It was in the sixth season that I made peace with the fact that post-Aaron Sorkin, "The West Wing" was never going to be sparkling, witty or hilarious ever again. Instead, in the second season of the John Wells administration, "The West Wing" settled into the tone that would carry it through to its finale -- self-serious, high-minded, often disappointingly over-extended (all things the Sorkin shows were as well) and leaden (something the Sorkin shows rarely were), but yet still more intelligent and thoughtful than just about anything else on TV.
Now new on DVD, the sixth season began with a jumbled bang -- President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) brokers a Middle East accord, Leo McGarry had a heart attack (tragically looking forward to actor John Spencer's real-life death late last year) and, in the season's most absurd (but dramatically fruitful) twist, C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) became Chief of Staff. However, the season finds its footing soon after with the introduction of the main candidates for President Bartlet's job -- Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), a Democrat from Texas, and California's Republican Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).
While the six-disc set includes a smattering of bonus features, the biggest advantage of owning the season is the ability to just about ignore anything that happened during the season in the White House. Yes, C.J.'s promotion gave Janney a chance to show off some dramatic chops and injected the popular character into an assortment of high-pressure new situations. Yes, the return of the President's M.S. let Sheen do possibly his best work yet, trying to be the world's most powerful man, while being incapable of movement. And yes, Spencer's storyline featured some great acting that has risen to the level of heartbreaking thanks to tragic events. But never has the show's weekly national or international crisis-of-the-week structure seemed so superficial and pointless.
On the campaign trail, though, the season was alive and insightful, offering the best glimpse of the primary process this side of Robert Altman's classic "Tanner." That the writers and directors were able to make episodes on ethanol subsidies seem alive is impressive and "2162 Votes" -- the finale set against the Democratic convention -- was one of the series' best. In Santos, the writers created a policy wonk who you'd follow into battle, while Vinick was the dream Republican that even people to the far left couldn't help but admire.
The DVDs feature a trio of commentaries by an assortment of writers, producers and directors, all impressively mechanical, in-depth and silence free. The featurette "C.J. Cregg: From Press Secretary to Chief of Staff" offers little insight unless you figured that Allison Janney's co-stars hate her. If so, you'll be shocked to discover that she's respected and adored by all. The only other bonus is an easily found Easter egg conversion with Spencer, a touching sight that probably should have been moved to the center of the packaging out of admiration for the late actor.
STUDIO: Warner Bros.
RELEASE DATE: May 9
TIME: 949 minutes
DVD EXTRAS: Episodic commentaries; "C.J. Cregg: From Press Secretary to Chief of Staff"; John Spencer conversation Easter egg
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The White House stuff was a bore, but the campaign episodes are worth watching
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