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The West Wing: Time for the Republican to Win One

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In politics,
you dump bad news at the weekend, and that was what NBC did with the expected
announcement that The West Wing will end after this season. The quality of the
often-sanctimonious drama has actually improved inversely with its ratings, the
show was invigorated by the campaign between Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Matt
Santos (Jimmy Smits) to succeed the Bartlet administration, which has provided a
much-needed new conflict. But the viewers never followed the show to Sunday
nights, and now it’s officially a lame duck.

The network
has given no hint how the show will end, but there’s only one choice that makes
sense: let Vinick, the Republican challenger, win. I’m casting this vote for
dramatic, not political reasons. It would provide politically believable
closure; rather than transition from one Democratic administration to another,
it would give the characters a chance to clean out their desks and reflect with
the audience. One weakness of the show has always been that it is too easy on its
lead characters in the end—it has always existed in a dream world where their
Democratic ideals could always ultimately be sold to the public with a
principled stand and a well-written speech. The Bartlet administration has been
challenged, but never seriously repudiated—Bartlet was re-elected almost
comically easy, against a dimwitted strawman played by James Brolin.

After two
terms, it would been rewarding to put the cast in a position they’ve never
really been in: seeing their party rejected by the voters (as all parties
eventually are) and having to ask: what have we accomplished in eight years?
(OK, seven in TV time.) It might be a turnoff to the original fans who tune in
for the finale expecting some reliable Democratic wish-fulfillment. But by having
its dedicated team come out on the bottom for once, The West Wing can go out on
top.

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