Tuned In: 'West Wing' wraps up an excellent run

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PASADENA, Calif. -- It's no secret that TV critics can be a cynical lot. We slobber all over quality programs only to rail against them a few years later when their quality begins to decline. Then we curse the Emmys for recognizing the same tired old show, even when, just a few years earlier, we were championing it ourselves.

Greg Schwartz/NBC
In the series finale of "The West Wing," Jimmy Smits is sworn in as President Matt Santos, with Teri Polo as his first lady.
Click photo for larger image.

That was certainly the case with NBC's "The West Wing," which ends its seven-year run at 8 p.m. Sunday on WPXI.

Unlike most series that start strong and decline, "The West Wing" has reclaimed its former glory, not in ratings, but certainly in dramatic, engaging storytelling. This season the show has crackled with nearly the same intensity it had in the beginning, when series creator Aaron Sorkin oversaw the story of President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his loyal staff.

Given the strength of the current season, I wouldn't object to lauding "The West Wing" with a few more Emmys.

"We try not to take ourselves too seriously, because that can be dangerous when you're trying to entertain people," said current show runner John Wells, a 1979 Carnegie Mellon University graduate. After a January press conference that included a loving clip reel from the series that left more than a few jaded TV critics misty-eyed (yours truly included), Wells was asked if such an emotional reaction from a bunch of grumpy sourpusses surprised him. "Any good, long-running television show works because you become connected to the characters in a way that you really care about them. If you don't get those kind of emotional responses, then the show isn't working."

"The West Wing" certainly had its ruts, particularly immediately after the departure of Sorkin at the end of season four, but in its last two seasons, Wells managed to create something Sorkin could not: A credible campaign.

In Bartlet's Sorkin-scripted season four re-election drive, which shot for five days around Western Pennsylvania in August 2002, the president faced off against a Republican candidate (played by James Brolin) who even executive producer/director Christopher Misiano called "a straw doll." But in the past two seasons, Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) waged a fierce political battle -- either candidate could have won the election and both were deserving. Santos prevailed, but "West Wing" viewers were the real beneficiaries; we got to watch two noble, idealistic men spar over policy and debate governance. It was classic "West Wing."

Sunday's series ender, not available for review, depicts Santos' inauguration as Bartlet leaves the White House.

"The series has celebrated from the beginning ... the remarkable strength of American democracy," Wells said. "And one of the things that's most dramatic about American democracy is the peaceful passing of power from one leader to another. And we thought that was a really wonderful way to end the series."

Some fans have questioned why the series won't continue, following the newly elected Santos. The answer is an easy one: While loyal fans remain, too many viewers abandoned the show. Ratings were already down when it aired on Wednesday last season, and they dipped further with the move to Sunday last fall.

Wells said even if NBC hadn't moved "The West Wing" to Sunday, going up against ABC's "Lost" on Wednesday would likely have led to "The West Wing" ending, too. Wells and cast members have no regrets about the show's demise.

"If we had the opportunity, we would have kept going," Wells said, "but I don't think any of us, as storytellers, felt this was a situation where a ton of stuff pops into your mind [for another season]."

"We all knew the writing was on the wall," said series star Allison Janney, who plays Bartlet's chief of staff, C.J. Cregg. "And especially with John's death we felt very much it was time to go."

John Spencer, who played Santos' vice presidential candidate and former Bartlet chief of staff Leo McGarry, died in December, a major blow to an unusually tight-knit cast with ample stores of appreciation for one another and the series they starred in.

"It's a miracle to make a living in a nonhumiliating way as an actor," said Bradley Whitford, who plays Santos' chief of staff, Josh Lyman. "And it is an incredible miracle to have a situation like this that both creatively, and on some cultural level, has material that is fascinating and an area where the stakes are high. It actually makes the work more frustrating because you're constantly wanting to rise to the level around you. But it hurts us in a certain way because it's hard to know that you'll never get this again. I'd rather get it when I'm 85."

For Sheen, the show's success came as a huge surprise simply because it was about politics, which had never been staged in a prime-time drama to the extent that it played a role on "The West Wing."

"There were no car chases or fires or special effects," Sheen said. "The action was in the word and we were public servants. Would an audience that had a choice, support us and would sponsors sell their products with us?"

Ultimately, the answer was a resounding yes. "The West Wing" became a ratings titan and a critical darling, winning four Emmys for best drama series. Highlights included the pilot episode (rerunning Sunday at 7 p.m.), "In Excelsis Deo" (Toby buries a homeless vet), "Two Cathedrals" (Bartlet rages at God in Latin in the National Cathedral after the death of Mrs. Landingham), "Impact Winter" (Bartlet, who has M.S., suffers a relapse while en route to China) and "Faith Based Initiative" (rumors fly that C.J. is a lesbian).

No question, "The West Wing" will go down in television history as one of the best dramas of all time due to its writing and strong performances, but also because of the feelings it evoked in viewers.

"We were like a novel and the real world was like reality," Sheen said. "But people were reading the novel, and they were getting good ideas and kind of having a hope and a faith and a trust in their leadership. And if we go out with that, I don't think we can ask for much more."

WPXI contests again

After putting an end to contests in sweeps a couple of years ago, Channel 11 is back at it, offering viewers a chance to win one of 111 $10 gas cards daily by registering at its Web site. The idea likely was inspired by KDKA's trips to gas stations last week and this week through Tuesday, buying a tank of gas for whomever happens to be there when reporter John Shumway shows up.

WPXI's gambit is more interactive and allows for greater viewer participation than KDKA's gas giveaway (which isn't technically a contest), but Channel 11's latest enticement is more offensive than the old contesting the station used to do. At least spots for the old watch-to-win contest were read by an announcer and bundled with commercial/promo time. The new gas giveaway is introduced like a report in the newscast, fronted by weekend meteorologist Kevin Benson. And it includes product placement for a specific gas station chain, allowing commercialism to invade the bounds of the newscast and hurt Channel 11's image.


This week's TV Q&A With Rob Owen responds to questions about "Ghost Whisperer," "7th Heaven" and a TV news sweeps critique.

Also, we received positive feedback on the Press Tour Journal I've written for several years during my biannual trips to Hollywood. Now we're taking the concept year-round with Tuned In Journal, which launched this week. Tuned In Journal will include mini-reviews, observations, impressions and maybe even some news.

-- Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV editor

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.


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