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TeeVee Awards '03: Worst Hour Show

It takes a special kind of awful to snatch the Worst Hour Show title away from runner-up CSI: Miami. We thought the David Caruso comeback vehicle would walk off with the award like a Williams sister at the U.S. Open, since CSI: Miami featured acting that ranged from the unfortunately competent (Caruso did an excellent job playing Horatio Caine as a preening jackass, something we sincerely hope was a deliberate move on his part and not an unfortunate side effect) to the supernaturally egregious (Kim Delaney and two-time Worst Actress winner Emily Procter) combined with storylines that were tasteless, exploitative and a little too fond of giving sexually-assertive women a lethal comeuppance.

However, even these formidable factors weren't enough to push CSI: Miami into first place. The Vidiots examined the littered landscape of the season and found a show they deemed even worse. Some of you may remember this show as our Biggest Disappointment in 2001. Now, The West Wing returns to the TeeVee awards as Worst Hour Show of 2003.

This is the point where everyone is wondering, How on Earth did a show that probably has special insurance riders to cover the possibility of Allison Janney barking her shins on a crate of Emmys get to be Worst Hour Show?

Let's start with the Emmys -- or the actor-showcase Very Special Emmy episodes. We have nothing against seeing a thespian bask in well-deserved professional acclaim for a job done above and beyond expectations. We do, however, bear grudges over showcase episodes written and executed for the sole purpose of dazzling the Emmy voters. A good show shouldn't have to resort to Very Special Emmy episodes just to maintain everyone's attention. The West Wing's free pass for doing this since season one has expired. Although we lost money on which actor would get the holiday Emmy episode this year (an episode that won Richard Schiff his Emmy in season one, Bradley Whitford his Emmy in season two, and John Spencer his Emmy last season) because the show broke with that tradition, it picked up the habit of giving nearly everyone the scene which was all but captioned "EMMY CLIP HERE."

We'd also complain about how a pointless hour spent watching CJ Cregg revisit her high school memories derailed the storylines on the show just to ensure that Janney could elbow her way past the Amy Brennemans of the world for that Best Actress Emmy nomination, but that would imply the existence of contiguous storylines on The West Wing. We are implying nothing of the sort.

This brings us to the second reason The West Wing is taking home the bum's-rush trophy: it recklessly squandered what should have been the dramatic high point of the series by completely blowing the storyline around the president's re-election. The night the president kept or lost his job -- and, by extension, kept or lost the jobs of his underlings -- should have been a nail-biting hour where viewers recalled three previous seasons of administration mis-steps and triumphs, remembered a tense campaign following on the heels of the admission that a chronically-ill president had lied to the American public, and wondered if what the outcome of a well-matched contest between two candidates would be.

Instead, the campaign for re-election barely registered as a blip on the dramatic radar -- not even for the president, who presumably would have been interested in the outcome. Moreover, the outcome of the election was never in doubt. In every episode we saw, it was evident Bartlet was running against a straw man. Where's the suspense in knowing that there's no way the president's going to lose to a complete boob?

Mind you, every single viewer who tuned in knew Barlet was going to win -- but the real question was how. This could have been a good story: you have a president with a chronic illness who lied to the American public, and following right after that revelation, he begins telling people why they should vote for him again. It's a tricky proposition, especially since this is not a well-liked president, so watching him win should be interesting, right?

Not when a) the presidential challenger is set up as a doomed idiot from the first scene he's in, and b) all the factors which would make the re-election campaign close aren't even addressed. Thanks to exceptionally poor writing, the re-election storyline was a snoozer that ended with a yawn.

The weak denouement of what was originally set up as a huge dramatic arc is but one example of how The West Wing has consistently demonstrated tone-deafness in its pacing. The other extreme is the annual May Sweeps Dramatic Event. This year, the president's irritating daughter was kidnapped on the very same day that Toby's divorced wife gave birth to his twins, thus prompting the president to summon John Goodman and hand him the keys to the Oval Office in the season finale. Kidnapping the kid is one thing -- to the show's credit, they did set out a smoking gun in the form of a Eurotrash collaborationist boyfriend a few episodes earlier -- but throwing in the twins on top of it is overkill. At the rate The West Wing tears through overdone sweeps cliches, we are in imminent danger of seeing CJ rescue Toby's twins from drowning when an explosion sends the White House rocketing into the Potomac river. Or of Janel Moloney finally getting her Emmy when Donna's abducted by aliens during this year's holiday episode.

That is, if she's not busy with any one of the two dozen stunt-cast characters littering any given episode.

So there's showboating and bad plotting, you're saying. I still don't see how this beat out CSI:Miami for the prize?

There is a crucial difference between The West Wing as a bad show and CSI: Miami as a bad show. The latter has never pretended to be anything other than franchise-flogging pablum. On the other hand, The West Wing openly aspired to be more from the word go. This was no Beltway soap opera -- this would be a well-written show, a civics lesson that enlightened as it entertained. Run a Lexis-Nexis search on The West Wing and see how often the phrase "one of the best-written shows on television" pops up. In fact, go through the last year's worth of articles chronicling the show as it veered into total unwatchability; despite reasonably pointing out plot holes you could drive a Mack truck through, nearly every member of the Association of TV Critics seemed to have a Word macro installed so they had only to hit a key for the phrase "still one of the best-written shows on television" to appear in the story.

We beg to differ with this assessment. After four years, we still can't tell the characters apart because they all sound alike. That's not good writing. We can't recall the last time a straw man wasn't used to help one of the insufferably noble main characters make a point. That's not good writing. We can remember watching what promised to be one big story after another disappear so something bombastic could happen at sweeps. That's not good writing.

Next year, we have no doubt that the articles will come out thick and fast decrying the changes in the show now that Aaron Sorkin has been shown the door. We're leading the curve: this year was the year The West Wing went from occasionally aggravating, but watchable to utterly devoid of entertainment value. That it seems not to realize it is what makes it this year's Worst Hour Show.

Additional contributions to this article by: Lisa Schmeiser.


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