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Of Loss, and Moving on: Thoughts on The West Wing

Of Loss, and Moving on: Thoughts on The West Wing

Most of the great stories ever told involve, on some level, dealing with loss. Hell, most of the pretty good ones, too. It’s an essential part of the human experience: how does loss change you? Is it possible to replace what’s gone? How do you learn to move on? That familiar cycle of loss and grief and struggle lies at the heart of Believe in Me.

It gets trickier, though, when what’s been lost is the story’s writer.

The Mrs. and I have spent part of this spring making our way through all seven seasons of The West Wing. The first four seasons—whose scripts were almost entirely penned by series creator Aaron Sorkin—comprise in my view some of the finest writing ever to grace the small screen. Dialogue crackles and sings as the characters populating the White House of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet hurtle through the hallways of the West Wing like meteors spitting off sparks. You believe in this world, these people, as fervently as they believe in their own frequently-challenged convictions.

And then Sorkin—like most of the greats, as human and flawed as any of his characters—flamed out, with drugs, ego and need for control all appearing to contribute to his ouster as showrunner and head writer after season four.

When season five began in fall 2003, I boycotted in protest, and never watched another episode in first run. Never mind any perceived injustice—Sorkin gave these characters life. To hand them over to other, inevitably inferior writers was a travesty in my eyes.

A decade later, though, curiosity finally got to me. What had ever happened to those characters I loved? What new roads had those other writers taken them down during those final three seasons, and where did those roads end? And, purely from the perspective of craftsmanship, how noticeable was the difference after Sorkin departed?

To the latter I can now testify, very noticeable. Not only were the scripts in season five—the consensus weakest of the series—slower, they lacked confidence. Sorkin’s best scripts had a swagger to them, a visceral “you-think-I-wouldn’t-go-there-well-I-just-did(-and-made-you-laugh-or-cry)” edge that elevated them above anything else on television. Season five was, for the most part, drab and grouchy and full of internal conflicts that felt out of sync with the characters we had come to know so well.

Fortunately, toward the end of season five the new writing team seemed to find its feet, and also began to introduce new characters and elements. In the process, they did something few TV series do, acknowledging the passage of time and bending the arc of their story accordingly, steadily moving major characters out of their old jobs and into new ones inside and outside the White House, while steadily shifting the focus of the series toward the campaign to succeed Jed Bartlet.

The three seasons made after Sorkin left rarely match (and never exceed) the level of the work he did on the first four seasons of The West Wing; his takes on these characters will always be the definitive ones. Still—and with apologies to my Twitter friend @sorkinese, who urged me not to cross the Rubicon into season five—watching these old friends live on beyond their creator has been interesting and often worthwhile.

Maybe I was more open to it now after my experiences following the death of another writer I admire, Robert B. Parker. While the writers who took over his Jesse Stone and Cole/Hitch series have floundered, Ace Atkins’ take on Parker’s iconic Spenser series has been terrific, showing just what’s possible under these sorts of circumstances. Whether or not fans choose to consider these post-Parker Spenser stories as canon, they unquestionably entertain, and extend the lifespan of the world that Parker created.

There is a certain purity to the idea of a character only living inside his or her creator’s imagination. But once we let our characters are out in the world, they belong to the audience as well. And sometimes, for better or for worse, the audience wants more.

Comments (2)

  • heather adham

    Jason-- I (too) mourned the sudden death of one of my favorite authors, Robert B Parker and our friends Spencer and Hawk. I had no idea another writer had revived them so thank you for making my day! I cant wait to find them and settle in to a good Spencer story-- YAY! Heather

    • Jason Warburg

      Thanks, Heather. Yes indeed, Ace Atkins is an avowed Spenser fan and an excellent writer, and his new Spenser stories have the flavor of Parker circa 1980 -- the earlier, somewhat grittier stuff, that is, with more detail in the writing and greater nuance to the characters. Give it a try! Best, Jason

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