When good TV goes bad: how The West Wing went south

After three sublime seasons, writer Aaron Sorkin responded to 9/11 with an unusually clumsy standalone episode that knocked the whole show off balance

Running from 1999-2006, The West Wing loosely spanned the George W Bush era, offering – depending on your position – either a glorious parallel universe in which the White House got it right, or a sentimental liberal fantasia divorced from the real world. From an objective standpoint, the first three seasons were perfect. Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue fizzed, the casting was unimprovable, the direction was dynamic and the narrative propulsive. It couldn’t last.

Plenty would argue that the kidnapping of Zoey Bartlet at the close of the fourth season sent the show into terminal decline. The rot, though, set in with Isaac and Ishmael, the last episode of season three to be filmed, but the first to be aired. It was a shark-jump whose implications only became clear a series later, thanks to its transmission date: 3 October, 2001.

Named after the biblical fathers of Judaism and Islam, Isaac and Ishmael was Sorkin’s rapid response to 9/11. Its intentions were honourable but, from the pre-credits sequence onwards, something was off. The cast appeared as themselves, explaining this was a non-canon episode (“A storytelling aberration,” as Bradley Whitford, AKA deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman, put it with inadvertent accuracy). Except then there was Janel Moloney, weirdly in character as Josh’s assistant Donna, to drop the excruciating titbit that, in season three, “I get a boyfriend”.

It did not help that Isaac and Ishmael followed Two Cathedrals. That sublime second-season closer saw president Bartlet reconsidering a second term while mourning his secretary, handling a crisis in Haiti and preparing for a tropical storm. Shortly after calling God “a son of a bitch” in church, this devout Catholic strode out to meet the press, announcing his candidacy with a gesture smartly signposted earlier in the episode. Witty, affecting and assured, it encapsulated everything that made the show so irresistible. The only way was down.

Always prone to didacticism, with Isaac and Ishmael the series took the term literally: with the White House in lockdown, staffers lectured visiting high-school kids who asked leading questions about terrorism. Guess who the audience proxies were in this little setup? At least they were honours students, so thanks for that, Professor Sorkin. For a series that had credited its audience with intelligence, this was pretty insulting.

Each familiar face dispensed a revealing anecdote or incisive zinger to box up a complex issue. Some sermons respected established personality traits, some really didn’t. During a parallel glib morality play about racial and religious profiling, Leo (John Spencer) here became a racist for one episode only as he interrogated a White House employee who shared his name with the alias of a terrorist.

You could dismiss this one-off as a bold, well-meaning misfire. But its faults began to bleed into the series. At its best, the show made its points without preaching. But what was once impassioned and earnest became patronising and self-righteous, and what had seemed effortless began to overreach. Characters began to vanish mid-storyline (Sam), get handled poorly (CJ) or behave bafflingly (Toby). By the time Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits had settled into their characters as Bartlet’s potential successors, The West Wing had gone south.


Gabriel Tate

The GuardianTramp

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