Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Wing Dings

When Aaron Sorkin was late with a West Wing script once too often and was finally jettisoned from the once-sterling NBC drama, many of us anticipated Life After Aaron with some trepidation.

Sure, the show had grown increasingly preposterous -- by the end of last season, one week in West Wing world featured the unlikely combination of the vice president's resignation to head off a sex scandal and the kidnapping of the president's daughter -- but there's no one on television who can write with Sorkin's blend of brains, passion, and wit. Before the NBC hype machine forced more and more outlandish storylines, The West Wing was a deserved commercial and critical success, serving up interesting, well written stories and featuring likable, committed characters. (An even better example of Sorkin's talent was the criminally underwatched Sports Night, which ABC failed to position adequately and dumped after just two seasons.)

So when NBC finally cut the cord with Sorkin, John Wells was left with a tough act to follow. In many ways Sorkin was The West Wing. His vision and his voice were so connected to the show that it was hard to imagine his successors, well, succeeding.

Up until last week, these fears seemed to be well founded. Wells & Co. were forced to find their footing while also cleaning up Sorkin's mess. Rather than starting with a clean slate, they had to rescue Zoey Bartlett, dismiss Speaker of the House-turned acting President Glenn Walken, return President Bartlett to the Oval Office, and find a new vice president. Burdened with those tasks, the writers this year started slowly, turning out a half-dozen underwhelming episodes that somehow felt off.

Until last week. With all of last season's mayhem more or less wrapped up, The West Wing finally resembled the compelling drama it used to be. With an extraordinarily effective Matthew Perry reprising his guest-starring role as a Republican White House counsel, last week's episode, "Separation of Powers," turned its back on the recent improbable sensationalism and returned to its roots with substantive storylines on the failing health of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the budget negotiations between the White House and congressional Republicans.

The episodes final scene, culminating in President Bartlett's ordering of a federal government shutdown, was the program's most powerful in more than a season. It was shot with a handheld camera, and often at table level, giving it a welcome, striking verisimilitude, and featured a considerable amount of silence. One of the most notable hallmarks of the Sorkin era, of course, was the nonstop cacophony of crackling dialogue, ringing phones, and other noise. With Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme gone, Wing now includes quieter moments and longer reaction shots. These have taken some getting used to; indeed, they're not always appropriate for a show set in what must be the most frantic office setting on the planet, but at times, such as last week, they can be spot-on.

The Daily News's very solid Ellen Gray beat me to the punch on this today, calling "Separation of Powers" "probably the best show so far of the post-Aaron Sorkin era" and singling out Perry, deservedly, for high praise. Gray even suggests that Perry join the cast on a more permanent basis next season, when Friends bows out.

I hope that "Separation of Powers" marked the show hitting its stride and wasn't just a blip in a tumble to mediocrity. Wells's ER was at one time television's best drama, but after every episode produced "an event . . . you can't . . . miss," as the NBC promo guy would say week after week (after week after week), it began to feel empty and loud. At its best, The West Wing, for all of its noise, has been the exact opposite. Here's hoping Wells realizes that.


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