'The West Wing': Lame Duck

The cast of
The cast of "The West Wing" -- which ends its run in May -- from left, Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, the late John Spencer, Stockard Channing, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Allison Janney and Dule Hill. (By Mark J. Terrill -- Associated Press)
By Lisa de Moraes
Monday, January 23, 2006

PASADENA, Calif., Jan. 22

NBC's fantasy White House drama "The West Wing" will end its seven-season run on May 14 with the inauguration of the new president, executive producer John Wells told television critics Sunday.

The election will be covered on April 2 and 9 and viewers will know by the end of the latter episode whether the presidential candidate played by Jimmy Smits or Alan Alda won the election -- a decision the producers "have only really in the last couple days made," at the end of "quite a brawl," Wells told critics at the very last session of Winter TV Press Tour 2006.

The show's declining ratings since its move to Sunday led producers to think that the peaceful passing of power from one leader to another would be a "really wonderful way to end the series" at its "natural place," he explained. So far this season, viewership has dropped by about a third compared with last season's numbers, which were already well below what the series had averaged in its heyday. These days it averages about 8 million viewers a week, but it remains the most upscale series on prime-time broadcast TV.

Earlier in the day the head of NBC's entertainment division, Kevin Reilly, had made it official that this season would be "West Wing's" last.

The sudden death of actor John Spencer in December has "changed a lot of the storytelling" for the final episodes, Wells said, sharing the stage with some of the writers and cast members.

The producers had shot five episodes, three of which Spencer was central to, at the time of his death. Wells said they talked about how to handle the situation over the holidays and decided the best homage they could pay Spencer was to change nothing and "let people see the last days of his work." He joked that Spencer would have been angry at him if he had changed the episodes -- "cutting his best scenes . . . so we left it."

Scrambling to deal with the reality of the actor's death, Wells said, the producers discovered there is no real provision for dealing with the death of a vice presidential candidate on the eve of an election.

We "are now dealing with the death of a character we loved after dealing with the death of a man we loved; it's a complicated and difficult time for us," he added.

Martin Sheen, who has played our fantasy president for seven seasons, was asked to reflect on what the show has meant to the country over the years.

"We can be very cynical about the people that lead us," he said, adding that he hoped the show managed "to make people realize that being a public servant is an honor . . . and that so many good and decent people do it and never get any credit.

"We were a fantasy but we had a parallel universe to reality," he continued. That changed radically, he said, when the Bush administration came into office and then 9/11 happened and "the country moved much further away from the center and we felt we were dead in the center and we gave everyone a fair shot."

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