I know Allison Janney has won a couple of Emmy awards, but did The West Wing’s executive producer John Wells have to promote her character, press secretary C.J. Cregg, to the new post of Conscience of the Nation? A few weeks ago, C.J. was lecturing John Spencer’s chief of staff Leo about the polluting effects of coal (”Clean coal is an industry myth!”); the week before that, C.J. was on Leo’s case again when a visiting North Korean pianist signaled a desire to defect to the United States, and the Bartlet administration’s response was, in effect, ”Please, kid, we got enough problems just trying to give Dule Hill a couple of lines every month.” Still, C.J. pressed on: ”If we don’t allow this defection,” she said, ”if we blithely exploit this young man…then I don’t know who we are anymore!”
Remember when C.J. was just the smart-as-a-whip, flirty-but-flinty gal who protected President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) from all of those White House press jackals? Now she gangs up on him when the poor Commander-in-Chief is rattled about the emotional recovery of his recently kidnapped daughter and about his fraying marriage. ”I need you back,” says the new, pushy C.J. ”I need you to lead.”
Hey, C.J. – I need you to back off, sister. You’re only helping to turn ”The Wing” – which had already become, during creator Aaron Sorkin’s burn-the-bridges final season, a chilly haven for chatty underlings debating policy – into a warm, touchy-feely show about how important it is that everyone on the staff have a say in that policy. Sorkin’s departure is noticeable in small but significant ways. For example, he certainly would have had C.J. use (as she did on the Nov. 5 episode, teleplay credited to ”Friends” vet Alexa Junge) the word schadenfreude in casual conversation with Janel Moloney’s Donna; he would not, however, have had Donna look at her blankly and then have C.J. define the word for her and, by extension, the viewing audience. Say what you will about Sorkin as a control-freak dramaturge who often wrote single-note plays instead of multivoiced television scripts, but at least he didn’t condescend to his audience.
Wells and Co. (he’s enlisted ”China Beach”’s John Sacret Young and rehired Lawrence O’Donnell as ”consulting producers”) have done an odd thing: They’ve made the show dumber yet more obscure; more soapy yet more policy-wonky. It’s impossible to believe that Bradley Whitford’s Josh, under fire for pushing a key Democrat (Tom Skerritt) over to the Republican Party, would demonstrate his unsinkable resolve by getting out of a car and yelling at the Capitol building ”Hey, you want a piece of me? I’m standin’ right here – come on!” You’re not going to win back former fans of this show by forcing a good guy like Whitford to say lines that sound recycled from Dustin Hoffman in ”Midnight Cowboy” (Ratso Rizzo to taxicab: ”Hey, I’m walking here!”). It’s moments like this that make me wonder whether Sorkin and Rob Lowe, currently licking his wounds from ‘The Lyon’s Den,” sit around on Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. eating popcorn in front of the TV and chortling, ”Can you believe they had Leo say ‘The President just went AWOL’? Spencer must be having a cow at the table reads!”
Really, if it weren’t for the professionalism of the cast, you’d think ”The West Wing” had turned into its own ”Saturday Night Live” parody. Sorkin’s once-famous ”walk-and-talk” dialogue exchanges are now metacommentaries on the show itself.
Josh: ”You’re forgetting the beauty of the federal budget process.”
Donna: ”What’s that?”
Josh: ”No one understands it!”
I suppose Wells wants us to understand everything, so he has his White House reflect issues that viewers can identify with more readily. Thus the staff whines righteously about the big, bad Republicans whittling away at college-tuition aid and funding for violence against women – this ain’t, praise the Lord, that Qumar quagmire Sorkin led us into. A year ago, I wrote in a piece for these pages that ”The West Wing” was very much the vision of one man, and at that point Sorkin’s vision had become blurred. Now, under the clear-eyed sight of Wells, ”Wing” is a drama that seems hashed out by committee. At one point this season, Richard Schiff’s Toby yearns for the Democratic goals of old. ”Where’s our Great Society?” he yelps. ”Where’s our New Frontier?” Indeed: Where is ”The West Wing”’s new focus? If it’s C.J.’s recent, unwarranted boldness, I say there’s such a thing as being too small-d democratic.