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The Real Reason "The West Wing" Was Cancelled

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Over the weekend, it was announced that this season would be the last for "The West Wing."

The way I see it, the main reason to cancel the true-to-life political drama has much to do with the dominant politics of the day.

I'll get to my argument in a moment, but first, let us acknowledge the more oft-cited reasons for the show's demise.

The semi-official reason given for the show's cancellation was that the episodic series, based on the fictional White House of President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) had -- with Bartlet now a lame duck set to leave office -- simply run out of ideas and the ratings suffered as a result. Coupled with the departure of the show's genius founder Aaron Sorkin a few seasons back, that's the explanation you'll read from most tv critics.

There has also been some speculation that the recent, real-life death of John Spencer -- the actor who so ably played Presidential Chief of Staff and later, Democratic Presidential nominee Matt Santos' (Jimmy Smits) running mate Leo McGarry -- sparked the cancellation as well because his character would have been hard to replace and overly awkward to recast.

Neither argument can completely be negated, but I see a very different dynamic at work here.

Born during the Clinton years, "The West Wing" always tried and often succeeded at plausible plots and executive branch realism. Consultants were brought in who had served in the real-world White House. Everything from the physical layout of the set to the ideological bent of the key characters was centered on a White House that roughly paralleled the ideological leanings of the Clinton Administration.

When the Clinton Administration was succeeded by the Bush administration, "The West Wing" clung to the nation's increasingly conservative political reality by showing increasingly difficult clashes with a conservative-dominated Congress. The Bartlet administration was still believable because by that point, it already had been implanted in fans' minds as an alternate, tv-universe reality.

With the departure of the Bartlet administration, though, that tv-universe reality will be harder for "The West Wing" to emulate.

The current season's main plot line is the Presidential campaign between moderate-conservative Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and impassioned liberal Democrat Matt Santos (Smits).

Now, let us get to the real reason "The West Wing" was cancelled.

The real reason "The West Wing" had to be cancelled was that to realistically portray a White House headed by either of these men would be that given political reality, such a move would be a venture into total implausibility or distatesful television with despicable characters.

If elected, a real-life Vinick could either have been shown standing up for his own political principles against the fundamentalists, economic greedsters and fear-mongers that dominate the real-life Republican party -- or becoming one of them.

Vinick portrayed as a stand-up, raging moderate would not have been a credible depiction for a show that has always tried for at least some relevance to the real world.

Vinick portrayed as a new President who veered to the right to appease his base would have engendered story lines that featured a parade of unlikeable and somewhat shady characters. A Vinick White House would have turned "The West Wing's" premise of a White House as a place with a moral center completely inside out, and would have made for disagreeable characters and bad television as a result.

In these real-life conservative times, with conservatives in charge of the executive and congressional branches, a Santos Administration would be seen as completely implausible. And starting from scratch on the screen, a "West Wing" centered around a Santos regime would not have earned the "suspension of disbelief" that a Bartlet administration -- which had been established in parallel with the Clinton years -- had enough time as a televised counterpart to earn.

So, then, the choice for "The West Wing" brain trust would be to show a new Administration that was either implausible or detestable. Given the show's distinguished pedigree and well-established persona, doing either would have been too sharp a break.

The only valid choice was to cancel the series.