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Warner Home Video presents
The West Wing: The Complete Third Season (2001-2002)

"In the future, if you're wondering, 'Crime. Boy. I just don't know' is when I decided to kick your ass."
- President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), to his Republican opponent

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: November 01, 2004

Stars: Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford
Other Stars: Richard Schiff, Janel Moloney, Dulé Hill, Stockard Channing, Emily Procter, Mary Louise-Parker, Oliver Platt, Ron Silver, Timothy Busfield, Tim Matheson, Renee Estevez, Mark Harmon
Director: Various

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some language, sexuality)
Run Time: Approx. 954 min.
Release Date: November 02, 2004
UPC: 085393162221
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-A-B+ C+

DVD Review

Note: This review assumes you are familiar with the simple premise and major characters on The West Wing. If you're not, the basics of both are discussed in our review of Season Two.

The Season Three premier of The West Wing was delayed at the eleventh hour as creator/executive producer (and, incidentally, writer of 65 of the 66 episodes now on DVD), Aaron Sorkin, penned Isaac & Ishmael, 42 minutes of television filmed less than a month after 9/11, which attempt to process that terrible day using the characters we've come to love, speaking about terrorist threats outside the series' continuity. That it is, on many levels, a total failure, overly simplistic and downright preachy, is as much an example of Sorkin failing to meet his own lofty goal as it is a case in point that some things might be a little too big for TV, even with someone so gifted at the helm.

But the impact of that day in September naturally extends beyond that one "very special" episode, and the events of 9/11 casts a shadow over the entire season—the year includes some great story arcs, but it also reflects a shift from the arena of domestic politics to the global stage. For me, it's when the series lost some of its effervence#8212in the early seasons, the show managed a perfect balance of levity and character-based drama, but starting this third year that all begins to change. With an ever-increasing focus on dramatic global events and occasional slips into melodrama, Sorkin's patented rapid-fire dialogue and frequent goofy comedy bits (in the midst of a hectic day, Jed calls the Butterball hotline for turkey-cooking tips!) don't seem to mesh as well.

In one of the major arcs, for example, C.J. takes a stand against the government of Qumar, The West Wing's fictional equivalent of an Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, for its treatment of women and becomes a terrorist target. She's assigned a bodyguard (Mark Harmon), who quickly becomes a tentative love interest before exiting the series in rather flashy, E.R. fashion, just to make sure you cry in the season finale (though that pales in comparison to the admittedly arresting but purely soapy ending to Season Four). I admit this is all a matter of personal taste, and the drama isn't necessarily any better or worse than earlier seasons, but I just found it more engrossing to watch everyday politics turned drama in the first two seasons than Aaron Sorkin's take on the Middle East peace process in the third.

Of course, it doesn't help that, as smart an effective writer as he is, and as indispensable to the show as he is (you can certainly pick out the one episode this season he didn't write), Sorkin's storylines for Season Three, particularly in the latter half, when the focus is split between the Bartlet re-election campaign (against a thinly-veiled parody of a certain Texan president, played by James Brolin) and threats of terrorism, bring his weaknesses to the fore. Namely, his tendency toward pedantry and sanctimony—don't get me wrong, watching Jed tear into his Republican opponent is enormously entertaining, but it's too easy for a writer or Sorkin's caliber, and frankly, I expect better of him (the belabored metaphors, including an entire episode based on cutesy symbolism about chess, don't always help matters). I always thought of the early seasons that fans of good drama, be they blue-staters or red, could enjoy the show. Season Three is when I can finally admit those who give the show "clever" nicknames like "The Left Wing" (ho ho) might just have a point.

But I'm getting off track here, because, as I said, whether you think the third season is better or worse than its predecessors is a matter of personal preference, and I think there can be little argument that it's still an excellent show with a stellar cast and some of the best behind-the-scenes people in the business. And from episode to episode, this season is, despite the above discussion, engrossing entertainment. The first half of the season echoes the scandals of the Clinton years as Bartlet faces political persecution for not revealing his multiple sclerosis to the nation, while, on a more personal level, members of his inner staff nurse their own wounds of betrayal. The storyline culminates in the wonderful Bartlet for America, one of the series' best episodes. As Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) testifies before a House investigative committee, we flash back to the early days of the president's first campaign and witness how the denizens of the West Wing became a family. And though the latter half of the year focuses on the ultimately inconsequential re-election campaign (because, what, he's going to lose?), that entertaining if dramatically lacking storyline (which, if nothing else, allowed me to giggle at the absurdity of big money politics, even as the nation wrings its hands about the impending election, the most divisive in decades) is balanced out by the aforementioned terrorism plotline, gripping despite its perceived flaws. It all leads up to the frankly shocking ending that redefines the main character, and his desire to serve the nation without betraying his own ideals, in a compelling manner that's bracing and powerful, but a bit over-the-top—I don't know if exhaustion was setting in or what (Sorkin only lasted one more season), but John Wells' influence seems to have started rubbing off on the celebrated scribe.

To put it another way: The third season of The West Wing would be a contender for the best TV on DVD release of the year, content-wise, did it not have to contend with the superior Season Two. For Sorkin and his fictional, presidential counterpart, the curse of genius is, of course, living up to your own reputation.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: In Season Three, The West Wing finally began airing in widescreen on television (though Season Two was released that way on DVD), so this time around the credits and "previously on" segments aren't window boxed. Otherwise, quality is on par with the last set: Near-cinematic quality, with strong colors and deep blacks, with only a slight graininess and some aliasing to mar the presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The included DD 2.0 mix is fine, with a wide front soundstage, frequent panning and stereo separation, and clear dialogue. Surrounds are used intermittently and to good effect.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 132 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
3 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by the cast and crew on Manchester Part II, Bartlet for America, and Posse Comitatus
Packaging: Book Gatefold
4 Discs
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Season Three is a bit lighter on extras than previous releases, particularly since the chief inclusion doesn't really count: The 42-minute Documentary Special (included on the nearly-empty Disc 4), a look at the politics of the show from a fictional and real-life perspective, aired toward the end of the series' third season and shouldn't really be considered a bonus as far as the DVDs are concerned. That said, it's an interesting comparison of drama and reality, and features interviews with the likes of former presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton and their staff members. Hmmm, no participation from George Sr.? What a shock.

Disc 4 also includes three deleted scenes (from Two Bartlets, Enemies Foreign and Domestic, and Posse Comitatus), totaling just over five minutes. They're mostly inconsequential or oddly out of context, and the quality is poor—grainy, with visible time codes.

Next up are two featurettes. A Property Master's Story runs for 10 minutes and features discussion of, you guessed it, casting. No, wait. Props. Kind of dull, really, unless you like hearing about how they went about finding authentic White House pens. Oh, and they tell the story about the fish bowl on C.J.'s desk again (three DVD sets running). The Chief of Stuff makes for a pretty inconsequential 13 minutes as well—it examines Dulé Hill's character Charlie and his real-life counterparts from the Clinton White House (seems like stuff that could have been deleted from the documentary, actually).

Three cast and crew commentaries are also scattered around. Executive producer Aaron Sorkin, producer Thomas Schlamme, and actress Allison Janney chat over Manchester Part II; Sorkin, Schlamme, and actor John Spencer on Bartlet for America; and Sorkin, Schlamme, and director Alex Graves on Posse Comitatus. All three tracks are pretty slow going, light on substantial behind-the-scenes information, and full of dead spots.

Note that one of the advertised extras (the Political Blunders gag reel advertised on the packaging in two places and in the included booklet) is nowhere to be found on Disc 4. Seems like a simple omission, since the first two seasons had bloopers.

The grade reflects the missing extra and the recycled (albeit worthwhile) documentary.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Though it's uneven in spots, the third season of The West Wing is still high-class entertainment. Even as some cracks in the foundation began to show, Emmy voters again chose it as the year's best drama, and it really falters only in comparison to itself, to its own earlier, stronger seasons. Still, I'd judge it an essential purchase for fans—this Election Day, vote Bartlet, at least with your wallet.


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