Perhaps no show better embodies the importance of a stable creative hand at the helm than "The West Wing." The brainchild of Aaron Sorkin, "Wing" premiered in 1999 to critical and audience acclaim. It brought Sorkin's reckless idealism, rapid-fire, reference heavy dialogue and characters who aimed high and often fell short to a political setting, and in addition to tackling big issues also presented personal triumphs and tragedies for its characters. Boasting what may someday be regarded as the best ensemble cast in history, the show let these actors cut loose and sink their teeth into tremendous parts and scripts. I mean, honestly - before "Wing" who knew Rob Lowe was so good?
Then came the September 11 attacks, and (as cliche and ass-clownish as it is to say "9/11 changed everything") it certainly changed "The West Wing." The light-hearted element was gone. The show took a more dramatic stance and delved into multi-episode arcs about terrorist plots, overseas military engagements and wrestled with issues like torture, spying and pre-emptive military action. Essentially, it was still good, but it wasn't "The West Wing" of Seasons 1 and 2. Rob Lowe left, but Sorkin-alum Josh Malina took his place, adding a new voice and new dynamic. Things still hummed along.
Another blow (no pun intended, Mr. Sorkin) was dealt when, after Season 4, Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme left the series. Who cares why they did it, the result was that the show was suddenly without its voice and guiding hand. Season 5 was uneasy, as new writers tried first to duplicate the Sorkin style, but towards the end they began to come into their own.
Season 6 was the closest thing to the show's glory days we had seen in years. Instead of aping Sorkin, the writers were doing a quasi-Sorkin show, but without his tendency to preach too much and simplify issues. The producers also gave the show a shot in the arm by beginning to focus on the campaign to succeed Bartlet. Jimmy Smits, Ed O'Neill, Patricia Richardson, Stephen Root and the incomparable Alan Alda all came on the show in this re-election storyline while the old war horses of the White House continued their work.
Season 7 was the swan song, and a disappointing one at that. Not all of it could be helped. John Spencer, the brilliant actor behind Leo McGarry, died at mid-season and forced rewrites and changes to the story. But Season 7 was more reminiscent of the uneasy time of Season 5. Producers were unsure at first if they were wrapping up a series or laying the groundwork for a new run with a new president. They did recover at the end, however, offering a finale that was a very nice cap on seven years of great TV.
So, how do we rate "The West Wing?" Is it TV's greatest drama? No. It's not even Aaron Sorkin's best TV work (that honor belongs to "Sports Night.") However, it is a strong series that boasted strong writing for four seasons and an incredibly talented cast for all seven. It will surely rank as one of TV's best dramas and is without a doubt the career highlight for its cast.