The dreaded sixth season is an awkward stage in the life of a TV drama. The show is aging. Original dynamics have played themselves out; the first round of new characters brought in to replace the first few original characters to bolt have probably already been rejected by the once faithful, now bitter fan base; the writers who wrote the Emmy-nominated pilot have moved on. Season 6 is the time to start panicking.
The gambles tend to be big and plentiful, and the stink of desperation is all over them. For "ER," it was Season 6 that left Carter and Lucy bleeding on the floor of the hospital while everyone else attended a party. On "NYPD Blue," Bobby Simone's heart gave out. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" scored with an offbeat musical episode, but inspired widespread cringing with an ill-conceived Buffy/Spike romance. Showy, ostentatious Season 6 plotting plagues both well-regarded shows and stupid ones: "The Practice" convicted Lindsay of murder, and "Dawson's Creek" made Pacey a stockbroker.
On Wednesday, "The West Wing" returns to NBC for its very own dramatic Season 6. When we left the Brooder In Chief, President Jed Bartlet, he was pondering his options for responding to a deteriorating situation in the Middle East. Meanwhile, in Germany, the terminally ineffectual Josh Lyman considered whether to make some grand, romantic Big Move before his long-suffering assistant Donna either died of a pulmonary embolism or ran off to canoodle with someone a lot sexier than he is. The Season 6 curse suggests that the resolutions to these crises will make this already windy show more overblown than ever — Donna will marry the man who eventually unites Israel and the Palestinians in harmony, or something.
Problems pre-date Sorkin leavingDespite its award-studded history, "The West Wing" is troubled. It may still haul down a barrel of Emmy nominations, but they now inspire as much eye-rolling as admiration. Partisans of series creator Aaron Sorkin (who also created the far more entertaining "Sports Night") will tell you that things started to go downhill at the end of the fourth season, when Sorkin had a falling out with NBC and walked away with the network's blessing.
Don't believe it. He was doing perfectly well sinking the leaky ship all by himself by the time he took off. By the end of Season 3, when Sorkin penned stinker episode "Posse Comitatus" — in which C.J.'s new boyfriend was gunned down while showing himself to be the most ill-prepared law enforcement agent of all time — the cracks in the foundation were obvious. (That "Posse Comitatus" — a painfully obvious, trite, truly intelligence-insulting exercise — was nominated for an Emmy award for writing tells you all you need to know about whether the Emmys are given for merit or for politics.)
In reality, "West Wing" has never recovered from an awful, pedantic, achingly earnest post-9/11 episode that confirmed what many of its detractors had always said about it — ultimately, it was so consumed with pontificating that it was willing to sacrifice story.
At the same time, neither under Sorkin, nor under successor John Wells, has the show ever displayed the ability to address political issues in a genuinely satisfying way. Just one example: Emily Procter came on board to play a smart, funny, conservative woman, but with absolutely no idea how to write such a person (he does not excel in writing either Republicans or women), Sorkin allowed Procter's character to wither on the vine until she moved on to "CSI: Miami."
On the ropesBut now, as it steams into Season 6, the challenges the show confronts are even more daunting. One of the few genuinely upbeat faces in the cast, Rob Lowe, has been gone for a full season. Nothing has been done with the criminally wasted Joshua Malina, brought in to fill the void, Dule Hill's Charlie gets fewer lines than the furniture, and the show's remaining lineup of men — Martin Sheen, John Spencer, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford — looks like a giant Parade of the Dour.
The women fare no better — the writers have gone the predictable, easy route of injuring the ingénue by landing Janel Moloney's Donna in the hospital, and have inflicted escalating misery on their strongest female character, press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), every time it looks like she might fall in love.
So how does "The West Wing," already on the ropes, stay out of the melodramatic muck that typically comes around as a show reaches this age? For one, it needs to bust out some new stories. We all know by now that all of the staffers struggle with the hard consequences of the imperfect decisions they're forced to make every day. That, in itself, is no longer interesting. Neither is President Bartlet realizing with a great thud of conscience that there are serious consequences to the things he does. He's been president for more than five years; we assume he gets that now. Early in the run of the show, playing off the characters' naiveté was quaint; now it's just silly. No one who has worked — let alone reigned — in the White House for five years is going to go all slack-jawed and pained when offered a distasteful political deal.
The best method of ferreting out new story material is simply to realize that nothing lasts forever, and it may be time to start uncorking the stuff that the show has been teasing for five years. Isn't C.J. getting tired of being left out of the loop, and won't she likely want something more for herself? Does Charlie intend to be an assistant forever? Most of all, is Josh going to keep hemming and hawing, or is he going to tackle Donna, or is he going to admit he doesn't actually want to tackle Donna and leave her to have a proper boyfriend? It's time to stop hedging. There's no point in waiting to pop your really big stories in Season 10; by then, viewers may all have keeled over from boredom.
This is still a show, and particularly a cast, capable of being remarkable. When "West Wing" isn't lecturing, or being inordinately pleased with itself, or in some other way showing off, it can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, recent seasons do not offer large helpings of hope for this one.
Most likely, Season 6 of "The West Wing" will offer up the same grasping at forward progress that brought "Party of Five" its weird Season 6 fertility-drug plotline. Someday, alongside the stabbings and deaths and slacker transformations that have made the sixth season of a drama the strange Bermuda triangle it is, you will likely find an entry for this show, too. Perhaps for the episode in which C.J. becomes a stockbroker.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.