This was actually going to be a review of my rewatch of Season 3 of The West Wing, but I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge that this seems to have dropped tonight, and it’s real. Let’s just contemplate that for a moment.
That was kind of great, wasn’t it?
So my West Wing rewatch sort of began by accident. I have two tons of DVDs that I never watch, and it seemed like I should pare them down a little, which is still a less intimidating job than writing cover letters and setting up informational interviews. What I’ve learned is that Desperately Seeking Susan is still perfect, but The Illusionist, unfortunately, is not. I’m never getting rid of my West Wing box sets: that’s not the point. But when I return to episodes, they’re usually in the first two seasons. (Isn’t it a shame that show ended after Season 4? Maybe someday I’ll push through the non-Sorkin seasons, since I hear it got sort of good again towards the end, but for now, I’ll stick with what I’ve got.)
Here’s what I’ve learned from watching Season 3 in mumblemumble a few days.
Plot-wise, it doesn’t quite have the punch that One and Two have, but that’s because it’s doing something different, and messier. The season begins with the president’s announcement that he’s running for reelection, just after he finally discloses his multiple sclerosis to the public. Everyone is angry, and the ensemble stays angry, and that makes for a lot of stumbles. So much of the first half of this season is simply about forgiveness and winning back trust, which is a hard drama to write and sustain. This is a problem for the show that warps the way everyone behaves, and isn’t easy to spot right away, or to untangle. Even the end, which is the run-up to the decision to assassinate a foreign leader, is about compromise and messiness. I think Sorkin manages it, but it’s a tough ride for the audience.
I had forgotten, however, the glorious characters we get in Season 3. Mary-Louise Parker as Amy Gardner is stunning, stunning, stunning. I love her. I love her forever. That she owns a basset hound further endears her to me, but really, she’s someone who goes for what she wants and isn’t punished for it by the narrative. (You could argue that the end of the final episode does so, in which she loses a fight in Congress with Josh and resigns from her leadership role at the Women’s Leadership Coalition, but the thing is, Amy is a professional. Sorkin loves professional people, and so do I. Amy Gardner is far from done, and she’s always prepared to own what she does.)
Bruno Gianelli (Ron Silver) is perfection. He’s so in control, and so ahead of everyone else, and he’s a character type that, in the hands of a lesser actor, would have been Toby Ziegler-lite, but I can’t take my eyes off him. He’s a kind of competence porn that doesn’t really get to be a hero — the electioneer, the pollster, the strategizer — and he’s a good guy. He moves in a cold-blooded way, but he also moves out of passion and hope, though you’ll have to get him to yell at someone (was it Leo? Josh?) to admit it.
So many great cameos and returning characters. Ainsley Hayes! Joey Lucas! Lord John Marbury! Evan Rachel Wood as C.J.’s niece; Connie Britton (Mrs. Coach!) as a brilliant election consultant; Laura Dern as the Poet Laureate; Clark Gregg as proto-Agent Coulson; Gibbs from NCIS as poor doomed tall handsome Agent Donovan. Dr. Abbey Bartlet, the one and only, who is magnificent. Nancy McNally, National Security Advisor and straight shooter of my heart. Admiral Fitzwallace, who really surprised me in the final few episodes; a soldier for 38 years indeed. Dr. Stanley Keyworth, who I’d be thrilled to have for a shrink. MARGARET.
The regular ensemble is of course excellent, but I have to say that John Spencer as Leo McGarry has totally floored me this time around. The things that man could do with his face without even saying a word are a gift, as is the chemistry he had with Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet. A complete natural. I’m so glad we had him.
This season has fewer bits that stand out in the same way as a secret plan to fight inflation or Cartographers for Social Equality, but we get a handful. Season 3 has the president calling the Butterball Hotline, and Lemon-Lyman.com, and the Charlie-C.J. prank war. Not to mention Bartlet’s first meeting with Gov. Ritchie: “By the way, in case you’re wondering — ‘Crime, boy, I don’t know’ is when I decided to kick your ass.”
I’m looking forward to Season 4, which I’m… probably starting as soon as I finish this and rustle up some dinner. But I’m glad I came back to Season 3. There’s plenty of magic left in the Bartlet White House yet.