Sunday, April 23, 2006

Il returno de Sam Seaborn

When Rob Lowe left "The West Wing" in a fit of pique over lack of money/screen time/respect/whatever, all I could think was what a foolish egomaniac he was. Lowe may have been the big star coming into the series, but by the time he left, he was clearly behind Sheen and Spenser and Schiff and Janney and Whitford in terms of most important/beloved regular. And when he signed on to one embarrassing flop after another, I felt secure in my belief that he had grossly overestimated his value, both to "West Wing" and in general.

It helped that his exit coincided with the period when Sorkin was going completely off the rails, followed quickly by the awful transition to the Wells era. So for the last three and a half years, I never doubted my theory.

Then Lowe/Sam came back last night, and I realized how much I had missed him. No, he may not have been as essential as Jed or Leo or CJ, but the show really did lose something when that stammering Boy Scout left to... um... why the hell did he leave, anyway? When they did the election storyline, it was said repeatedly that if Sam lost the race, he'd get his job back. He lost, yet he never came back, and there wasn't even any discussion of that in the reunion with Josh. (I'll give them a pass on that, just for the call-back to the best scene in "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen.")

With Sorkin long gone and without a three-year transition to get used to hearing other people's words coming out of his mouth, Sam didn't seem quite like Sam last night -- as the show's token idealist, I think he'd leap at the offer -- but Lowe and Brad Whitford settled back nicely into their old rhythms. And deputy chief of staff is a much more plausible idea than vice-president. (And, speaking of which, I'll believe they're going to make Vinick the VP -- suggestive promo or no suggestive promo -- when he actually gets confirmed in an episode.) Still would have liked some kind of explanation for why he stayed away after the election fiasco, but good to have him back for a few weeks at the end.

Other than Sam, kind of a blah episode -- though, of course, I'm not a Josh/Donna 'shipper, and this was mainly throwing them one last bone. The surprise reveal about Bartlet and Santos playing good cop/bad cop felt forced -- even if Santos had kept it from Josh (because somehow, after all this time, they still don't trust each other), no way Jed doesn't tell C.J. -- and I've never cared much, if at all, about Mrs. Santos. (On the plus side, the writers did find a plausible way for Josh and Donna to both have White House jobs and still date.)

So, only three more episodes ever. Weird. I hope they can at least hit the last one out of the park.


highbrow said...

Yes you hit it on the nose, Sam seemed *different* last night, but it was great to have him back! After he lost the election and they gave his job to Will, they made some mention to giving him a job elsewhere in the administration, but I don't remember the job title. I thought Josh was going to offer Donna Press Secretary, but I guess she doesn't have the skills for that position either. Although, I did like the off-handed way Josh told her he'd already chosen a job for her, as if 'of course I've thought about your role in this administration' after the whole Donna/Charlie conversation about her needing to speak up. And Bradley Whitford did a GREAT job losing it on Otto! But he's always great so it goes without saying...

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed last night's a lot, but I'm closer to being a Josh-Donna 'shipper. (Actually, it's more that I'm a Donna 'shipper, I think.) But even though I enjoy this, I'm still mad at them for stringing them along so long that I finally said "Nope, it's not happening" and moved on, and THEN they stick it in here at the end.

It doesn't feel right to the characters (specifically Donna) to me, she just wouldn't wait that long. And that's just reinforced by how decisive she is in this episode, which fits right in with her overall character - she may dither, but once she makes a decision, she plows straight ahead. Whereas Josh will always second-guess and quibble if he has the chance.

As for the old TV argument that once they actually become a couple, you've got nowhere to go, I don't buy that. I think what usually happens is that the writers work too hard to create conflict, which often comes off as forced and unnatural. (Lessons on this topic are available on Tuesdays at 8:00 on the WB.) Especially on the West Wing, it's not unreasonable to show a couple of characters who have their personal lives together, but have problems with everything else. (Oh, that's right, that would be Jed and Abby. I think that proves my point.)

Yeah, I've kind of had that rant saved up for awhile.

highbrow said...

Donna totally rocked in this ep! But I think this is a reflection of the Donna that came to be after she almost died in the car bomb, rather than someone she always has been. It was after she came back to the White House that she started to take proactive control over her future, beginning with quitting her job as Josh's assistant.

Anonymous said...

Alan - a question for you. I think an interesting column for your blog would be what role new shows are filling in replacing old ones from the 90s. For instance:

LOST = New X-Files
The OC = Beverly Hills 90210
The OFFICE = Seinfeld
FAMILY GUY = the Simpsons

What are some other match ups? What shows from the 90s have yet to find their Aughts Equivalent but deserve to (the West Wing?) What shows are better left dead?

Heather K said...

I totally agree with the Donna being way more decisive since nearly dying in bomb because I think there is plenty of evidence that she would 'wait' for Josh--the whole boyfriend backstory about Josh giving her flowers on their not-anniversary, "You're the only person I know who gives someone flowers to be mean." Also it isn't like she just waited around for him. She tried, but it never worked out (Phil Calley the Republican lawyer friend of Ainsley who found her diary, Christian Slater military Republican who got sent away, and many other dates they talked about but we never saw).

In case you can't tell I have always been a Donna/Josh shipper and my love knows no bounds. Although, yeah, it totally feels like they are throwing people like me a bone, but the show's ending, and who doesn't like bones?

D. said...

I'm pretty sure they never told us before that Sam lost the election for congressman. When he left they said there was no chance he could win, but I don't think they ever told us the outcome.

Alan Sepinwall said...

He lost. There was no ambiguity in that final scene between Sam and Toby: Sam was going to get slaughtered in the final polls.

Also, in the extremely unlikely chance that he had won, he and Santos would have met at some point as fellow Congressmen.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I left the show years ago. I only came back because of Sam and for a quick look around to see how certain characters that I used to love (Josh, C.J., Tobey, etc.) fared. The early Sorkin years were the best - how I miss seeing that kind of quality and electricity in the room and hearing the sparkling dialogue! Subsequent episodes paled in comparison. And that took quite a toll on my affection for the show and all its characters.

La Binsk

Matt said...

While "Commander in Chief" wanted to be the new "West Wing," I expect Sorkin's new show, "Studio 60," will fill that niche.

The comparison of "Grey's" to "Ally McBeal" is interesting--does that mean it's going to seriously derail in the near future?

On Sam, while it was crystal clear from that last scene that Sam lost, apparently, Schlamme once said at a public event that Sam won, which has generated a lot of agita in other fora.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I didn't know Tommy ever said that, but I imagine that was his way of covering for the fact that Aaron never bothered to explain Sam's continued absence for the rest of that season.

Anonymous said...

That episode made it painfully obvious that the Sam character had a distinct way of speaking that the writers did not capture (either willfully or for lack of trying). The lines seemed to belong to a completely new character, and Lowe delivered them with no noticeable Sam-qualities. Of course, viewers expect him to have changed, but I found him unrecognizable.