|The West Wing: Season Six (2005)
Starring: Martin Sheen, Jimmy Smits, Bradley Whitford, Alan Alda, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Richard Schiff
The sixth season of “The West Wing” represents a period of transition, for both the characters on the show and for the series itself. Always critically acclaimed, the show lost considerable ratings steam as it progressed through its run, and as it moved into its sixth season, the future of the show wasn’t entirely clear. The season represents the final year of the presidency of Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), and several of the episodes revolve around his desire, despite his growing health problems, to make his eighth year in office a meaningful one. As part of the transition, Bartlet’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), convinces Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) to run for President and he agrees – but only if Josh agrees to leave the White House and help to run his campaign.
And so the season goes, bouncing back and forth between the sitting President and the race to replace him. The first goal of the Santos campaign is to win the Democratic nomination, and this is in doubt until the very end of the season. One of the season’s major story arcs is the growth of Santos from Congressman to Presidential candidate, and the effect that this has on his marriage to his reluctant wife, Helen (Teri Polo). He faces strong competition from Vice President Bob Russell (Gary Cole), who hires Josh’s former assistant, Donna Moss, mixing in some feelings of betrayal with the unrequited love that has been brewing between Donna and Josh during the entire run of the series.
Meanwhile, the show also gives ample screen time to the Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) campaign for the Republican nomination. Seemingly based on real-life Senator John McCain, Vinick is a maverick, and his struggles tend to deal with his relationship to his own party. It is interesting to see the contrast between the Santos and Vinick campaigns as they are faced with similar challenges. Their actions also have an impact on Bartlet, who tries to stay neutral (with respect to the Democratic nomination), but he’s forced to interact with the candidates from time to time, and these interactions are always engrossing.
While Vinick wins the Republican nominee in time for his party’s convention, the Democratic nominee is still in doubt as the Democratic convention begins. It’s clear that the creators did a lot of research about this possibility, which is termed a “brokered” convention, and it’s compelling to see such an exciting political convention with debate and discourse instead of the pre-planned infomercials we get in real life. This adds a climax to the season that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
“The West Wing” has always boasted great writing and acting, and the sixth season is no different. It’s all about transition, as C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) takes over as Bartlet’s Chief of Staff, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) takes on the duties of the Press Secretary, while the role of National Securty Council Deputy Kate Harper (Mary McCormack) continues to grow. Bartlet’s former Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (the late John Spencer), recovers from his heart attack and eventually gets involved in the Democratic convention, helping his party settle on a candidate. In fact, the show does a wonderful job of giving each of these characters enough screen time while still making way for the fresh faces of each of the campaigns.
Of the six-DVD set, three of the episodes feature commentary tracks, two from executive producers John Wells and Alex Graves. It is especially informative to hear the duo talk about the season finale, “2162 Votes,” which focuses on the hectic happenings at the Democratic convention. The only other special feature is a fifteen-minute documentary entitled, “C.J. Cregg: From Press Secretary to Chief of Staff.” The featurette is aptly titled, and describes, through interviews with the cast and creative team, how Allison Janney got the role to the character’s ascension to the right hand of the President.
Since it first debuted in 1999, “The West Wing” has always been one of the best shows on television. At times it is almost too smart for its own good, but its sharp wit and varying sense of humor are always there. It’s a challenge for the creators to transition from one administration to another, but they handled the task beautifully, setting up the show for four – or even eight – more years. Unfortunately, with NBC’s decision to end the series after its seventh season, we won’t get to see much of the next President’s administration. It’s a shame, really, because it’s loaded with potential.