By Mark Harris
Updated December 07, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
The West Wing: Mitch Haddad

Once good, then not so good, then unbearable, and finally aimless, The West Wing, NBC’s upscale-demographic hit about life in a fictional Democratic presidential administration, has been bogged down for so long in yammeringly repetitive story lines and very special episodes in the dreary template of ER (C.J. goes home! Donna gets car-bombed!) that, until recently, it seemed as likely to expire as a bill that gets pocket vetoed. For the last couple of years — during which creator Aaron Sorkin burned out from creating his signature rat-a-tat prattle on a deadline and exec producer John Wells took the reins — The West Wing has paid post-9/11 lip service to the Importance of Representing All Points of View and has earnestly voiced conservative ideas even within Martin Sheen’s White House. No wonder the Bartlet administration came to feel as focus-grouped and compromised as… network television.

All of which makes the show’s creative resurgence that much more surprising. This season, The West Wing has finally figured out what it’s about: an administration trying to hold on to power, thwart its foes, and accomplish its mission. In its waning months, President Bartlet’s reign is beset by a splintering staff, an uncooperative Congress, uncertainty over the next Democratic nominee, and fears about the president’s health and the VP’s intelligence (seems he confused Iran and Iraq ”just once”). No more moments of sinus-clogging idealism in which the actors almost sob with Emmy-moment rectitude; cranky, shaken, and calculating, this is a White House we can relate to. It’s a divider, not a uniter.

It is tempting to suggest that the Democratic Party should draw a lesson from this turnaround: Forget all that quasi-pragmatic advice about moving to the center and stay true to core principles! But the show hasn’t just rediscovered its politics; Wells has also come up with an outstanding plot twist that has replaced dictator-of-the-week mini-crises with genuine dramatic tension. Heart-attack-waiting-to-happen Leo McGarry (John Spencer) finally had that coronary — and, what do you know, it was C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), not dour Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), who got his chief of staff job. The shift in power has changed the dynamic of half a dozen relationships. Bartlet now has an inexperienced right-hand woman; C.J. has a taste of the benefits and headaches of power; Toby and deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), both soon to be unemployed, must rethink their ambitions. And seeing the always nuanced Janney and Schiff shake off their ruts and tear into their roles (and each other) with renewed vigor is a reminder that, freed from the sometimes tyrannical rhythms of Sorkin’s writing and the edge-dulling effects of playing the same notes for six years, much of this cast remains capable of great work.

Wells has also set up an election-season plotline that could carry the show through next November’s sweeps. Although Jimmy Smits, as a moderate Texas congressman, apparently has a holding deal with NBC that is roughly the equivalent of sweeping Super Tuesday’s primaries, watching him duke it out for the nomination with Gary Cole (always superb as the dim-bulb VP who’s also a crafty maneuverer) could give this show the week-to-week momentum it has often lacked. If the writers can contrive a way for Tim Matheson’s dark-souled ex-VP John Hoynes to become a player again, the dynamic could become so interesting that nobody could be blamed for fast-forwarding through the numbingly feeble romantic saga of Josh and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney); they already talk so quickly that there’d be no perceptible difference.

Back to the politics: They’d be easier to mock if there was, say, one other network drama that acknowledged a world beyond our borders (and yes, I have seen JAG, thank you for asking). One’s eyes may have rolled when President Bartlet created a road map to peace between Israel and Palestine in just two episodes, but the story line has helped bring the Middle East into the show, and the show into the real world. And when a recent hour focused in part on a fight over auto-emission pollution standards — well, I’d insert a joke about how nice it is to have at least one president who cares about the environment, but I wouldn’t want to sound too partisan. Thankfully, these days, The West Wing has no such fears.