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Warner Home Video presents
The West Wing: The Complete Fifth Season (2003-2004)

"First one to find a Supreme Court Justice gets a free corned beef sandwich."
- Leo McGarry (John Spencer)

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: January 31, 2006

Stars: Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford, John Spencer, Richard Schiff, Allison Janney
Other Stars: Dulé Hill, Janel Moloney, Josh Malina, Matthew Perry, John Goodman, Glenn Close, Lily Tomlin, Jesse Bradford
Director: various

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (sexuality, mild language)
Release Date: December 06, 2005
UPC: 012569712768
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

When Aaron Sorkin chose to leave The West Wing at the end of the fourth season (reportedly over conflicts due to production delays), he left some plot-related messes for executive producer John Wells (ER) to clean up, chief among them a cliffhanger involving the kidnapping of the president's daughter and his decision to step down as commander in chief during the personal crisis. Solving them took the form of some ham-handed writing and a really rocky start to the year, but that was just an indicator of the real issue: Sorkin, credited as the writer of every episode of the program's first four seasons save one, was its driving creative force. He gave the characters a voice, he'd perfected their trademarked fast-talking, fast-walking screwball wit, and his ideas and ideologies had shaped the show's message. How would it survive without him?

Well, as I said, things didn't look good at the start. President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) has given over his office to the Republican House Majority Leader (John Goodman) while the Secret Service tracks down his daughter, who has been kidnapped by terrorists, and the grim tension is overwhelming throughout the premiere, 7A WF 83429 (nice title). It doesn't feel much like The West Wing we all know and love, though. The White House staff, including chief of staff Leo McGarry (the late John Spencer), communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), and press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), is all still there, but they don't walk and talk like themselves. Yes, the episode is somber, but even the turbulent episodes under Sorkin had some moments of levity, or at least some effective emotional moments. The effort to up the ante with a crisis storyline falls flat (a quick, clumsy resolution in the following episode doesn't help).

The awkwardness continues for the first part of the season. Things get back to normal fairly quickly, but the characters still feel off, and the situations they deal with—a North Korean pianist wants to defect, threatening peace talks in Han—seem rather melodramatic. Under Sorkin, for better or worse, the show was about ideas and debate (or as columnist Dave Barry joked, people talking very quickly about stuff most people don't care about). But that's what I thought made it so interesting, seeing characters passionate about policy issues and even decisions to shed light on a particular cause in a speech. Under Wells, the show, at least in the early episodes, stresses mostly action.

By the middle of the year, the writers find their footing, though, and things steadily improve. It's still not as consistent from episode to episode, and even within episodes, as certain plots linger or key characters are shuffled to the sidelines. There are misfires, like the First Lady's (Stockard Channing) appearance on Sesame Street and a bizarre, just plain dull "day in the life" documentary show (Access) filmed during the Season Five timeline but supposedly "released" to the public once all the pertinent information therein has been declassified, but for the most part, the series settles down. It becomes something different—not quite as provocative or challenging, but still good drama.

Then, every once in a while, there's an episode that goes toe to toe with any of the best entries from the first two seasons. This year's contender is clearly The Supremes, in which the White House scrambles to prepare a short list of candidates for the Supreme Court after a justice dies. Everyone assumes they'll have to nominate a moderate to get approval from a Republican-controlled Senate, but Josh is pulling for a fiery liberal (guest star Glenn Close) despite the fact that she had an abortion while in college, and formulates a plan to get her confirmed by letting the Republicans give a seat to her conservative counterpart (William Fitchner). It's an episode that presages everything that was in the news when the situation occurred for real in 2005—activist judges, legislating from the bench, focus on a single, hot-button issue—and it features plenty of the sharp dialogue and humor that represents the series at its best.

The reason it works? Because its not really about the plot, but the idea behind it—that, perhaps, a political system can't strive without extremes; that watered-down, focus-grouped candidates are exactly what is wrong with a government where so often values seem to be for sale to the highest bidder. It's why the series worked so well under Sorkin—agree or disagree, the man had an opinion, an idea of how politics could, perhaps should, operate, a system in which every decision, every piece of policy is scrutinized in order to find solutions that work best for the American people, not a particular political party. With an increased focus on looming disasters and nuclear crises, The West Wing loses some of that focus in Season Five, but episodes like The Supremes serve as a nice reminder.

Certainly the cast is still as strong as ever (Janney won yet another lead actress Emmy; others were nominated), and the production values are still tops, though the show does seem to have a bit of a darker edge under Wells, minus the golden hues of idealism that translated visually during the early years. As always, there are some great guest stars, including Glenn Close, Gary Cole, and Matthew Perry, once again taking a break from Friends to play a political consultant.

The network has announced The West Wing will end at the end of the 2005-06 season, the show's seventh year on the air. Most of the original cast appears only sporadically now, as the focus is on the election of Bartlet's successor. It still makes for good drama, but it no longer feels like the same show, and Season Five is definitely the transitional year. What that means for your DVD collection will likely have a lot to do with your reasons for liking the program.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, The West Wing, as always, looks good on DVD. Colors are solid, blacks are fairly deep (though shadow detail is lacking and darker sequences tend to look a bit grainy), and overall detail is good.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: All that really matters on this show is the dialogue, and this 2.0 mix presents it clearly. The score and limited sound effects fill out the front mains and sometimes leak into the surrounds, but for the most part, this is a basic mix that gets the job done.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 132 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
4 Deleted Scenes
0 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by John Wells, Christopher Misano, Alex Graves, Jessica Yu, Debora Cahn
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Picture Disc
6 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: Extras mirror the previous season sets. Once again, three episodes including commentary tracks: 7A WF 83429 (producer John Wells, director Alex Graves), Dogs of War (Wells and director Christopher Misano), and The Supremes (Graves, writer Deborah Cahn, and director Jessica Yu).

In POTUS We Trust (13m:45s) focuses on Bartlet's character and Martin Sheen's performance, and much praise is lavished on them both in interviews with Stockard Channing, Allison Janney, John Wells, and others. It seems the actor is every bit as classy a guy as the character he plays, and that the writers consider Bartlet the president they wish they had. Producers also discuss the well-known fact that originally, Bartlet was going to be a rarely seen side character, and how quickly that changed thanks to Sorkin's take on the commander in chief and Sheen's performance.

Gaza: Anatomy of an Episode (15m) is an interesting look at the work that goes into creating a "foreign country" setting while working on a television budget. It starts with an analysis of the story and a look at fiery car crash that opens the show, then moves into the actual production design "grunt work" of putting together a believable Gaza Strip checkpoint at Salton Sea in Mexico. Actress Janel Molony: "Not to insult anyone who lives in Salton Sea, I'm sure it's a very nice place, but it has a very peculiar smell."

Deleted scenes (or "political missteps," ha ha), with introductions explaining why they were cut, are included for Slow News Day, Eppur Si Muove, and Memorial Day, and the set comes packaged with a nice, glossy episode guide as always.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

The most obvious casualty of creator Aaron Sorkin's decision to leave The West Wing at the end of Season Four? Consistency. But even when characters lose their distinctive voices or plots are muddled with unnecessary drama, the show is still pretty good, and sometimes great, thanks in no small part to one of TV's best ensemble casts, and it really only suffers in comparison to itself.


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