Thursday, October 28, 2010

The West Wing Season 6: The Last Significant Actions Of The Bartlet Administration Fade As Campaigns Heat Up!

The Good: Excellent stories, Great acting, Wonderful character development, Nice DVD extras
The Bad: I could always live with more DVD bonus features . . .
The Basics: As the Bartlet Administration heads into twilight, Bartlet pursues an ambitious agenda, while his potential successors vie for his position.

Few shows take enough time and effort to seriously consider reinventing themselves and as a result, most long-running television programs lose their audience by simply repeating what they've done before (i.e. E.R.) or they tragically flounder searching for direction (i.e. The X-Files, Millennium in its third season). So, it's always a treat for me to watch a series that has an idea what is coming and plans adequately for it. In the case of The West Wing, a television show about the two-term presidency of Jed Bartlet, a seven-year run made sense as it is made clear in the first season of The West Wing (click here for that review!) that the producers would begin planning for the end. In The West Wing - The Complete Sixth Season, viewers of the show are treated to the last significant acts of the Bartlet presidency as the series makes its natural transition into twilight. Fortunately, as a story about an American presidency, there is a natural exit; the election of a new president.

The West Wing - The Complete Sixth Season begins the transition from the Bartlet White House to the campaign for his successor and in that way, this boxed set is a treat of two shows. The first half of the season provides a framework for the denouement of the Bartlet Administration by resolving the climactic issues from the end of the fifth season (click here for that review!). The second half of the season divides between the dwindling Bartlet Administration and the active campaign for the Democratic primary in a season that fractures almost all of the bonds that bind the staff of the West Wing.

Following the terrorist attacks in Gaza and the Palestinian Prime Minister inviting himself to peace talks with the Bartlet Administration, President Jed Bartlet finds himself in a real bind. Assembling his staff, he listens to the lone voices of Kate Harper and C.J. Cregg who urge him to seize the opportunity for peace and Bartlet soon finds himself hosting very real peace talks at Camp David. The process of brokering a Middle East peace accord leaves Bartlet without Leo's counsel and the staff of the West Wing is fractured.

Leo has a massive heart attack which knocks him out of the Chief of Staff role, regardless of the President's intent to fire him anyway. This results in a shakeup of the West Wing when Bartlet promotes C.J. to Chief of Staff. Bitter about Josh's treatment of her, Donna joins Will Bailey in his attempt to get Vice President Bob Rusell the Democratic nomination for president and Josh, bitter at C.J.'s promotion, soon leaves to help a maverick Congressman the same nomination. This leaves Bartlet and his team scrambling to lead the country, a task further plagued by the President's health.

If you're not in tune with The West Wing by this season, it's an odd crossroads to pick it up at. Interestingly enough, the seventh season stands on its own well as almost a new series and the sixth season is a bridge to that. As a result, the campaigns easily lead the viewer to everything they will need to understand about who the characters are and what the overall plot of the season is. The half of the show that continues to deal with the disintegrating Bartlet Administration does allude to events from prior seasons that may make it more difficult for those picking up just this boxed set. Is it a deal-breaker? It need not be. The show is pretty clear about explaining itself, though some of it has to be looked for (i.e. in the fourth or fifth episode of this season, the show leaps forward a year with a reference to Midterm elections that we never see - and it's encapsulated in a single line!).

For the most part, this is high drama and two powerful bits strongly inform the viewer of the magnitude of the events and characters on the show; the brokering of the Middle East peace plan and the president's M.S. recurring while he is in the middle of delicate negotiations with China. This is not drama for the feint of heart, though seeing so many people fighting the good fights leads the viewer to be heartened. When Josh discovers Representative Santos and urges him to run for president, Santos begins to run a campaign built on principle and the desire to solve crippling problems in the world. It's a difficult fantasy for many Americans to watch given how infrequently it happens out in reality.

It does, however, make for truly great television and in this DVD boxed set, the extras only make it better. Three episodes ("King Corn," "In God We Trust," and "2162 Votes") have commentary and this season the commentaries are ripe with stories and substance as opposed to a forum for the writers and producers to discuss their anxiety after taking over following Aaron Sorkin's departure. I could always use more commentaries - one from Bradley Whitford on the episode he wrote, "Faith Based Initiative" would have been nice, similarly having Richard Schiff discuss his directoral endeavor "A Good Day" would have been cool, too. There is also a decent featurette on C.J. Cregg where the cast and crew is interviewed about the evolution of Allison Janney's character's transition from press secretary to chief of staff. It's a fun retrospective for the fans.

And the nice thing about season six is that it continues the strong emphasis on the characters and how they develop. The characters become like good friends or family and their trials and tribulations in season six continue to evolve them as some of the richest to be found on television. Here is how the sixth season finds the principle characters:

Abbey Bartlet - Finds herself struggling to manage her husband when his M.S. recurs and her priority shifts almost entirely to insuring his survival (no mention is made of her pill popping from the prior season). The highlight of her year is being sent to a NASCAR race,

Kate Harper - As the world appears less safe, the NSA liaison finds herself more active and it is her ideas and guidance that Bartlet comes to rely on and inspires the president to attempt to broker a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians,

Charlie - Forced by the President to get a real job following his graduation from college, he finds himself floundering until he is offered a great opportunity from C.J.,

Will - On the outs with most of the staff of the West Wing (especially Toby) for jumping ship to work as the Vice President's Chief of Staff, he finds himself set up with the daunting task of making his witless boss electable. Will soon finds himself running Bob Russell's campaign and making him into the front-runner no one anticipated he could be,

Donna - Following her recuperation from being wounded in Gaza, she finds her life and position unfulfilling as Josh's lackey. When she leaves his side, Will is quick to get her a job working on the Russell campaign where she becomes a formidable force raising funds for the Vice President,

Senator Arnold Vinick - A plain-speaking, intelligent and forthright Republican who refuses a job in the Bartlet White House to begin his run for president, Vinick gets a rocky start by speaking truth to power and isolating the Republican base with his centrist views and his refusal to pander to get elected,

Congressman Matt Santos - Having decided to give up his House seat and return to Texas following the Midterm elections where he wins an easy re-election, Santos is approached by Josh to run for President on a populist platform. Dragged out of obscurity by Josh, the husband, father, and Representative begins a rocky road that might make him the most powerful man in the world,

Toby - Bitter at Will and Josh for leaving the Bartlet Administration before the end, he is forced to sublimate his rage at C.J. in order to keep the government running. Unfortunately for Toby, C.J. taps him to be the interim press secretary, a job he is terribly unsuited for,

Leo - Finding his counsel no longer needed, Leo resigns as Chief of Staff only to have a massive heart attack soon after. Following his long and painful recovery, he returns to the West Wing as a simple advisor, until the president calls upon him to straighten out the fractured Democratic Party at the national convention,

C.J. - After advising the president to stick with the peace negotiations, she finds herself promoted to Chief of Staff and suddenly facing conflicts she never expected, including a representative from Georgia (the former Soviet republic) offering her their nuclear arsenal on her first day, assisting the president with negotiations with China and finding herself out of the loop on a special negotiation with Cuba,

Josh - Looking for more than just a position working on Bartlet's legacy, he soon leaves to make Matt Santos into the Democratic candidate for president, despite the seemingly insurmountable hurdles that represents. Advising Santos with a strength of training from Leo, he finds himself flying without a net, or Donna,

and President Jed Bartlet - After ambitious work brokering a Middle East peace plan, he finds himself working to fight for it by wrangling Congress to support it. Fighting the impetus and history that seems to indicate he must act like a lame duck, Bartlet attempts ambitious negotiations with China amid a crippling recurrence of his M.S., tries secret negotiations with Cuba and finds himself inspired by Leo to not waste his last year in office.

Despite the powerful feeling of a show (and Administration) in transition, this is not a series that is going at all quietly into the good night. Instead, the sixth season ramps up the stakes by tackling ambitious issues with dramatic twists, working in negotiations on tough issues with China with deeply personal incidents like the crippling return of the president's M.S. (which leaves him tethered to a bedtime and frequently to a cane). As a television show, the series is insistent on maintaining its quality and growing it. Alan Alda appears as Senator Vinick and Jimmy Smits comes on as Matt Santos, easily his strongest role since his appearance as Bobby Simone on NYPD Blue. Both Smits and Alda add something powerful to the episodes they participate in and it's easy to see how they come to dominate the latter episodes of this season.

And this is a season filled with great performances. Allison Janney won (again) the Emmy for Best Actress for her work in this season and she earns it with great performances in episodes like "Liftoff" where she is charged with the difficult task of taking her character in a completely different direction, while still making her seem like the same person as she was prior to her change in job title. Janney makes the transition masterfully and makes it appear effortless.

The rest of the cast gives great performances when they are allowed, especially my perennial favorite Richard Schiff who plays the gloomy Toby with more purpose and anger this season. Lost following the death of his brother and the final State of the Union he pens, Schiff infuses a subliminal rage in almost every scene he shares with costars Bradley Whitford and Joshua Malina.

The standout this season is unsurprisingly Martin Sheen. One would think it would be a no-brainer that Sheen would be the acting powerhouse on The West Wing, but this season he outdoes himself. Sheen has consistently illustrated his ability to act presidential. He's got it and he's great in that niche. In season five, he had to play wounded and hobbled by his political adversaries and the kidnapping crisis. In season six, his acting challenge is to portray a man so riddled by disease that he cannot walk and Sheen sells the viewer on that perfectly. When Bartlet is paralyzed by his M.S. the viewer never doubts his absolute inability to move, so powerful is the performance of Martin Sheen.

This is a great collection and a must for fans of The West Wing and while it is perfectly accessible to those who have not previously watched the show, it is appreciated more by those who have been invested in the characters before now. And for those who are fans, let's be honest, why are you considering this boxed set? Anyone who fell in love with the Bartlet Administration will need The Complete Series set (click here for that review!). But for those on a budget, you could do far worse than picking this gem up!

For other wonderful television seasons, please check out my reviews of:
Sports Night
V Season 1


For other television reviews, please visit my index page for a concise listing of my reviews by clicking here!

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

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