Monday, October 18, 2010

Sliding Off The Pedestal Of Perfection, The West Wing: The Complete Third Season Still Rocks!

The Good: Acting, Storylines, Most of the character development, Commentary tracks
The Bad: Not a ton of DVD extras, One big, forced relationship
The Basics: While the quality of the show slips slightly and the mediocre DVD extras remain consistent, the third season of The West Wing remains a solid and worthwhile investment.

The third season of The West Wing, on DVD in a convenient boxed set, takes a lot of heat from the critics as it diverged from much of what made the prior seasons so great. It's unfair in a lot of ways to expect a show that starts out as a perfect series to maintain perfection throughout its entire run; indeed only NYPD Blue managed to start so high and maintain what made it work through the first three full seasons. Show creator and writer, Aaron Sorkin, even went so far as to admit that the third season was not his best work. Altered to present more episodes that explored terrorism in the world, Sorkin felt lost and the series suffered some for it. On The West Wing - The Complete Third Season the show illustrates some cracks, but it is still far above most television and still a very worthy addition to anyone's collection.

[The first episode of the season, "Isaac and Ishmael" does not fall within the strict timeline of The West Wing and it basically was a quickly-written, assembled and shot episode that puts the staff of the West Wing in lockdown when there is an unknown terrorist threat. This traps a school group in the cafeteria, where they are lectured by various staff members, and gives the chance for Leo to be patronizing to an Islamic staffer. Sigh. Fortunately, it is clearly labeled as separate from the show and it's easy to come back to if one is so inclined (it's more of a civics lesson than an episode of The West Wing).]

Picking up where the second season (click here for that review) ended, with Bartlet being given the question about whether he will run for re-election or not, Bartlet declares his intention to run for re-election and the staff snaps into that mode. This causes major tension between President Bartlet and his wife, Abbey. She does not have much time to hound him, though, as the President works up to re-election with additional campaign staff and Abbey finds herself under investigation for trying to keep the President's multiple sclerosis a secret.

Around the West Wing, the staff deals with the first presidential veto, a lost submarine, the Vice President (who has begun to become a liability), testifying to Congress over the cover-up involving the President's illness, a threat from China, and a death threat against one of the staff. Bartlet, pressed by Toby, begins to suffer insomnia while dealing with his childhood. Throughout, the staff works to position Bartlet for an electoral win.

The story focuses in the first half on the Congressional investigation (complicated by Donna dating one of the Congressional aides on the opposition) and the attempt to appear electable, while the middle of the season wanders and then closes on a death threat on C.J. and an international incident that could cause real trouble for Bartlet.

As the series is largely character-driven, it's important to understand who the primary characters are this season and what they are up to:

Sam Seaborn - Shows up this season and gets played by the Republican candidates campaign. Otherwise, he pops up to be interviewed by his former fiancee and play chess with the president,

Josh Lyman - Gets right into campaign mode, which puts him at odds with Bruno and the new campaign staff. He spends the season wrangling votes on issues, bailing Donna out of a situation she gets herself into, getting into a relationship with Amy Gardner (a women's right's lobbyist), and finds that complicates his attempt to get key legislation passed,

Donna Moss - Assisting Josh is left behind for a while as she romances a Republican, works to get a teacher of hers a presidential proclamation, has to recover a gift given to the White House that she gave away, and she accidentally tells the truth to the First Lady while drunk (and Canadian),

Toby - Becomes estranged from the President when he psychoanalyzes Bartlet, becomes enamored with the new Poet Laureate, and dukes it out with Congress over the estate tax and the subsequent veto,

C.J. Cregg - Continues to ascend in her prominence when she verbally slips while talking about Haiti, dukes it out with the new campaign staff and deals with the appearance of Indians in the lobby at Thanksgiving. As well, she takes a stand for oppressed women in Qumar (a fictional country in the West Wing Universe), tries to aid in getting reporter who is a hostage freed, and becomes the subject of death threats when she speaks out against Saudi Arabia,

Leo McGarry - Has his past put on trial yet again, this time in relation to the President's failure to disclose his health status. As well, Leo marshals the staff and advises the President on the risky road with the Qumari Defense Minister,

Charlie Young - He shows up, aids the President, and is offered immunity which he refuses to take,

Abby Bartlet - Finds herself as a huge liability to the President when her role in concealing his m.s. is revealed. This, along with Bartlet deciding unilaterally to run for re-election, causes tension between her and the President,

and President Jed Bartlet - Decides to run for re-election, accepts censure, and begins to run for re-election in earnest. This involves him taking principled stands on hate crimes, the estate tax, women's rights, and decides to make curing cancer a national priority. Unfortunately, he becomes sidetracked when Toby digs into his past and he becomes unsettled, which leads him to make a decision about a foreign politician who is plotting terrorism.

Most of all of this works out quite well. What I found did not grab me about the third season on DVD was the relationship that Josh Lyman gets into. Josh begins dating Amy Gardner, a hired gun from a women's rights lobbying firm. Gardner starts as a strong, interesting woman and the moment she and Josh hook up, the show begins to go into very canned territory. Gardner is played by Mary-Louise Parker, who went on to do Weeds and her performance continually underwhelmed me. She seemed out of place as a cute-as-a-button love interest on a show that tried to be more substantive.

Outside that, the performances are up to the same high caliber as in prior seasons. This is the first season Stockard Channing was a full member of the cast and she is a welcome addition, holding her own beautifully in scenes opposite Martin Sheen (President Bartlet) and Oliver Platt (White House Counsel Oliver Babish). She embodies the strong, assertive woman that I suspect Amy Gardner was supposed to be.

DVD extras include commentary and featurettes on the series and this season in particular. Some of the commentaries, like the one for "Bartlet For America," are especially insightful and John Spencer's participation gives them added value now that he is dead. With twenty-two episode spread over three discs (front and back, disc four is bonus features), the boxed set is affordable and liable to yield value as one watches it over and over again!

This DVD set is pretty essential to any fan of The West Wing and it's great drama, it's just not the perfect series that had entertained with the previous two boxed sets. But even for them, there is a vastly better – complete series – set available. For that review, please click here!

For other television reviews, please check out my reviews of:
30 Rock Season 3
True Blood Season 1
Sports Night


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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