Early on in the TV series “The West Wing,” a young man watches the staff scramble around the Oval Office as the president prepares to deliver an important speech to the American people. The double jolt of snagging a White House job and this new and thrilling proximity to power has left him reeling.
“I’ve never felt like this before,” he breathes. “It doesn’t go away,” replies the not-so hardened staffer next to him.
That sensation – the one that makes your heart rise and your back stiffen, causes you to stand just a bit taller and vow to do good – is an emotion “The West Wing” has inspired through most of its seven-year run. But tonight NBC will air the final episode. It’s titled “Tomorrow,” even though declining ratings have made sure that day never comes for the series.
President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) will step down; President-elect Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) will step up. And millions of dreamers will lose that one hour of the week when they can pretend that the most famous inhabitants of Washington, D.C., are intelligent, thoughtful, industrious, honest, honorable – and liberal.
“The West Wing” first aired in 1999, at a time when politics didn’t play a big part on TV shows. It won nine Emmys in its first season, the most ever for a drama series. Won Best Drama Series its first four years, too. Creator Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay for the film “The American President,” perfected the rapid-fire walk-and-talk style he toyed with on his short-lived “Sports Night,” propelling his characters all over the White House with lively wit and noble purpose.
But despite its roots in romantic comedy tradition, the show never shied away from serious issues: abortion, religion, education, health care, Middle East relations (often with the oppressive fictional country of Qumar, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Saudi Arabia). The writers took up political – almost exclusively Democratic – positions.
Sorkin left after season 4, taking most of the light-hearted dialogue with him. We lost Rob Lowe that year in a salary dispute, too. The good news is that his (sort-of) replacement was longtime Sorkin collaborator Joshua Malina as congressman-to-be Will Bailey. But season 5 was, to be kind, not “The West Wing” to which we were accustomed. And yet, the show bounced back in its final two years, resurrecting exciting storylines and the missing humor and introducing terrific new cast members as Santos and Republican Arnold Vinick (Emmy nominee Alan Alda) battled it out to be Bartlet’s successor.
Still, the regulars – well-defined, realistically flawed, absolutely irresistible – are what kept us interested. We rooted for Bartlet, his brains, his hopes, his leadership, his courage in fighting MS. We wished he were real but were happy we had him at all: Sorkin’s original idea was to never show the president, a plan that would have consistently flummoxed the writers and prevented us from enjoying the fantasy as much as we did. (We would have also missed Sheen’s unforgettable entrance in the pilot episode, as he bursts into a fractious meeting quoting the First Commandment: “I am the Lord thy God,” he intones, and you immediately believe it.)
We were fascinated with the dynamics of Bartlet’s decades-long friendship with chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer, whose death last year added almost unbearable poignancy to the tense election episodes). We admired C.J. Cregg (the fantastic Allison Janney, in what will unfortunately probably be the role of a lifetime) for her almost seamless transition from press secretary to replacement chief of staff, and we grieved over the firing of communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), whose banishment was painful testament to the peril of following your heart in politics.
We laughed at the antics of deputy chief of staff/Santos campaign manager Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) even as we marveled at his relentless dedication and groaned at his seven years – seven freaking years! – of blindness in regard to his feelings for his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney, who blossomed as her role expanded from secretary to political operative). Just hand Whitford another Emmy right now: He has continued to ground the series after it split into two separate shows, one on the campaign trail, the other at the White House.
THE BEST OF “THE WEST WING’
-Best call to action: Leo gives his boss a figurative kick in the pants and demands an end to political timidity in the rousing “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” season 1.
-Best presidential debate: The live bout between Vinick and Santos was an intriguing idea, but love for Bartlet dictates we choose his relentless attack on clueless Florida Gov. Ritchie (James Brolin) in “Game On,” season 3.
-Best press conference/worst time for a root canal: When C.J. undergoes emergency surgery, a cocky Josh inadvertently announces a non-existent secret plan to fight inflation, “Celestial Navigation,” season 1.
-Most stirring message on a napkin: “Bartlet for America,” season 3.
-Tastiest historical snack, unless you’re a busy White House staffer: Andrew Jackson’s big block of cheese, “The Crackpots and These Women,” season 1 and “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail,””” season 2.
-Web site you better avoid lest you incur the wrath of C.J. Cregg: lemonlyman.com, “The U.S. Poet Laureate,” season 3.
-Best gift: After torturing his personal assistant Charlie (Dule Hill) with shopping duty for a knife to slice the Thanksgiving turkey, Bartlet presents him with a family heirloom – made by a silversmith named Paul Revere.
-Best Republican: Sharp, principled Arnold Vinick damn near won the election, but our vote goes to White House counsel Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) for her skillful verbal dismemberment of Democratic rhetoric and her spirited defense of the South.
-Best battle with a giant chicken: Chicken Bob of the Santos campaign ruffles Donna’s feathers in “Freedonia,” season 6.
-Most frightening piece of trivia: According to imdb.com, Eugene Levy was considered for the part of Toby. Now that idea should have remained a state secret.