NEW YORK — A cherished and beloved American institution is at a crossroads and potentially facing disaster. Yes, it seems like it might be sturdy now - sturdier than some of its critics give it credit for. Still, some major changes in direction need to happen under bold leadership so those who have come to depend on it won't be plunged into utter crisis.
I'm talking, of course, about "The West Wing". (Yes, I know what you were thinking, but unless Social Security gets mentioned on "Alias," it's not going in the column.) After the last few seasons in the wilderness, the show has gotten a new lease on life with a series of episodes about the upcoming presidential election. But though the season finale has left viewers with emotions that they haven't felt in a while, like excitement, suspense, and anticipation, it's sad to say that snatching victory from the jaws of defeat - or, more precisely, interest from the jaws of ennui - has always been a difficulty for the show.
Remember when the president's daughter was kidnapped at the end of the season and Bartlett stepped down, leaving a Republican in charge of the Democratic White House? Who could forget? Remember how the whole thing resolved itself? Me neither.
"The West Wing" has been a great show, and a good show, and a mediocre show. It has the potential to be a great show again, and, in that spirit, I assembled a blue ribbon fact finding commission to come up with some suggestions for how to ensure that it does so. I've condensed their findings for you here; I know you're all busy.
First and foremost - and I can't stress this enough - elect Vinick. Jimmy Smits fans, put away those poison pens; Smits is a good actor and he's done fine work, though he's shined more notably elsewhere, like on NYPD Blue.
Still, if he's elected the show will be just treading water with a younger Bartlett clone - and do we really need more of the same? If Vinick becomes president, on the other hand, we're in genuinely unexpected territory. Everything becomes surprising - how does this moderate Republican reach out to his more radical party? What does his cabinet look like? It's all new, and when you've been running a show this long, new is good.
For Democratic fans who like seeing one of their own in the White House - and for whom Josiah Bartlett is the last remaining sign of the days when the Democrats used to have control of things - just a quick reminder: this is a television show. Speaking for myself, I'll take a show that's interesting over a show that's right on policy every time. (I'd also take a presidential administration that's dull and unlikable over one that's wrong on policy every time, but that's another column as well.)
Of course, if Vinick is elected, that begs the question: what about the rest of the cast? How are these Democratic staffers going to continue in a Republican administration? Are they going to remain on the show? Which leads me to my next suggestion: let's throw C.J. in jail. And Toby, too.
I'm not hard-hearted; in fact, Alison Janney and Richard Schiff should be delighted, since it's the best way to keep them on the cast. Administrations come and go, but policy scandals and investigations can last forever.
It also gets the characters out of the White House and lets us see another side of them - but not the cloying sides that came out of those "special family" episodes, which basically screamed "Please give me an Emmy!". Instead, we'll be witness to two seasoned political operatives fighting tooth and claw for their own personal and professional lives. And not just to get another bill passed, either; it's the closest thing to the adrenalin rush "24" delivers on a week to week basis you could possibly get on this kinder, gentler show.
Would this sort of scandal possibly be a realistic source of interest or discussion to characters in a series set in a Republican White House? Two words for you: Monica Lewinsky.
And as for the other characters? Let's see Josh and Donna finally get together and go off for a long-deserved vacation somewhere quiet. Let's see a wedding on the Rose Garden grounds between Zoe and Charlie. And let's then, for goodness' sake, see them off the airwaves. It's time for a new guard.
Sure, we love these guys, but in recent months and years it's been guest stars like Marlee Matlin, Evan Handler, Ron Silver, John Goodman, Stephen Culp, and others that have added a frisson of interest to the staling emotional dynamics in the current cast. Before we fall into "Will and Grace" territory - a dying show which relies solely on a constant infusion of guest star blood - take advantage of the opportunity to create an entirely new cast. Well, mostly new, at any rate; some old faces might be nice to see. Case in point: Emily Procter is willing to reprise her Ainsley Hayes character? She was a Republican, after all.
There are plenty of other possibilities, but this should be enough to get things started. Let's build a bridge to the new season and make the West Wing great again.
Thank you very much, and I hope I have your vote. Especially if you're an executive producer of the West Wing.