overthinking the idiot box

April 24, 2006

Good Night, Sweet Chief of Staff

John Spencer and The West Wing Season 1
by Liz Shannon Miller

Nothing gold can stay, said that poet that one time, and no show exemplifies this quite the way that The West Wing did, a show that was so damn good its first two seasons that it just kept on winning Emmys for years to follow, despite the steady drop in quality. But we come here not to mourn the loss of a fine television show, especially since it's not quite dead and buried yet. Instead, we come here to honor the loss of both a great television actor and a great television character.

Ladies and gentlemen, let us raise a glass to Leo McGarry, as portrayed by John Spencer. Let us pay tribute to his passing, in the manner befitting a great character.

We'll have to do it ourselves, you see, because his show failed to do him right.

Behind the scenes at The West Wing could not have been easy, the past several months: finding a way to mourn a dear co-worker and friend, while trying to handle all of the complications that ensued, is a task no one sane would envy. And perhaps the decision to devote the teaser of "Requiem," airing Sunday, April 16th, to a cool and impersonal church service, and then move onto a simple, memory-filled wake, was the most palatable solution.

But that wake was more about every semi-regular character to ever darken the halls of The West Wing dropping by and angling for jobs in the new administration than it was about honoring the memory of Leo McGarry. And when the cast finally gathered privately to reminisce about their dear friend, they told a series of stories that felt cold, stiff, and totally disconnected from the character that John Spencer played for six years. Why? Because they were all made up. Because GOD FORBID anyone mention the fact that Seasons 1-4 of this show EVER HAPPENED.

Aaron who? Exactly.

For those of you who are satisfied with that conclusion to the story that was Leo McGarry: mazel tov and go away. For those who want some help remembering exactly what we have lost: for your consideration, Season 1 of The West Wing — The McGarry moments.

"A Proportional Response"
Bartlet is furious; his favorite Navy doctor has been tragically killed, and he wants vengeance against those what done him — and America — wrong. But Leo McGarry is the grown-up in the room, the one who cools him down, tells him to remember that America can't go around beating the crap out of smaller nations, even when terrorists from those nations kill nice doctors with ten-day-old babies.

That's not what he actually says. He just looks Bartlet straight in the eye, and tells him that "it's what our fathers taught us."

"Five Votes Down"
A man's personal life crumbles, a sacrifice to "the most important thing he'll ever do." Mrs. McGarry leaves Leo after one too many missed anniversaries, and it's truly sad, but the thing is that Leo takes it with such quiet, broken dignity; the shoulders slump, but it's a choice that's been made. Because Leo knows things about the world, and knows the role he wants to play in it. He knows that "There are two things in the world you never want people to see how you make them — laws and sausages." He knows how to make sausages.

And then he's a man who does a brave thing; he goes to a private AA meeting for politicians with plenty to lose. Because the great thing about Leo is that even when he's at his worst, he shines.

"The Crackpots and These Women"
Iconic West Wing moments are vast and many, especially in the first two seasons. But nothing captures the show's wit, intelligence, and populist spirit quite like Leo's Big Block of Cheese Day. Why? "It is in the spirit of Andrew Jackson that I, from time to time, ask senior staff to have face-to-face meetings with those people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention. I know the more jaded among you, see this as something rather beneath you. But I assure you that listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one, and surely not the peoplesŐ servants." It's the quaver in his voice, you see. It's something he really believes.

"Take Out the Trash Day"
The news that Leo's a recovering drug and alcohol addict gets out, and the girl who leaked it gets her butt fired... Until Leo calls the girl what done him wrong into his office, and asks for her side of the story; why she would screw him so. The fact that he's interested in the answer to that question is proof enough of a flawed man who's brave enough to face the truth. But then he offers her a second chance, and maybe that's a silly choice given the fact that this girl screwed him in front of the nation. But it's still a beautiful thing.

"Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"
The staff is in a daze, mired in compromise and lost ideals; Leo, able to see straight through the fog, comes up with the simplest, and purest, of plans — one that fits on a cocktail napkin and transforms an entire show.

All of West Wing Season 1 does a marvelous job of showing us a great man in motion, but "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" is the episode that clarifies so dearly the importance of Leo's role. For the brilliant thing about POTUS and Leo's interaction over the course of these early years is the way they both become father archetypes, but in very different ways. President Bartlet is the one who tucks you into bed late at night with stories about virtue and decency in politics. But Leo is the one who sits up with you, late at night, really talking about these things, letting the debate happen. Bartlet is the father you know as a child. Leo is the father who becomes your friend. Growing up is learning to embrace that. And The West Wing is a very grown up show.

Nothing gold can stay, said that poet that one time. Gather thee rosebuds, said another. Life is too short to watch bad TV, and John Spencer, who excelled at making good TV, would probably be the first to tell you that. So you can choose to continue watching the sixth season of West Wing shudder into an early grave. Or you can look back, and remember when it was truly worth watching.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 15.