I’ve been rewatching selected episodes of the third and fourth seasons of The West Wing recently. The show’s two strongest creative voices — Aaron Sorkin, creator and head writer, and Thomas Schlamme, executive producer and regular director — started discussing an exit strategy at the beginning of the third season, so you can almost see the air running out of the tires as the fourth season draws to a close. Sorkin, perhaps as an act of sheer will or spite, also set in motion a number of plots at the close of the fourth season that did as much as possible to knock the series off its track: the vice president resigned because of a sex scandal, the president’s youngest daughter was kidnapped, and the president temporarily renounced his office to focus on the manhunt and allowed the Republican Speaker of the House to assume the presidency. It was a giant mess of story, and it did as much as anything to set a new tone for the show: instead of creating drama by having smart people be outsmarted, the show had smart people make dumb decisions. They were in jams, but less interesting or engaging ones.
But one of the biggest changes to take root in the fourth season was the show’s new visual vocabulary. The series had started life with a warm look: buttery lights and rich reds ran throughout the West Wing, and camera placement and movement had emphasized action and relationships. The infamous walk-and-talks stood out the most, but the show’s look in its early years was smartly guided, and cinematography was always at the service of story. A random example: in one episode, Sam Seaborn is tasked with meeting with an unbalanced man who believes the government is hiding evidence of alien life at Fort Knox. Sam walks into the conference room, and we cut to a shot down the table, but no one’s there. Except someone actually is: the man is sitting at the end of the table, his face obscured by a lamp. He has to lean over for Sam to see him. It’s a visual joke that relies on space and image, but it also underscores the dynamic in the room: this guy is so timid that he’s invisible even when you’re looking at him.
In the show’s fourth year, though, as director Christopher Misiano helmed more episodes and Sorkin and Schlamme were getting closer to exit, the look and feel began to change. (Schlamme, who directed five episodes in the first season and four each in the second and third, only directed a single episode in the fourth season.) Lighting was often harsh and overhead, with bright pools in the middle of inky backgrounds. Performances that had been delivered at a normal speaking volume began instead, for some reason, to be fervently whispered. The show began to give off a bruised, unwelcoming vibe. Camera work suffered, too. The big trend of the year was to simply point the camera at a corner of the action — say, the edge of a door frame — and let the actors walk around it. Instead of following Donna into Josh’s office by cutting from the bullpen to the office interior, the camera pans to watch her walk into Josh’s office and stays pointed at Josh. He’s seated at his desk as Donna stands in front of him, sometimes walking in front of the camera. It feels like it’s meant to mimic voyeurism — as if you were actually standing there and had watched her walk into the office before deciding to hide outside and try to listen — but there’s no rhyme or reason here. It’s a new and grating attempt at “style” that doesn’t feel at home in a show that’s been building a visual language for three-plus years by this point. So many moments in the fourth season are staged like this: camera composing an ugly frame as the principles are mostly heard off screen.
Most pieces that talk about the show’s break between its first four seasons (the ones with Sorkin and Schlamme) and its last three (the ones without them) focus on the narrative and writing, and those are important. Sorkin’s wit and rhythms are hard to replicate without sounding robotic or mocking. But just as important was the way the show started to look grim and locked-down, the opposite of the look it had spent so long cultivating. It’s almost hard not to feel like the new look was a reflection of the show’s uncertainty about itself as its key storytellers made for the exit. It started to look forced and ordinary, when the show’s true essence was anything but.