“The West Wing” went through behind-the-scenes upheaval last season, with executive producer John Wells and a team of writers taking over for the show’s prolific creator, Aaron Sorkin.
The changes sparked a good deal of debate among critics and fans about whether the show was better or worse in the wake of Sorkin’s departure. (Ratings, which had been dipping toward the end of Sorkin’s tenure, took a significant hit.)
As “The West Wing” begins its sixth season on NBC Wednesday (Oct. 20), the show is likely to spark further discussion — this time for what goes on in front of the camera. As the fictional administration enters its last years, members of the White House staff will find themselves in new roles, while several candidates begin their campaigns to replace President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen).
In addition to following the show’s timeline — Bartlet is now in the third year of his second term — the shakeup should allow viewers to see familiar characters in a new light, Wells says.
“One of the things that starts to happen on long-running TV shows — and I didn’t know this until I did ‘ER’ — is that unless you shake things up and sort of change the way characters relate to each other, you inevitably end up with the same character dynamics and you start in three or four years to feel like you’re repeating yourself,” he says.
“A lot of the things we’re doing are just changing the dynamics between the characters you’ve already come to know and love so they’re not doing exactly the same thing, and they have to confront the differences in the way their job works and how they work with their co-workers.”
For example, White House chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) suffers a heart attack in the season’s second episode, forcing him to give up his job. Bartlet makes an unexpected choice to replace him, ruffling feathers among other staffers.
Then there are the people vying to replace Bartlet. Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda have joined the cast, playing candidates from both major parties. Smits plays Matt Santos, a former Houston mayor and three-term congressman running a long-shot campaign for the Democratic nomination; he impresses Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) during a policy debate.
Alda, meanwhile, plays Arnold Vinick, a moderate senator seen as a front-runner for the Republican nomination. Vice President Bob Russell (Gary Cole) is also in the mix, aided by White House staffer Will Bailey (Joshua Malina).
“Part of what we’re playing throughout the fall is the growing unease with the leading candidates that show up for the Democratic nomination,” Wells says, “and should the White House try behind the scenes to get more involved in seeing if a better candidate should be put forward?”
The campaign to replace Bartlet doesn’t necessarily mean “The West Wing” is in its homestretch; although the show is in the last year of its contract with NBC, Wells says he’s “fairly certain” the network will renew it.
“I expect they’ll respect the quality of the show and what it’s meant to them and make certain we have lots of time to continue to make the show,” he says.
Wells doesn’t yet know who might win the fictional election the show is setting up, most likely for next season. He has contingency plans, though: Smits and Alda both have options in their contracts to return next season.