Talk about political upheaval. Late Thursday, West Wing's creator and exec producer Aaron Sorkin sent shockwaves through the TV industry when he announced that he would be stepping down as the show's Emmy-winning commander-in-chief. And what's more, he's taking his No. 2, exec producer/director Tommy Schlamme, with him. Although insiders speculate that Sorkin was driven out in part due to the show's declining ratings, all parties insist the split was an amicable one. That's a sentiment pretty much shared by fellow WW producer John Wells, who in this exclusive interview with TV Guide Online, sets the record straight about the surprising behind-the-scenes shake-up at NBC's fictional White House.
TV Guide Online: Why is Aaron leaving?
John Wells: He's been threatening to for the last three years, and each year we've been successful in getting him to stay. [But] this year, he said he really needs to write something else. The good news is he's got one more year on his Warner Bros. deal, so he's going to be developing something for them next year. He and Tommy will be doing something else.
Wells: It means a lot of hard work. Tommy has been doing less and less over the last year. He's been pursuing some other things. But Aaron has written or rewritten every episode of this show from the beginning... and he's an extraordinarily talented writer. We certainly won't be able to replace him with one person. We'll bring in a writing staff and add to the people we already have in place, and see if we can come even close to matching his brilliance. He's irreplaceable, so I think we won't actually try and replace him with one person. We'll have to try and get a group of people and see how well we can do. TVGO: Did the show's ratings decline this season play a role in this?
Wells: No, it didn't. And I think what you'll see as you get toward the end of the season is that we've got some very strong episodes that he's written for our season-ender. This show always struggles anytime there is real news going on in the world that makes our fictional world look a little superfluous. And with our audience in particular, the other shows they watch are not standard network television shows, but 60 Minutes, The Jim Lehrer Newshour. They watch all the Ken Burns documentaries, and if there's a war, they're watching three or four hours of CNN a day. So, one of the things that happens is, things occur in the world, and it's difficult to take [these fictional characters] as seriously. We have had ups and downs on the show in the past, and we've always tried to encourage Aaron to stay. Because he writes so many of them, he has always expressed the sense that he was starting to run out of steam. I don't think you'll feel he ran out of any steam when you watch the end of this season. But I certainly have some sympathy for him. He's now written 88 episodes. I mean, I've written a lot of ERs, but over nine years, I've written 30. (Laughing) I don't have the ability to attempt what he has done over the last few years. TVGO: Will you take over as showrunner?
Wells: I will in the interim, in the sense that Tommy and Aaron together have really been running the show. We knew that this would be Tommy's last season all year, so [other producers] have been taking over more and more of those producorial responsibilities. So what I will probably be doing is some additional supervision on the production end, and then putting the writing staff together and really supervising the writing of the show. And I'll probably get up the courage and try and write a couple of [episodes] myself. TVGO: What changes will we see next season?
Wells: I don't have a clue. We'll start that up in the next couple of weeks. We're very proud of the show and have continued to be proud of the show. I can't tell you why people stopped watching the show. TVGO: Will Aaron stay on as a consultant?
Wells: Yes, absolutely. He and Tommy both are going to be consultants on the show next year. And with a little bit of luck, I'll talk him into [writing] a couple [of episodes]. I'll do my best.