The West Wing Season 3
The third season of The West Wing sees the show at a crossroads in its narrative. The major story arc for the second season is focused on Jeb Barlet’s failure to disclose his MS condition to the public and the ramifications this has on running for a second term as president. In some ways, I saw this albatross around Bartlet’s neck as comparable to Bill Clinton’s indiscretions in The White House. Here was a guy that was generally popular, liberal and well liked but with a pretty major Achilles’s Heel that can potentially taint his legacy. I can definitely see parallels between Aaron Sorkin’s political beliefs and those of Bill Clinton, not to mention their attitudes towards women.
So in the planning stages of writing the third season of the show, I’m sure the intention was to focus it primarily on running for a second term and battling candidates from both the Republican party as well as a potential challenge from Vice President Hoynes. Then 9/11 happened.
I can appreciate that despite the best intentions for the show to not have to mirror the events of real life, there would be too much pressure from the producers not to cover terrorism related events on a show about The White House which aired in 2001/2002. So the show takes a sharp right turn and introduces a fictional Middle Eastern country Qumar that potentially has ties to terrorism and further to that, there is a death threat made against White House correspondent CJ Cregg when she criticizes attitudes towards women in Saudi Arabia.
As a result, Season Three doesn’t quite have the focus and vision of the Second Season but happily, it still retains its razor sharp quality and there are some really strong episodes this season. Not unlike the first two seasons, I enjoyed seeing the parallels between the politics of The West Wing and how they relate to modern American politics. In the season’s two part episode Manchester, Josh Lyman’s obsession with getting accurate polling numbers from potential voters on the viability of Bartlet running for a second term is interesting after the most recent election cycle where Nate Silver and the Democrats’ ability to use accurate polling data to predict which states they would win was a major talking point.
Likewise, I enjoyed Toby Ziggler’s impassioned speech to Jeb Bartlet on not running a campaign as a common, ordinary man. In the season finale, Jeb’s opponent Governor Christie attends a baseball game on the same night that Bartlet attends the theatre and he uses the occasion to try and pin Bartlet as an elitist while Christie identifies himself as being in touch with the common man. This ‘culture war’ is still very much alive in presidential politics today which is why we always had to put up with the weird sight of Mitt Romney always wearing jeans and Rick Santorum’s bizarre allegation that Obama is a ‘snob’ for wanting people to aspire for a college education.
My favourite episodes this season are probably Gone Quiet (a U.S submarine goes dark in the waters near North Korea) and We Killed Yamamoto (the Administration believes that the Qumari defence minister might be a terrorist) as they both present a great moral dilemma for Bartlet to act upon. Those moments remain my favourite part of the show.
For whatever reason, the show still maintains its rather jarring trend of dropping characters cold so after a few episodes where we get used to the presence of Abbey Bartlet and Ainsley Hayes, they just disappear without much explanation. Likewise, after a prolonged absense, Admiral Fitzwallace magically reappears in the scenes involving the military council. I’m guessing these are just unavoidable scheduling conflicts for the actors so what can you do?
Lastly, the show remains a total blue-baller for the romantic developments. Josh doesn’t end up with his assistant Donna and instead starts dating Amy Gardner (played by Mary Louise Parker), the head of an organization championing women’s rights. Likewise CJ Cregg develops a romantic interest in her bodyguard after Danny Concannon does a disappearing act. Neither of these are the relationships that I think the audience want to see but I guess at this stage, Sorkin is taking a ‘treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen’ approach.
After an abysmal 24th season of Survivor which saw a very predictable post-merge game that was dominated by one player, this season has been a fantastic return to form. I know there are still a few episodes to play but I’m comfortable in calling this as one of the most competitively played seasons since the show’s inception. There are almost no pawns at this stage and there are eight contestants left. I think Carter is the only hapless player who isn’t really playing politics and is along for the ride. Otherwise, it is a red hot race for the $1,000,000 and it could really end up with anyone.
The highlight of the show for me has been Jonathan Penner who has scrambled like crazy to avoid being voted out in the last three weeks. On the first week he finally won his first ever immunity challenge and was safe from the vote. The next week he wisely used his hidden immunity idol and deflected the votes cast against him. And finally, last week, he managed to convince one person in the other alliance to change their vote, meaning that he survived the chop by a single vote. It’s been a fantastic underdog story to watch and I hope he stays in the mix.
The remaining players at this stage are a healthy balance of ambitious newcomers (Denise, Malcolm), crazy people (good old Abi) and returning stars (Skupin).