"The West Wing" has reached its term limit.
After founding cast member John Spencer died last December, the makers of the much-honored NBC political drama debated whether to go forward. They ultimately opted to complete the season, so the much-honored White House saga ends its seven-year run Sunday, May 14.
It does so at an appropriate point, with President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) vacating the Oval Office as Democratic successor Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) prepares for Inauguration Day.
Original co-star Rob Lowe concludes his return stint, while fellow cast members who launched the series -- Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Dule Hill and Janel Moloney -- also get their hail-and-farewell moments in the finale. So do regulars who joined the show later, including Alan Alda, Kristin Chenoweth, Joshua Malina and Mary McCormack. An hourlong retrospective precedes the last episode.
"For me, it was going to end this season in any event," Sheen reflects. "The character was done. If the series went on, I would have been delighted [for Bartlet] to come back as some sort of senior adviser to the new administration, a la Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. I don't know what it's like to be a real president with a real administration, but there are always achievements that are equaled by regrets. I think you give as much as you wish you'd gotten."
Still, Sheen says he feels "The West Wing" has done its job for viewers "as a fantasy. They can think in terms of what is possible, and I think that's the best thing we could do ... to try to inspire people to go higher, go deeper, reach farther and be more human. It seems the number of eligible voters [rises in contrast to] the number of people who actually vote. That's a very big problem. If you're going to complain about the leadership, you have to participate."
Executive producer John Wells notes how hard the sudden death of Spencer, who played Chief of Staff (and later vice-presidential candidate) Leo McGarry, hit the "West Wing" cast and crew.
"John was so central to how we did the show, he sort of was the glue who held it all together," Wells says. "It was very difficult to continue without him, but at the same time, I think he would have been angry with us if we hadn't. There were moments during the Christmas holiday when we thought about calling it a day, but we decided to finish it up."
Loose conversations had begun with NBC about proceeding to dramatize the new president's first year in office, Wells reveals, "but the ratings for the show have not been great this year, so the future was pretty clear. It's a very expensive show to produce, and we weren't interested in doing it at a lower level of quality or execution. We had decided we probably weren't going to continue, then John's death happened."
A recipient of four of the show's 24 Emmy Awards for her portrayal of C.J. Cregg, the press secretary who became chief of staff after Leo, Janney has found the last scripts "interesting, with all the writing about the characters leaving their jobs.
"Of course, that's the parallel universe to [the series' stars] really leaving our jobs," she says, "so this has been working on a lot of levels. I think things are tied up very nicely for C.J.; I don't think people will worry about her."
Among the many "West Wing" teamings she has enjoyed, Janney cherishes her scenes with Schiff as Toby Ziegler, the White House communications director fired by President Bartlet after admitting he divulged top-secret information.
"Richard and I had so much fun playing things that weren't there," Janney says. "We always imagined we were playing a French love story, so there was something else going on in every scene. I didn't know what I was talking about half the time anyway, with all those 'policy' things."
For Lowe, who recently starred in "West Wing" mentor Aaron Sorkin's play "A Few Good Men" on the London stage, helping to close out the series was a couldn't-miss opportunity. "When we were leaving the stage," he recalls, "I did sort of a last lap around it, because they started to tear it down immediately.
"In every single place, there was an area where amazing -- and I mean amazing -- work happened, over an untold amount of hours. I thought I was emotionally done there, and it turned out not to be true when faced with the set coming down and having that show be done forever."
Having exited "The West Wing" after the fourth year, when Sorkin also left over a reported dispute with Warner Bros. Television, Lowe acknowledges how much the series has changed since.
"It really is two shows," he reasons, "like a timeline of B.C. and A.D., and that's an interesting thing. I don't think there's ever been anything quite like that in series television. What the show became is equally valid, but just very different."
The "West Wing" faithful have previewed some characters' fates, since an episode was set at the future dedication of a library named for President Bartlet. Wells deems NBC's well-in-advance cancellation notice to have been "very gratifying, because so often, you don't know a show is coming to an end. You just have a wrap party for the season but not really for the series, which is a very disconcerting experience.
"People don't really get to say goodbye, and we don't get to do right by characters we've cared about. It's been a great pleasure to have the opportunity to make sure we know what happens to them."