Last night, NBC broadcast the series finale of The West Wing, and as a nice bookend before the finale, they aired the show’s pilot episode. Watching the first and last episodes of the show back-to-back really accentuated just how much the show had changed over its seven-year run, and honestly, it probably wasn’t a very fair thing to do to the series finale. The finale was good; the pilot was superb.
The biggest difference between the two episodes, to my total lack of surprise, was in the dialogue. I think we can all accept it as understood at this point that Aaron Sorkin-penned dialogue is going to be far better than dialogue written by… well, just about anybody else, and it’s certainly true that the writing in the finale is far from Sorkin-esque. As good as the last episode was, there were absolutely no truly memorable lines of dialogue, nothing that’s going to hang around in the viewer’s head later for further rumination or stick in the cultural consciousness. Certainly nothing that stuck out like President Bartlet’s “Get your fat asses out of my White House” line from the pilot (and yes, I realize that the line by itself doesn’t read all that well, but when it was delivered by Martin Sheen  in context, it was blistering, I’ve gotta tell you).
Watching that first episode, what really stuck out as much as the quality of the dialogue itself was the speed with which it was delivered; I’d almost forgotten how rapidly the words shot out of these characters’ mouths, as if the words themselves were coated in hot sauce and the actors needed to get them out as quickly as possible. Gilmore Girls is the only other show I know of that’s able to cram so many words into a single episode. Watching the cast deal with Sorkin’s words was always a treat, and the fact that that level of exquisite verbal gymnastics wasn’t required of them in the final episodes almost feels like a waste of their talents.
As I said a few days ago, the last few episodes certainly weren’t bad, but the finale definitely suffered in retrospect after we watched the pilot. (Thanks to the wonders of the DVR, we watched the finale before the pilot, the opposite of the order in which NBC aired them.) Those last few episodes were saved mostly by virtue of a compelling situation (peering behind the curtain at the transition between presidencies) and the abilities of the still-excellent cast. The finale was able to provide a couple of nice moments between characters (especially nice was the moment between Bartlet and Charlie, and the return of one particularly significant bit of WW mythology), but I was left feeling that I didn’t get the closure I needed with most of these characters.
Y’know, this might seem a funny thing to say about a show that won the Emmy award for Best Drama four times, but what was really missing from those last few Sorkin-free episodes I saw was the sense of fun that the show had in the early years. Even at its talkiest and most intense, The West Wing still had a well-defined sense of humor when Sorkin was at the helm, and that humor was largely lacking as the show ended its run. Even Josh Lyman (the brilliant Bradley Whitford — more on him later today), who was always the funniest, most glib and most sarcastic of the main cast, spent too much time being overworked, tense and morose to show much wit. (Not even finally bagging Donna after all that time was able to bring his funny back.) I think that as much as anything else, it was the loss of that ability to effectively straddle the line between comedy and drama (an oh-so-Sorkin trait) that made The West Wing a lesser show at the end than it was at the beginning.
At its best, The West Wing presented a hyper-intelligent, idealistic, complicated, sometimes fractious group of people who desperately believed in the righteousness of what they were doing and sincerely believed their government could help make the lives of Americans — all Americans — better. They didn’t always make the best choices, but I never doubted that that their intentions were in the right place. The fact that the show managed this feat during a time when our real presidential administration seemed to be interested in helping only itself and the wealthiest one percent of the country made The West Wing that much more poignant to me — and pushed the show beyond comedy or drama and into fantasy instead. Many times I wished these were the people really running our country and that the White House’s current occupants were nothing but characters in a horror story.