Why ''West Wing'''s third season ended badly. For starters, says Bruce Fretts, consider the predictable crises, convoluted plotting, and outright plagiarism
Mark Harmon, Allison Janney, ...
Credit: The West Wing: Eric Liebowitz

Why ”West Wing”’s third season ended badly

In recent weeks, as I’ve grown increasingly underwhelmed by the profoundly disappointing third season of ”The West Wing,” I’ve seen numerous postings on the message boards along the lines of, ”If you hate the show so much, why do you write about it every week?” To which my response is: ”If you hate my column so much, why do you read it every week?” Hey, at least I get paid for this gig.

Believe it or not, when I accepted this assignment, I didn’t think, ”Oh, goody, now I can trash ‘The West Wing’ every week!” In fact, if you look back, I was one of the few critics in America who didn’t thoroughly loathe the speechifying, terrorism-themed season premiere. I tried to accentuate the positive for as long as I could, but eventually, the show’s chronic shortcomings just wore me down.

Still, I was hoping the May 22 finale, ”Posse Comitatus,” might redeem the season. On the bright side, it did mark the end of the series’ most embarrassing subplot ever: the painfully coy flirtation between Presidential press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) and Simon Donovan (Mark Harmon), the Secret Service agent assigned to protect her from an unknown stalker.

But the allegedly tragic ”twist” proved laughable. After Simon informed her that the assailant was in custody, C.J. took the opportunity to plant one on him, now that their professional relationship no longer precluded it. You’d think she’d want to know the identity of the guy who’d been threatening to murder her, but C.J. was too googly-eyed to ask.

As soon as Simon stumbled into the middle of a convenience-store robbery and apprehended the apparently lone perpetrator, I turned to my wife and said, ”I bet he’s got a partner who’s going to kill Simon.” (I swear this is true; you can ask her.) Then — bang! — it happened. If a lowly TV critic like me knows you should always check to make sure a collar is working solo before holstering your weapon, wouldn’t a veteran Secret Service agent have known that?

Yet that was only one of the episode’s many weak spots. There was also the oddly affected guest performance by James Brolin as Florida governor Robert Ritchie, the George W. Bush dope-elganger who’ll oppose President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in next season’s election.

There was the torturous plotting employed to set up the addition of Mary-Louise Parker and Lily Tomlin to the cast next fall. Parker’s Amy Gardner is losing her job with a feminist group over a welfare-bill vote — gee, do you think she might get a position with boyfriend Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) at the White House? And Tomlin will no doubt be hired as Bartlet’s new executive assistant, even though she showed up for her interview ”stoned” (to quote Dule Hill’s Charlie).

Finally, there was the dramatic denouement, in which the Prez ordered the Bahamian assassination of a terrorist while taking in a Broadway show. It would’ve been a bold storytelling stroke if the concept of cross-cutting between an enemy’s elimination and a grand theatrical performance hadn’t been lifted without attribution from ”The Godfather Part III.” If Aaron Sorkin had to steal from a ”Godfather” movie, couldn’t he have picked a good one?

What did you think of the third season of ”The West Wing’?

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