But the series' repeated use of flashbacks is retarding its growth, says Bruce Fretts
John Spencer, The West Wing
Credit: The West Wing: David Rose

Falling off the wagon means a possible Emmy

Aaron Sorkin is suffering from a serious addiction. No, I’m not talking about the ”West Wing” creator’s recent, well-publicized drug problems. Aaron Sorkin is addicted to flashbacks.

Until now, he’s mostly limited his use of this storytelling device to season premieres and finales. Last year’s opener took us back to President Bartlet’s original election campaign, and the closer journeyed even further into the past, exploring Catholic schoolboy Jed’s disturbingly flirtatious relationship with his future secretary, Mrs. Landingham. This fall’s two-part kickoff confusingly jumped back and forth between the President’s reelection announcement in New Hampshire and later fallout at the White House.

On the Dec. 12 episode, ”Bartlet for America,” Sorkin went to the flashback well yet again. As Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) testified before the House committee investigating the President’s cover-up of his MS, we were treated to multiple scenes from his first campaign: Leo broaching the idea of a White House run to the then-New Hampshire governor (with Kathryn Joosten rematerializing as the now-deceased Mrs. Landingham); staffers Sam (Rob Lowe), Toby (Richard Schiff), and curly-haired C.J. (Allison Janney) tossing around ideas — and a basketball; Jed offering the VP spot and disclosing his disease to John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) at the convention; and Bartlet collapsing on the day of the last debate, while recovering alcoholic Leo is falling off the wagon in a hotel suite with a pair of potential donors.

There was nothing wrong with these individual scenes. In fact, the Leo-centric episode seems destined to win Spencer a supporting-actor Emmy, just as Josh’s breakdown last Christmas sealed a victory for Bradley Whitford. The problem is that Sorkin’s incessant use of flashbacks keeps the show stuck in the past when it should be moving on to the future. What’s up with the reelection campaign? It’s been weeks since we’ve seen the intriguing new staffers played by Ron Silver, Connie Britton, and Evan Handler. If these flights of time travel were part of a larger narrative plan by Sorkin, they might be more acceptable. But the scribe takes pride in having no idea where the season is heading, so it merely feels like he’s falling back on tried-and-true small-screenwriting tricks.

Unfortunately, Sorkin’s shoddy treatment of female characters (discussed in my last column) continued in this episode. C.J. was given nothing to do except throw a basketball through a window; Donna (Janel Moloney) was told by an FBI agent that he’d be hitting on her if he weren’t so busy; and Leo kept asking out his high-priced lawyer (Joanna Gleason), who finally accepted his dinner invitation. But hey, at least she didn’t do it during a flashback.

What do you think of the flashbacks on ”The West Wing”?

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