What's next for The West Wing?

When actor John Spencer died of a heart attack last Friday, he left a huge hole in the White House drama series plot. What happens now? How will the scriptwriters cope? Andrew Gumbel reports
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The Independent US

Political life, as we all know, is full of nasty surprises, often requiring the best-laid plans to be hastily redrawn, for better, or worse. John Smith's death in 1994 led to a different sort of Labour government under Tony Blair. Without President John Kennedy's assassination, there may have been no Vietnam war. The murder of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 reconfigured the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and may have been its undoing.

But what happens when an equally nasty surprise is visited on a fictional political world? I'm talking, of course, about The West Wing, the long-running TV drama that imagines a US president so idealistic - and so far to the left - that he could only properly exist and thrive in the wish-fulfilment universe of the Hollywood screenwriter.

John Spencer, the gravel-voiced character actor who played Leo McGarry, long-time White House chief of staff, died of a heart attack last Friday, leaving a large hole at the centre of the show. Spencer was, in many ways, the best thing about the programme, compulsively watchable and propelled by nervous energy. In episode after episode, his character proved ever devious, ever devoted to the cool resolution of any given crisis, even as the demons of his former alcohol and pill addictions lurked close by.

As the show evolved and changed over the past couple of seasons, Spencer's character changed with it. During last year's sixth season, he was fired as chief of staff in the heat of a disagreement over Middle East policy and - poignantly enough, in the light of subsequent real-world events - suffered a heart attack on the spot.

Leo recovered, and soon found himself in the thick of a campaign battle to determine who would succeed the show's lame-duck President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. First, Leo played Democratic Party kingmaker, attempting to sway the nomination race this way and that. Then, in a twist reserved for the end of the sixth season, he was anointed the vice presidential nominee.

That, in turn, had guaranteed his continuing predominance into the seventh season, of which nine episodes have already aired in the United States and five more are in the can. Leo and his presidential running mate Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, have been hamming it up in debates and on the campaign trail against their Republican opponent, the California Senator Alan Vinick, who is played with unalloyed gusto by Alan Alda.

So what next? What on earth is supposed to happen now? The producers of The West Wing were on their Christmas break at the time of Spencer's death and have made no fixed plans for the rest of the season.

A spokeswoman for Warner Brothers said that the writers would be meeting this week to try to decide how to proceed with the Leo problem. They will, the spokeswoman said, all but certainly decide to write Spencer's character out of the show.

And the broad outlines of what they will do seem pretty clear. Leo will have to be killed off in a hurry. Since footage already exists of Leo having one heart attack - not to mention a fantasy sequence in which he suffers another a few years down the road - it might make sense to have the character share the actor's fate and die of a sudden coronary. Any other outcome is going to be hard to pull off, dramatically speaking, since it cannot be filmed. An assassination, for that reason, seems unlikely. He could be kidnapped, or simply vanish without a trace. But this is prime-time drama, not a daytime soap opera, so there are melodramatic limits that cannot be breached without also severely straining audience credibility.

In the end, what The West Wing does with Leo McGarry the character is a relatively straightforward problem. It's all a question of plotting, which is what writers are paid to come up with. The larger question is whether the programme itself can keep going now that it is bereft of one of its biggest draws. And the answer to that is far from predictable.

The easy observation to make is that The West Wing is already on the familiar downward path taken by all hit shows after a few years in the limelight. This season, it has moved from its familiar Wednesday evening slot on NBC to Sunday evening, where it has ranked a dismal 50th among network prime-time series, attracting an audience of just more than eight million viewers each week.

Even before Spencer's death, industry tongues had been wagging that the prospects for an eighth season next year looked less than rosy. Now he has gone, predictions of the entire show's demise are likely only to multiply.

That said, The West Wing has survived numerous setbacks in the past. When George Bush became President - the real President, that is - it was commonplace in official Washington to dismiss the show as a hopeless anachronism, a liberal's wholly inappropriate wet dream in a new conservative era. True, Josiah Bartlet appeared to have been conceived as a sort of liberal Democratic counterpoint to the much more centrist Bill Clinton, under whose presidency the show had its debut. But the audience clung on, even after trauma of the 11 September attacks when President Bush's approval ratings went soaring.

A second, arguably more serious setback hit in 2003, when Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing's founder and workaholic chief writer, chose to quit rather than continue fighting over the political tenor of the show. That same year, the original star, Rob Lowe, also baled out, as his character Sam Seaborn, a White House deputy communications director, dwindled in importance to the point of insignificance.

For the past two and a half years, the show has been in the hands of a seasoned television veteran, John Wells, previously responsible for producing ER. It has certainly been different under his tenure, with much more screen time offered to Republicans such as Senator Vinick, and a noticeable change in the slick, machinegun speed dialogue that Sorkin used to write by himself. The show has also developed a fondness for echoing real-life events. For example, Leo was recently subpoenaed in a potentially scandalous White House leak case, an echo of the outing of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame by White House staff, over which indictments are now flying.

Not many people have been won over by the changes, as the tumbling audience figures attest. Interest revived somewhat for the candidates' debates, aired in the States in early November to considerable publicity fanfare, but has since subsided again. US audiences are likely to tune into the show again in large numbers on 8 January, for a vice presidential candidates' debate between Leo McGarry and his Republican counterpart, Governor Ray Sullivan of West Virginia.

That could be The West Wing's last best hope for a revival. There are several precedents in the annals of American television to suggest that the death of a major actor can in fact help a show survive longer because of the interest - morbid, respectful, or any other kind - it generates.

Most striking, in recent history, was the 2003 death of the sitcom actor John Ritter, who collapsed on the set of a relatively new series called 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter. The premise of the show was the comic raging against the inevitable represented by Ritter's character, Paul Hennessy, as he tries and fails to stop his daughter from expressing her interest in the opposite sex.

Everyone assumed the show would die along with its star, but something rather curious happened. First, there was enough finished footage of Ritter to keep the show going for several more episodes. Then, audience interest soared for a special one-off episode devoted to the death of Ritter's character and the grieving of his closest family, hardly the conventional stuff of sitcoms. Thereafter, the show was renamed 8 Simple Rules and became a touching, lightly comic look at family dynamics in the wake of a bereavement. That might not sound too promising on the face of it, but 8 Simple Rules survived on air for two more years until it was cancelled in May.

The West Wing will not undergo a transformation that drastic, since it is a multi-character drama focused on an institution - the government of the United States - rather than any one person. For all the admiration Spencer has garnered over the years, he probably does not attract the sheer public devotion that Americans lavished on Ritter, who was best known as one of the principles on the long-running sitcom Three's Company. In a country that thrives on sentimentalism, especially when it comes to actors on popular shows, nothing should be ruled out.

That said, nothing should be ruled in, either. In the wake of Spencer's death, the popular Washington-based web log Wonkette derided the show for descending into "a John Wells-style no-fun zone of oppressive, swampy melancholy" in the past couple of seasons and added: "We're hopeful that pretend America will be devoured by ravenous sea serpents and the show put out of its misery."

The magazine Entertainment Weekly pointed out what may be a deeper truth about politics in the fictional, as opposed to the real, world: it is all very well rooting for a candidate for high office, but what happens if his four-year term is cut short because the show is yanked off the air? At least Leo McGarry will not have to suffer that indignity.

Unexpected twists: five mid-show deaths

Jim Davis

JOCK EWING IN 'DALLAS'

Davis played Jock Ewing, the patriarch of the Texas oil family. When he died of brain cancer in 1981, aged 72, the producers quickly decided that Davis was, in fact, irreplaceable. So viewers were told over several episodes that Jock was down in South America drilling for oil until the news broke that he had perished in an air crash. His widow in the series, Miss Ellie, soon found a new love and remarried.

Nancy Marchand

LIVIA IN 'THE SOPRANOS'

When Marchand died of lung cancer in June 2000, between the second and third seasons, the producers made the dubious decision to keep her alive for one more episode longer using a body double, a computer-generated image of her head and out-takes of pre-recorded dialogue. The online magazine Slate called her beyond-the-grave appearance a "bizarre Frankenstein experiment" .

Jerry Orbach

LENNIE BRISCOE, 'LAW & ORDER'

Orbach, who was in the long-running cop show for 12 years, died from prostate cancer last year. The producers of Law & Order had known for some time that Orbach was ill, so when, in one of his final appearances, he found it extremely difficult to speak, the show's writers reconfigured a scene (outside a court room) so all the characters, not just Briscoe, spoke in a whisper.

Nicholas Colasanto

ERNIE 'COACH' PANTUSSO, 'CHEERS'

Colasanto played the lovable bar tender "Coach" on Cheers for three years. He died of a heart attack in February 1985, towards the end of the third season, and was kept alive for the rest of the season with out-takes but no new dialogue. He was finally written off with little fanfare at the beginning of year four with a single line from Diane, played by Shelley Long: "I was sorry to hear about Coach."

Peter Duel

SMITH IN 'ALIAS SMITH & JONES'

Duel's role in the spoof western Alias Smith and Jones made him a star, but he had severe personal problems. On New Year's Eve 1971, after drinking heavily while watching an episode of his own show, he told his girlfriend he was going out, and shot himself in his own living room. The producers gave the cast half a day off while they replaced him with Roger Davis.

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