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I never thought that I would find the political machinations of the American Government particularly interesting. With the Bush administration making such a mess of things in real life, how could a fictional dramatisation be any good (except perhaps if it were an amusing parody)? The West Wing is, however, unique among television dramas. There are plenty of shows that rely on a decent script to ground the action and adventure (like Joss Whedon’s superb creations Buffy, Angel and Firefly, along with it’s spin-off movie Serenity) and even a few that rely on script more than action (like David Milch’s excellent Deadwood and NYPD Blue), but no series I have ever come across has survived merely on script alone. It took a bold move to even put a show like this into production, but from the very first episode you could see how it was destined for success. Aaron Sorkin’s allegedly drug-fuelled prose made the stories tear along at breakneck pace, with most of the drama taking place in the corridors of the titular west wing of the White House, as the President and his key staff members traded words at the rate of several hundred a minute. In the same way that The Matrix offered audiences blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visuals, The West Wing gave us the same frenetic bombardment, albeit for our ears. Now, after several Award-winning seasons and the shameful loss of the genius writer behind it all, we have the 7th and apparently final series of the superior show.

The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season

Series


Originally The West Wing was conceived as a vehicle for Rob Lowe and his pivotal character, Sam Seaborn, a upcoming member of the President’s staff who was being groomed to eventually take the throne. Martin Sheen (who plays President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlett) was supposed to be in a cameo role, only appearing in four episodes a season. After the pilot it became apparent that Sheen was the star and that Lowe, no matter how cool he thought he was, was distinctly playing second fiddle. Eventually (after four seasons) he left the show, his character never having really taken off in the way he had expected. But he left behind a vehicle which had morphed into a very powerful animal, centred on Sheen’s President and his core of highly intelligent staff members who rely on brains rather than boyish good looks. There’s his Chief of Staff and close friend, Leo McGarry (John Spencer), the balding bearded big-brained Director of Communications, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), the sharp Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), the quick-witted White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) and the President’s Aide, Charlie Young (Dule Hill), also a close confidante. Outside his inner circle, but still important to the workings of this office we have Josh’s P.A. Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) and the President’s wife Abigail (Stockard Channing).

The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season
Martin Sheen’s President is, of course, at the centre stage, which is particularly understandable when you consider that more and more comparisons were made between him and his real-life-contemporary G.W. Bush. Whilst the real President was seemingly incapable of doing or saying anything remotely intelligent, the American public increasingly took solace in the fact that Sheen’s Bartlett could, comparatively, do no wrong. Sheen is always watchable and here he is on top form, powerful and mesmerising in the commanding role. He and his key staff members stayed in their places for the best part of five seasons, although many things happened to them along the way. The President himself had to overcome the kidnapping of his daughter, assassination attempts and a recurring debilitating disease which nearly lost him his Presidency. Whilst in power he had to deal with terrorist attacks, outbreaks of war and Acts of God, to name but a few. Aside from helping him, his key staff members had their own personal struggles, with Leo facing off his alcohol problem before being taken out of his job by a heart attack and Toby suffering at the hands of his estranged wife. Even Josh and Donna have their own problems: despite the fact that you simply know that they were meant to be together, because of the conflict of working together, their personal relationship never really got started.

The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season
In the Sixth Season, Bartlett’s term was drawing to a close and the race was on to find the next Democratic Presidential candidate who could enter the upcoming election. There were three main prospects: the Vice President Bob Russell (Gary Cole), Governor Eric Baker (Ed O’Neill) and the definitive underdog, Jimmy Smits’ almost-too-honest Matt Santos. Whoever was chosen appeared to have a bleak future anyway, with the powerful seasoned Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) posed to destroy the Democrats in the election. Meanwhile the President was faced with the tough call of dispatching a rescue mission to save some trapped astronauts or preserving National Security. Although not one of the strongest season finales, this climactic final episode still left viewers eager to find out what happens next. So here we have it.

The seventh season kicks off by resolving the space disaster (although the investigation into the possible leak within the West Wing is ongoing) and then resuming the battle between Santos and Vinick on the run-up to the Presidential election. Several episodes are devoted just to watching their campaign strategies, with press conferences across the country and only a little time left for Barlett and his Presidency. This is somewhat understandable, but at times a little disappointing because, frankly, I miss Sheen’s President. NYPD Blue’s Jimmy Smits (aka Star Wars’ Senator Bail Organa) is good, but not quite good enough to fill the gaps. Coupled with the superior Alan Alda, however, the proceedings remain interesting despite the lack of Sheen. That still does not stop you missing him or feeling emotional, and it only emphasises the fact that his term is coming to an end.

The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season
As the season progresses, the balance shifts so the focus is split between Bartlett’s current problems and Santos’ fight for the future, with tension mounting both between new Chief of Staff CJ and Mary McCormack’s advisor and from the confrontational public debate between Santos and Vinick. There are threats of nuclear explosions on home turf, problems in the Sudan and even a wedding to deal with, shortly followed by a funeral. Then there’s the eagerly-anticipated election, which takes about four episodes to fully run its course. Most fans will probably be able to guess the outcome (and they get a nice teaser during the season premiere) but the way they get there is still quite interesting. It is a sad but fitting way for the West Wing to close out.

To commemorate this final season, aside from the excellent primary cast, we get plenty of recurring guest stars, from Teri Poli as Santos’ wife, Helen, to Janeane Garofalo as one of Santos’ key staff members, Lou Thornton. Then there’s Ron Silver, ever excellent role as campaign advisor Bruno Gianelli (only this time working for the opposition), and Oliver Platt as Oliver Babish, who is looking into the potential White House leak. The key funeral gives added reason to draft in a number of familiar faces from previous episodes as well, from CSI: Miami’s Emily Proctor as Ainsley Hayes to Weeds’ Mary-Louise Parker’s Amy Gardner. Finally, my personal favourite, the excellent John Goodman, does not unfortunately make an appearance (having previously played the acting President when Barlett had to step down) but one particularly surprising face does pop up towards the end of the season—a character who I never expected to see reappear.

The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season
Although not quite of the same quality as the original Aaron Sorkin-penned first four series, this final season’s episodes are still so drenched in subplot and double-speak that, by the end of each forty minute slot, you feel both simultaneously exhausted and proud of the fact that you have actually managed to absorb so much information in such a short period of time. It is hard, but worthwhile viewing and, as I said in my opening, unique amongst its contemporaries. Given that the quality of script has not diminished too much since the loss of Sorkin, it is still a shame to find that this is the end of The West Wing, but at least it was drawn to a close before it jumped the shark. Behold, the end of an era and the end of a Presidency that the public could actually be proud of.

The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season
Episode List:

1. The Ticket
2. The Mommy Problem
3. Message of the Week
4. Mr. Frost
5. Here Today
6. The Al Smith Dinner
7. The Debate
8. Undecideds
9. The Wedding
10. Running Mates
11. Internal Displacement
12. Duck and Cover
13. The Cold
14. Two Weeks Out
15. Welcome to Wherever You Are
16. Election Day Part.1
17. Election Day Part.2
18. Requiem
19. Transition
20. The Last Hurrah
21. Institutional Memory
22. Tomorrow

The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season

Video


The episodes in this, the seventh and final season of The West Wing come presented with decent 1.78:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfers. Detail is generally very good, with much less of the softness that can be found on previous seasons. There’s little edge enhancement and negligible grain. The colour scheme is also more broad than we may have previously seen, since the location is much less restricted, with many of the episodes taking place outside of the White House. Skin tones are generally well represented and the shadowing holds together thanks to solid blacks. Overall it is a decent transfer, even if it breaks no records.

Audio


To accompany the show, we get a fairly standard Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Thankfully this is not the kind of TV series that requires anything too boisterous, or anything with great range. It is largely dialogue-based and, in that respect, the mix is decent enough, with the clear and coherent (although unintelligibly quick for those who are not devoting their absolute intention) words streaming out in all their glory. Effects are fairly small and normally merely ambient, from camera flashes to crowds humming and so forth. They get little range but that is not really much of a problem. Music is kept to a minimum, with the most noticeable piece being the opening theme song, which is presented perfectly adequately. This is a reasonable if unexceptional aural presentation for the show.

Extras


As has been common with previous season box sets for The West Wing, the discs here are bare-bones, with no sign of commentaries, making-of featurettes or deleted footage. Considering the vast wealth of talent involved in this show, both on and off-screen, commentaries would have been hugely entertaining and informative, so I missed them the most.

The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season

Overall


The seventh and final season of The West Wing is a worthy end to a fantastic TV show. Although it still does not reach the heights of the early Sorkin-penned seasons, it is probably the best of the ones without him, despite the fact that Martin Sheen’s fantastic President Barlett is not as prominent as in previous years. Video and audio presentations for the show are adequate enough, but the lack of extras (as is usually the case for this TV series) is once again disappointing. Fans of the show will simply have to add this to their collection, although they may be tempted to buy the big seven-season box set.


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