When President Josiah Bartlet's second term runs out on "The West Wing" this spring, NBC's portrayal of the inside workings of the White House also will draw to a close. The network and the show's executive producer, John Wells, have decided to end the award-winning critical darling after a new president is elected.
One of the last decade's most honored series, with 25 Emmys, including four consecutive wins as best drama from 2000 to 2003, "The West Wing" holds the record for most Emmys won by a series in a single season (nine in its first) and has earned 90 nominations to date. But the series has been losing audience over the last few years and has averaged 8.4 million viewers this year, its lowest audience ever.
"We went back and forth with NBC about it," Wells said. "The audience was getting smaller. We had a moment in time in which it was right in the cycle to inaugurate a new president. And the question was, is that the right moment in the life of this series for this series to end?"
On Sunday, NBC's president of entertainment, Kevin Reilly, announced to a semiannual gathering of television critics in Pasadena that the storied drama starring Martin Sheen will end May 14.
"It's no secret that the ratings have been tough for the last couple of seasons," Reilly said. "The most frustrating thing is that the work has been so outstanding. There's a point where you want to send a show off with dignity and a semblance of success."
But before the show's writers commit to paper which candidate will become the next president -- Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) or Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) -- they must grapple with the death of actor John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, the former chief of staff who became Santos' running mate. The actor's death did not precipitate the ending of the series, but it did alter story lines significantly, Wells said.
Since the beginning, lovable Leo has served as the show's anchor and has remained a viewer favorite. Five episodes, including the compelling Jan. 8 installment, which centered on Leo's vice presidential debate, had been produced before Spencer's death Dec. 16, just days after the show had wrapped for the holidays.
"We thought the best way to honor his work was to actually let people see it and not overreact," said executive producer Wells, a friend of Spencer's for 20 years. "But it does mean that we can't, on the air, deal with it until after the Winter Olympics," which will air on NBC next month.
Since the new year, Wells has been writing the two-part episode in which Leo will die of a heart attack. The cantankerous politician with a soft side and a sense of humor survived a heart attack last season, an illness Wells said he would have never written for the character had they known Spencer would be prone to it. The episode in which Leo dies, five days before the election, will air on April 2, Wells said.
"I've never been confronted with this, and I hope I'm never confronted with it again," he said. "Not only do you have to deal with the death of your friend -- the person that you know -- but then you have to keep reliving it....We'll all have to continue to grieve it because we have to put it in the narrative. The character will, sadly, die on the show. We really didn't have any other way to deal with it."
When the show's writers began researching how the government would handle the death of a vice presidential nominee just before an election, they were surprised to learn there was no constitutional provision for it. Based on the advice of election attorneys, Wells decided that Leo McGarry's name will remain on the ballot and if Santos wins, he will then appoint a vice president after his inauguration.
"To John and his team's credit, they've concocted a story that really honors his memory and his spirit and the value that he brought to the show," said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, the studio that produces the show. "They managed to make it as organic as one could hope for. But as well as this may have worked out logistically, we would have much preferred to have scrapped this notion and followed through with a great man and a great actor."
To be sure, the unexpected death of an actor, and consequently, a beloved character on television, presents its own complications. When John Ritter died of a heart condition in September 2003, his character, Paul Hennessy, on "8 Simple Rules ... for Dating My Teenage Daughter," died also.
Other stars whose deaths were acknowledged in the context of their shows include Nancy Marchand of "The Sopranos," David Strickland of "Suddenly Susan," Lynne Thigpen of "The District" and Phil Hartman of "NewsRadio."
Because Spencer's death occurred during the holiday hiatus, the cast and crew of "The West Wing" held a memorial service for him on their first day back to work, Wells said.
"He was at my house on Sunday, before he died on Friday," Wells said. "He was a good friend. So before we even started to deal with the notion of this wonderful character being gone, we had to accept the sad reality of our friend's death. It's been a very hectic month."
Spencer was nominated five times for an Emmy and won once for his portrayal of the intelligent, funny, always urgent McGarry. He also was nominated once for a Golden Globe for the role.
Last Thursday, Wells faced a deadline for the second part of the episode he would do anything not to write.
"Oddly, it's very dramatic, and I think it will be dramatic and very moving on the show, but boy, oh, boy," he said. "I would much rather be writing five or six more episodes with John Spencer in it than writing that."