Having started life as an overrated, hugely popular show, The West Wing is ending its existence as an underrated, widely forgotten show. Last night’s episode took a ripped-from-the-headlines election scenario (an election turns out to be much closer than the sketchy exit polls suggested) and upped the drama through the unfortunate necessity of writing off the late John Spencer (his character, vice presidential candidate Leo McGarry, dies on election day, raising the prospect of a crisis of succession). But the show pulled in barely over 7 million viewers, putting it in fourth place among viewers 18 to 49.
It’s sad to say it, but Spencer’s death has enabled the writers to pull off a tough feat: writing a finish to an election even more exciting than the ones reality has provided the last couple go-rounds. It also offers them a reasonable excuse to do the conventional TV thing, but for unconventional reasons: to let the show’s Democrat central characters end the winners, because it would provide the more dramatic scenario, namely, what do you do when the vice-president-elect dies while being elected? (The writers have already done the conventional audience-pleasing thing by finally getting Donna and Josh in bed after seven years, so clearly they’re inclined to give their base–those few viewers left–what it wants.)
That’s not to say that’s where the show is going for sure. It’s only early April, and a long drawn-out legal battle would not only be precedented but dramatically irresistable, especially with the VP vacancy. The preview of next week’s episode left that as a possibility, showing Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick with just over 200 electoral votes each in the night’s tally, raising the possibility that it could all come down to a photo finish, possibly decided by California, Republican Vinick’s home state but usually a Democratic bastion. (It was thrown in contention by an accident at a nuclear-power plant Vinick had supported, for the millions of you West Wing exiles.)
California actually becoming the crucial swing state in a close election? Now that’s a political fantasy everyone in Hollywood can get behind.