When Leo (John Spencer) collapsed of a massive heart attack in the woods at Camp David the other Wednesday night on The West Wing, the troubled series wasn’t just looking to goose its ratings by wasting a favorite. For one thing, the Mideast no-peace process really is a killer, both serial and mass, and Leo had been passionately opposed to President Bartlet’s two-state agenda. Second, from previous seasons we knew that Leo, a recovering abuser of at least two substances and a workaholic, was a walking recipe for coronary catastrophe. Third, The West Wing has in the past melodramatized with a Jacobean shamelessness—early on, with an assassination attempt by white racists that left Josh (Bradley Whitford) in a hospital playing the part of “Who Shot J.R.?” as if he were in Finnegans Wake; a year ago, with the kidnapping by swarthy terrorists of Zoey “Bookbag” (Elisabeth Moss), the president’s annoying daughter, who should never have trusted her gelid French boyfriend; and in May, when Islamic jihadists in Gaza blew up a bus whose passengers included the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a very blonde Donna (Janel Moloney).
Note that two of these three narrative debauches were Aaron Sorkin’s fault, before NBC stripped him of his epaulets and Palm device on account of bad behavior. What happened to WW last year without Sorkin was a shame that had nothing to do with sharks or writers who jump them. Each hour lasted at least 90 minutes, which is how long we had to stare at sad faces in extreme close-up before they finished selling out another principle. Their pores were more magnified than their qualms; their scruples were invisible. Except for C.J. (Allison Janney). The press secretary—I think of her as the Statue of Liberty—was the last liberal left anywhere near the Oval Office, the only staffer willing to contradict the received wisdom and spineless advice of pollsters and focus groups. So naturally she lost every battle on every issue while I was watching, which wasn’t always anymore because I missed Sorkin’s speed-freak sermons, his Keystone Kops deployment of these frantic motormouths, and his savage eye on their self-destructive arrogance. If I wanted to see principles betrayed, I could open a window, and then a vein.
Of course, although The West Wing began in the last year of squishy Clinton, it shortly turned into a bedtime story, a religious retreat, an analgesic, and an alternative reality to the Bushies. Imagine a series that wore its progressive politics on its operatic sleeve and sang arias in its very first two weeks about abortion, health care, medium-range missiles, condoms in the schools, anti-Semitism, and the Christian right. There was even an Alger Hiss pumpkin joke. What happened? Well, 9/11, after which cowards had an alibi. The sky fell down on the media conglomerates, and every Chicken Little turned into a Tiny Tim.
But wait a minute. They are still shouting more than they used to, their faces clenched like fists, but Jed Bartlet, while waiting for Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits to join the cast, has decided on his lonesome to go all-out for U.S. peacekeepers in an internationalized Jerusalem. And if that weren’t already too regressively progressive for the wing-nuts, he is also replacing Leo as chief of the White House staff with—not Toby (Richard Schiff), nor Josh, though both have been maneuvering like Slinkys—but with C.J., the last leftie. Unlikely, yes. But less so than what we have to look at now on the nightly news, a form of extreme dodgeball. With the Statue of Liberty whispering sweet scruples into Bartlet’s ear, maybe Eleanor Roosevelt’s not so dead after all. So, incorrigibly, I hope. Otherwise, the case for economic and social justice will have just vanished from the screen, like hockey.