During this, The West Wing's seventh season, the NBC drama's producers have had to make one difficult decision after another. When should the on-screen election air? Who should win? Could the show continue on past this season, following Bartlet's successor? In the wake of original cast member John Spencer's sudden passing, how should Leo's absence be addressed? And lastly, once it was determined that this would in fact be the final season, how should the show come to an end?
Thinking back to the fall and the issue of the show's longevity, executive producer John Wells says, "We had a decision to make: Do we try to press NBC to continue the series [with] another presidency? Or were we coming to the natural end of our storytelling? The series has celebrated from the beginning the remarkable strength of American democracy, and one of the things that's most dramatic about that is the peaceful passing of power from one leader to another. So, as the numbers were declining, we started to think maybe we'd conclude the series at its natural place."
With that resolved, the next logical matter to tackle was the presidential race pitting Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) against Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). Originally, the contest was to be settled much earlier this season. But once production got underway, executive producer Lawrence O'Donnell says, "We were having too much fun. The campaign was working out better than we thought. The story determined where the election ended up." [The election episodes will air April 2 and 9, after West Wing returns from a Winter Olympics hiatus.]
Who will be delivering a victory speech, and who will be conceding? "It really is something we've been struggling with," says Wells. "We've spent the entire year going back and forth on that question and hearing from people passionate on one side and another." Come mid-January the decision was made "which we certainly won't share, because it would be no fun," Wells says with a smile.
Of course, with John Spencer's Leo being Santos' running mate, the actor's sudden passing would need to be dealt with on screen, even though, Wells recalls, "we had conversations about whether it was even appropriate to continue to do the show without John." At the end of the deliberation, "the conclusion we came to was that, because John was so wonderful in the episodes [he had filmed but had yet to air], the best homage we could make to his contribution to the show was to let people see the last days of his work. We did not change or edit a single thing."
Since Spencer's death "happened at a point where we thought we had made a decision [about who wins]," Wells says, "it changed a lot of the storytelling" and put The West Wing in a position to actually plumb new territory by having Leo, too, pass away, and not long at all before the show's Election Day. "We discovered that there really is no constitutional provision for how to deal with the death of a vice-presidential candidate during the electoral cycle," says Wells. "If it happens early enough [that] ballots can be reprinted, the DNC or RNC party can get together and name another candidate. But in the case where it's right up against the election... it's actually a very interesting gray area. It makes for some compelling drama on the show."
Once The West Wing's election is over, a few episodes will be left to air, building to the series' May 14 finale. In those final outings, Wells previews, "We will play the transition into a new government and new presidency, and we will also be spending time with all of the characters you've cared about in the life of the series, talking about where they're going to go and what they're going to do next."
As the final strains of West Wing's trumpeted theme sound and the series takes its final bow, television history will be left with the indelible impression of a show that, among its many accomplishments, was in the right place at the right time. As star Martin Sheen puts it, "We were a fantasy, there's no question. But we had a parallel universe to reality, a reality that changed when the Bush administration came and then with 9/11. As the country moved much further away from the center, we felt that we would give everyone a fair shot, and that we would be honest in what we did and reflect a kind of hope.
"If the real world was reality, we were like a novel," he continues, "and people were reading the novel, getting good ideas and developing a faith and trust in [the country's] leadership. If we go out having done that, I don't think we can ask for much more."