So where do we go from here?
After four seasons — the first three as Emmy drama champ — “The West Wing” heads into uncharted waters without its creative force, Aaron Sorkin, and his consigliere, Tommy Schlamme.
Sorkin’s ankling the show wasn’t all that unexpected. After writing practically every episode, Sorkin’s penchant for delivering late scripts became acute. That created costly budget overruns and producer Warner Bros. TV no doubt pressured Sorkin to stick to deadlines.
All of this came a few months after NBC signed a license fee deal with WBTV, agreeing to pay the studio slightly more than $5.5 million an episode for two more seasons.
Exec producer John Wells has been named showrunner for next season.
Wells or Warner Bros. hasn’t commented on where the series goes from here but he did say, “We always knew this day would come and have been assembling a talented group of writers, directors and producers to assist in this transition.”
“It’s a simultaneously crushing disappointment and exciting,” says Joshua Malina, a friend of Sorkin’s since high school and the newest full-time member of the cast. Malina came aboard midseason portraying speechwriter Will Bailey, who helped ease Rob Lowe’s character, Sam Seaborn, out of the show.
“I heard Wells say that Aaron is irreplaceable and they won’t create a faux Sorkin voice,” Malina says. “I think it’s going to become a more collaborative vision.”
Ratings took a 20% dive last season. Reasons are many: The show went head to head with reality powerhouse “The Bachelor”; the popular Lowe left halfway through; the tone of American politics took a strong turn to the right (Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet is hardcore Democrat); and, perhaps most important, political storylines often overpowered the personal.
Even some diehard fans of “West Wing” would admit that policy wonking doesn’t necessarily make for involving primetime entertainment. Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) talking about the environment doesn’t resonate with viewers as much as when he’s in a hospital maternity ward bonding with his newborns.
But political insight does make the series unique and raises it above the he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not fare seen on many other dramas. Thesps are concerned the relationship storylines might become too prominent come the fall.
“I fear that,” says John Spencer, who plays all-business chief of staff Leo McGarry. “I love a healthy mix (of politics and personalities). I think you have to balance it.”
“Personally, I would like it to remain a policy show,” says Malina, who also starred in Sorkin’s “Sports Night.” “These people are so devoted to their jobs that Aaron felt it wasn’t important to tell you who they’re dating.
“But I think you need a touch of that. It’s certainly possible more of that would mean more people would watch, but I don’t know if that’s good for the show.”
The season’s last four episodes — generally considered the best of the year — certainly felt like the skein was leaning toward being more character-driven, if not sensational.
First, the vice president (Tim Matheson) is forced to resign because of an extramarital affair; a Secret Service agent is killed and the president’s daughter, Zoe, is kidnapped at a graduation party; and Bartlet temporarily gives up his presidential powers to the speaker of the House, a Republican heavyweight played by John Goodman, in the season finale.
Says TV Guide’s Matt Roush: “As one of the disgruntled former fans doing a fair amount of the drubbing, I will agree insomuch as the last few episodes were a major improvement on the rest of the season, and the final hour was (as is the show’s custom) fabulously executed. But I didn’t really buy it for a moment. It was way too melodramatic for me, and if I sound hypocritical here, given my appreciation for outrageous shows like ’24’ and ‘Alias,’ I would argue that this show operates on a different standard.”
Spencer, like the rest of the cast, was aware that viewership was down but assures there was not a sense of dismay on the Burbank set.
“It’s like camera direction; I don’t really understand it,” Spencer says of the Wednesday night numbers. “We’re all just worker ants putting in long hours. I think if the show was hanging in the balance, maybe we would pay more attention and there might even be concern.”
The camaraderie among “West Wing’s” actors is evident. Spencer, Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Allison Janney and Stockard Channing have all taken home Emmys. On the podium, they’re usually quick to credit Sorkin with delivering the material that’s earned them kudos.
Though they were often delivered just hours before the actors were being called on set, Sorkin’s scripts are now a thing of the past. Time will tell if a more manageable schedule makes for a better show.
“If you ask me that the scripts be on time but the quality less than Aaron’s, I tell you with all of my heart that I would not prefer that,” Spencer says.
Adds Malina: “I had no problem with the way the show was run. If anything, it added to the excitement.”
The type of excitement that Warner Bros. and NBC obviously didn’t need.