The West Wing, Season 3

After spending some time away from these incredibly idealistic characters, and then spending a really long time getting to know them again — I think it took me over 6 months to get through this season, and not because I wasn’t interested in it! — the changing face of television really came to light. We don’t have characters like Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) on television anymore. We certainly don’t have Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen). Of course, I’m grateful for this work of art that Sorkin threw together, and I still have a hard time believing it was compiled under the influence of drugs, even though I know it’s true. Maybe I’ve gotten more cynical. Maybe television’s gotten more cynical. Maybe we’re all more cynical than we were when this came out. If it were on the air today, it’d probably get chewed out by the A.V. Club for how pearly-white it is.

This season had so many great moments. Really gut-wrenching, serious, beautiful moments. C.J.’s (Allison Janney) doomed romance with Simon Donovan, a.k.a. Gibbs from NCIS, a.k.a. Mark Harmon, was truly something. Watching Donna (Janel Moloney) stand up to Josh throughout the season was truly something. Watching Toby (Richard Schiff) soften up was truly something. Those three actors, in particular, delivered the goods. They made us understand why they’re worth rooting for. In fact, more so than the politics, this season really stood out because it was wrought with emotion from the characters that we wanted to see vulnerable. Everyone seemed to take a risk in their personal lives, only to have it fail, which grounded the otherwise (aforementioned) idealism rampant throughout the series. As I said, C.J. gave it a shot with her bodyguard — and then he died. Donna tried to make it work with a lawyer opposing the President. Toby hit on the Poet Laureate (Laura Dern, in an impossibly, stupidly free-spirited role). Josh hooked up with an uber-feminist (Mary-Louise Parker). And Sam, for the first time, really railed on people. He started showing some ‘tude, especially in the episode “100,000 Airplanes.” It may have been Rob Lowe’s actual attitude emerging, or the inklings of him wanting to leave because being first-billed on the most popular show at the time was not enough for him.

Yet, when I put all of this emotional risk-taking in perspective, it’s hard not to recognize that Bartlet’s White House is made up of versions of the same person. (Except for Leo. Leo is a rock.) Everyone is a slight variation or alternate reflection of Sorkin’s own personality. Sorkin managed to figure out that he and his impulses were interesting enough to cloak with a story about American government. And it makes for exciting television — the lingo is all believable, the scenes are high-stakes, the music is perfect. You can’t watch this show and not be emotionally invested. I want to see Josh stop being an asshole to Donna and realize that she runs his life. I want to see Bartlet feel confident in a decision he makes. I want to see Toby and C.J. hook up, for some reason. And I want to see more of what made this show visually interesting — what’s unsaid on Toby’s face, what’s in the background during the walk-and-talks. I want more stunning episodes like “Two Bartlets.”

But I doubt that I’ll be able to lose myself in this world anymore, knowing that it’s too good to be true. Knowing that the overwhelming white male majority of characters is infuriating, but also probably an accurate reflection of Washington. Knowing that titles don’t really matter; they’re all just advisors to the President in some capacity. Knowing that politics can’t really be about qualifications anymore. Knowing that, after the “special episode,” which featured talking-heads moments from the likes of Bill Clinton, Leon Panetta, Dee Dee Myers, and many more, things got really prime-timey and soapy and suspenseful and atonal. Knowing that the next season will be the last one I’ll remotely enjoy, because Sorkin will have moved on thereafter. Knowing that it’s not an escape, but a distraction. It’s time for another long break from the good guys. Here’s hoping the cynicism will fade by the time I get around to Season 4.