This show changed its structure pretty significantly during its run. For the first few seasons, it was mostly problem-of-the-week stories, with a few arcs that might last an episode or three. I think the most major enduring arc was the scandal over the President hiding some health problem that he had. Even the President’s reelection campaign didn’t get nearly as much play as one would expect. But then, during the final two seasons of the West Wing, the story got dominated by the campaign to replace the outgoing President. And it becomes extremely involved and complex. Firstly, the show builds up two entire Demcratic presidential candidates out of nothing and then has the various West Wing staffers pick sides and array themselves against each other. And then, just as that arc is ending, they concocted an extremely likeable and compelling array of Republican characters (all of whom are completely new to the show) to serve as the general election opponents.
The entire thing is a thrill ride. You’re legitimately not sure who’s going to win. Because this was the last season of the show, it was quite possible that the whole thing could end with a Republican win. And, truth be told, the Republican candidate does come off as the more appealing one throughout the show. In fact, that’s probably the major problem with it. The Republican doesn’t believe in God, and he supports abortion. He does believe in cutting spending and taxes, but the show spends zero time on that. As a result, he comes off as very cuddly and honest. Which is a bit disappointing.
But there’s still lots of fascinating things here. Like when they bring one of the long-time West Wing characters, Leo McGarry, in to be the Vice Presidential pick and the Presidential nominee is a bit leery of him. Or when the President goes in there and tries to scold the nominee. You realize, oh, wow, these people don’t really know each other. They haven’t watched the last seven seasons of this show. They don’t know that they’re all the good guys.
And it’s also interesting to see the compromises that they make: the maneuvering and the dealmaking and the horsetrading. It’s on a much lower scale than in real life, of course. But because the characters start out as such shining archetypes, it’s disturbing whenever they do anything dishonest. Whereas if the show was more true to life, we probably wouldn’t look askance at any form of corruption. For instance, in The Wire, the mayor covers up some stuff that, in real life, would be amazingly beyond the pale (even in Baltimore). But because the show portrays all of American public life as being corrupt, we don’t even bat an eye.