The President is Hiding Something
The West Wing: Seasons 2 & 3
I had originally intended to do these seasons one at a time, going in depth on each year of the West Wing, but then I got to watching the show and found I'd already gobbled up a good portion of season three by the time I came up for air. That's because, in construction, these two seasons really blend together, with one bleeding right into the next with barely a break. It's part of why this show worked so well as a marathon on basic cable back in the day, but for a review site such as this it's a little harder to separate out to two halves.
The through-line of these two seasons is the President's multiple sclerosis, a detail of his health he kept hidden from the voting public through the election. It was hinted at in the first season, but it becomes a major plot point in second season, to the point that by the end of the year the West Wing decides to come out with the information so the voting public can know and understand this disease. Then the question becomes will the President run? Bartlett hid this disease so will he be too damaged in the eyes of the voters to run again?
Of course, season three of the show is all about Bartlett's run up to be President for a second term. While the series plays it off as a bit of a cliffhanger, there was no doubt we'd cover the campaign in season three; it's a show about the Bartlett administration so we couldn't really have the show otherwise. Hell, the first episode of the third season literally picks up right at the moment the second season ended. These two fit together perfectly.
As one long arc for the show, Seasons 2 and 3 work wonderfully together. I did find the first season to be a little shaky in places as the series tried to find its feet, and its tone. It was good, but even during the season it certainly felt like the show was trying to be better. It just needed to make some changes, and tighten things up, so it could really sing.
The first, and most obvious, change the show made was ditching Mandy (sending her packing, without explanation, off to Mandyville). Whatever her character was supposed to do, Mandy failed to achieve it. She wasn't a good audience surrogate as she was too much of an insider in politics to function well as an outsider to the administration. She was also annoying, rude, and barely ever served any kind of actual function during her entire time on the show. While the rest of the characters were worried about education reform, taxes, school shootings, and foreign threats, Mandy dealt with... pandas? There was no need to have this character around.
When you go back through and watch the show that fact becomes clear because Mandy just vanishes and you never even wonder why. One day she's gone and you even forget she was there. Other characters will come and go on the series, but the void left by Mandy was so minuscule you hardly even saw it. In her place other characters came along, the best of which was Ainsley Hayes, a character who actually served a purpose and functioned better as an outsider.
Ainsley (Emily Procter) was introduced early in season two as a Republican talking head. Over the course of her first episode, though, the White House tries to woo her in, to bring someone with different points of view that actually cares about people and the act of governing so she could share her passion. Yes, she'd have to work with Democrats, but the job was on the table so eventually, reluctantly, she accepted. And then, from time to time she'd pop up to add her bubbly, conservative voice as needed. She wasn't shoehorned in like Mandy normally was, but she did get a few good moments in seasons two and three, and added a needed energy that you didn't even realize was missing.
Of course, the big deal is the M.S. plot line and its effect on the show. Or, really, the lack thereof. While the show plays it up as a big deal that the President hid this disease, the shows focus is thoroughly on the West Wing and very rarely branched outside that perspective. The characters all act like it's a big deal and it could be earth-shaking for the administration, but we don't really see a lot of people outside the administration react to it. The insular view lets us know how the lead characters react to the news but we don't get a good perspective from external characters. How does the public react to it, how does it really affect the working man? We never truly find out as the show doesn't illustrate it.
It's a bit of a flaw, really, especially when you go back and watch these episodes again (for the eighth time like I think I'm up to). When you're watching it the first time through you get caught up in the moment and don't notice how insular the show really is. Oh no, Toby is in trouble! On, Sam's making a speech about how the President lied! But going back through I wanted the focus to widen a little, to really drive home the stakes by showing some people protesting the President or having a rally where people booed him. Something to drive the point home from an external perspective.
We do eventually get an outside perspective in this regard when campaign manager Bruno Gianelli (Ron Silver) is introduced at the start of Season 3. He and he campaign workers, Connie (Connie Britton) and Doug (Evan Handler), come in and start throwing out their ideas for how to get the campaign to get on the tracks. Doug voices the angry feelings the rest of the public is probably feeling, and while you end up hating the character it is at least nice to have someone express a bit of rage. It's just not enough (and, also, Doug quickly gets shuffled of the show presumably because no one likes him).
Still, even with the supposed issues the campaign is having, it's pretty obvious that the administration will win another term, all because the show focuses intently on these characters. New people might come on -- like Josh's girlfriend for a season, women's advocate Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker), a character I still have yet to warm to after all this time, along with Ainsley, Connie, and Doug -- but the perspective remains so focused on the internal workings of the West Wing that, in the end, their winning is a foregone conclusion (and this is before the show has a character come right out and say that).
And yet, so much of this show works. It's the reason the first season was as good as it was, the fact that these are characters passionate about what they do, and they're able to convey that with humility and humor, and that comes through in every episode. Season 2 and 3 manage to ratchet that up, to smooth out the edges and make the show even more watchable. While it's not always perfect, this is The West Wing at its absolute height, and it's so damn watchable.
Best Episode of Season 2
Episode 16: "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail"
I had a few episodes I could have easily chosen for this honor, from "In This White House" and the introduction of Ainsley Hayes, to "Noel" and Josh's struggle with PTSD over the shooting at Rosalyn (that capped the end of the first season), but I wanted to give it to "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail" because it really sold the idea of "Big Block of Cheese Day". There are a lot of interesting things the episode discusses, from the WTO to the Cold War, but it's the little story about The Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality that really sells the idea that this day to bring in all the other voices that normal don't get heard might just be a good idea. This episode has so much going on and it gets so much of it right.
Worst Episode of Season 2
Episode 17: "The Stackhouse Filibuster"
So this isn't just the worst episode of the season, it's easily the worst episode of the whole show. Senator Stackhouse, a bug up his butt because aid for autistic children wasn't included in a bill, decides to filibuster the bill. And then the show gets super schmaltzy about it. Cringingly so, in fact, including a framing device that has the characters all writing letters to their parents. This episode is like sandpaper on my skin, I hate it so much.
Best Episode of Season 3
Episode 9: "Bartlet for America"
When the show tries to do it right, it really could land the emotional stuff. This episode, about Leo having to testify before Congress about the M.S. (which then becomes a show trial abut Leo's drinking and drug use back in the day), eventually illustrates the depths of friendship between Leon and the President. It's a great episode on a number of fronts, but it's that friendship and it's history that really cements this solid hour of television.
Worst Episode of Season 3
Episode 0: "Isaac and Ishmael"
Season 3 started up right after 9/11 and instead of opening the season right on the back of the the second season, the show produced a one-off that directly address Islamic terrorism. At the time this was a necessary episode, addressing feelings people were having and the fears of a nation. Unfortunately it does it by locking all the characters (and a classroom full of kids) in a room in the White House and essentially doing a lecture (sans PowerPoint) about Islamic terrorism. And then, to make it all worse, it mires Leo is a plot line that's so out of character for him it doesn't make any sense.
The saving grace of this episode is that it doesn't exist in the proper continuity so, really, you can just ignore it when watching through the series. But there it sits, a well-meaning episode that's pretty bad (in execution) in retrospect.
Characters Sent to Mandyville
Although it doesn't really count, since her character died and didn't just vanish, we did lose Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) near the end of season two. She did show up once more in a flashback later on, but Joosten existed the show effectively in season two.
Ainsley Hayes, who sadly came along for these two seasons, did actually go to Mandyville for a while. She was introduced, had a lot of good episodes in season two, a couple of appearances in season three, and then just vanished. The character eventually comment that she did, at one point, work at the White House (so she didn't vanish without a trace like Mandy), and eventually Ainsley comes back during the show's victory lap in season seven. So it was more like a Mandyville timeshare for her.
And, of course, Doug is introduced for a couple of episodes in the third season, only to vanish with barely a shrug. This is then followed by Connie but season's end without any explanation either.