Good commentary tracks
The Bad: Deleted scenes are nothing exciting
The Basics: A truly great work of American television continues with the fifth season of the acclaimed political drama.

For those who are not fans of The West Wing, - and who are you?! - it is impossible to begin a discussion of The West Wing - The Complete Fifth Season without revealing how the fourth season ended. It's just not possible. That is not to say that season five, now a beautiful collection on DVD, is not accessible to those who have not seen the show before, but it is to say that the first few episodes are heavily dependent upon the fourth season finale. With that preface, if you're on the fence about purchasing The West Wing - The Complete Fifth Season, it's time to fall off the fence and open your pocketbook or wallet.

With Glen Allen Walken as the sitting president, the search for Zoey Bartlet continues while the staff of the White House adapts to serving a new president. Jed Bartlet, who has recused himself, becomes reclusive awaiting any word on his daughter's fate. Leo is soon able to deliver news and Bartlet takes back the White House. However, the ramifications of the step down are immense and the new Speaker of the House, Jeff Haffley, uses the apparent weakening of the President to assert his own will, including hand picking the next Vice President.

The fifth season of The West Wing is deeply engaged with the difficulties of adversarial politics. The Bartlet Administration finds itself hamstrung by the opposition Congress and the ambitions of the new Speaker Of The House. Bartlet's staff begins to similarly fracture finding it difficult to maintain order and power within an administration that is now weakened. Donna seeks greater ambitions, Will decides working under Toby's thumb won't work for him and he becomes the Chief of Staff to the new Vice President and the President and Leo begin to diverge greatly on matters that pit the political versus the principle.

The West Wing offers a glimpse at what politics may be when principled individuals are at the helm working to benefit humanity as opposed to simply maintain power and control over the citizenry. Following the resolution to the Zoey Bartlet abduction, the President slips into a level of powerlessness not seen since the first season of The West Wing (click here for that review!). The result this time, however, is that the Administration begins to show serious signs of stress. Because the concern is not about the next election, the legacy of the Administration comes into play and the difficulty with instituting changes under a hostile opposition Congress becomes a serious focus.

The fifth season of The West Wing is less idealistic than some of the earlier seasons and the tone is definitely one of a group of people under siege. Even after the events of "Shutdown" where Bartlet draws a line in the sand against the Republican Speaker of the House and allows the Federal Government to shut down as opposed to acquiescing to the demands of Haffley, the weakness of the Administration persists.

That is not to say that the show is miserable to watch, even though some of the characters are. Quite the opposite, in fact. The first few episodes of the season, chronicling the Walken Administration and the Zoey Bartlet crisis are heartstopping and relentless in their pace. It's almost impossible to watch only the first episode of the season (in fact, if you've just purchased the fourth season of The West Wing - or are considering purchasing it, you might want to go ahead and get this season right away as the flow between the episodes is intense) without watching the second (and the third . . .).

Part of what makes the show so gripping is the characters. The West Wing is deeply focused on the personalities of the staff of The West Wing and they are a compelling lot to be sure. Here is how the fifth season finds the principle characters:

First Lady Abbey Bartlet - Deeply wounded by the kidnapping of her daughter, she takes to self medication and finds herself fighting with her husband more often,

Charlie Young - Aiding the President and concerned about Zoey and her recovery, Charlie illustrates supreme loyalty to Bartlet as he works toward his college degree,

C.J. Cregg - After betraying Walken to the media during Walken's brief tenure, C.J. finds herself a voice of conscience when a North Korean wants to defect, combats a conservative talk show host, and sides with the new Deputy NSA Advisor when Palestine makes overtures toward peace and she advises the President to work with them,

Will Bailey - Having written speeches for Bartlet and felt under appreciated, he finds himself targeted by the new Vice President for a far better job. When friction with Toby comes to a head, Will leaves the Bartlet White House to work across the street as the Vice President's Chief of Staff where he finds himself grooming a loser for the Presidency,

Donna Moss - Feeling neglected in her post as Josh's assistant, Donna seeks to grow, a move that puts her on a mission to Gaza and in harm's way,

Toby Ziegler - Now a father of twins with his ex-wife, Toby finds himself at a crossroads. He writes an amazing State of the Union, works to solve the Social Security crisis and finds himself devoted toward the message of what the Administration legacy will be,

Leo McGarry - Strained while working under Walken and negotiating the two White Houses, Leo soon finds himself more at odds with Bartlet when Jed seeks to do more ambitious things. Soon, Leo finds himself barely controlling the staff and confused about what his place in the Administration is,

Josh Lyman - On edge about the Republican agenda when Walken takes the presidency, he is combative and distressed following Bartlet's return to power. Unfortunately, his wrangling skills cost him and the Democrats, leading Leo to have him sit out some of the tougher political moments,

and Jed Bartlet - As President of the United States, Bartlet returns to power with his family in shambles, dealing with the fallout of the assassination of the Qumari Defense Minister and the abduction, and his MS worsening. He tries to make direct help to people when Oklahoma is devastated by a tornado and through his policy initiatives. He regains some strength when he stands up to Haffley and when a Supreme Court opening comes up.

The fifth season caused a lot of anxiety for the fans of the show because two of the three creators/executive producers (Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme) left, but the series maintains much the same flavor, pace and emphasis on character development that it did before. Indeed, the season premiere seamlessly transfers the show from one creative staff to another without making it seem like a leap. Credit ought to go to executive producer John Wells for his role in maintaining the continuity. Wells appears on two of the three commentary tracks on the fifth season DVDs and they are informative at the very least (I can always do with more commentary tracks!).

The other aspect of continuity is the cast. While Stockard Channing (Abbey) comes and goes (interestingly, the opening credits change constantly based on her inclusion in episodes), the rest of the cast is stable and it brings the feeling to the viewers that they are all contributing to something that is still quite special. And it is. This remains one of the most talented casts on television and the shakeup in the plot allows the actors to present new dimensions to their characters.

So, for example, Bradley Whitford is able to add some extra dimensions to Josh when Josh fails and is tabled for several episodes. This is a great exercise for Whitford, whose presentation of the character has previously been a study of political arrogance. Whitford now is able to soften the character up some and it works wonderfully because of how masterful the actor is.

Similarly, Joshua Malina is able to grow some as Will comes out from under Toby's thumb. As Chief of Staff to the Vice President, Will has a more prominent role and Joshua Malina is given more complicated scenes to perform in when he is used. He rises easily to the task, responding to the new role with increased enthusiasm that comes through in the character.

But it is one of my favorites, Richard Schiff as Toby who continues to shine and impress. Soften up by his character's sudden fatherhood, Schiff is given the opportunity to emote more and vary his performance. It's astonishing to me that he was not nominated for his work in this season as he gives memorable performances in episodes like "Slow News Day."

The fifth season has some great guest stars as well, including Glenn Close in "The Supremes." Bafflingly, John Goodman, who plays President Walken, is not credited in the first two episodes of the season and the commentary tracks sadly do not illuminate why that is. Outside the commentary track on three episodes, there are three deleted scenes and two featurettes. This is not the most incredible DVD release, but it is consistent with the prior ones. Here the content of the show makes up for the lack of DVD extras.

This season is a must have for real fans of great drama, though one is likely to want the entire series (available and reviewed by clicking here!) once one gets hooked on the quality of seasons like this!

For other television seasons, please check out my reviews of:
V - Season 1
Sports Night
The Big Bang Theory - Season 1


For other television reviews, please visit my index page!

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

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