On the Subject of the West Wing

In its final season, the producers The West Wing made a daring formal decision. They decided that instead of running the season in something approaching real time, as most network shows do, the show would be set over the course of a single presidential campaign, following Bradley Whitford's attempt to get Jimmy Smits the Democratic Party nomination, and then a win in the general election. It was an interesting idea, and made for some decent drama at times, but at its core, it was misbegotten strategy if the producers' goal was to ensure an eighth season of the show.

At its core, The West Wing was a show about the adventures of President Martin Sheen and his staff. While Martin's storylines often took a back seat to the adventures of Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits in the seventh season, he was always there, dominating the credits and sitting in the Oval Office. By playing out the presidential election over the entire season, and delaying the inauguration until the very last episode, the producers created a logical stopping point for the show. It created the idea that the show was the story of Martin Sheen's presidency, and the moment that ended, there was no reason to continue watching it.

They didn't have to structure it that way. People enjoyed the format of The West Wing, and audiences have a history of liking Jimmy Smits. Would they have watched a show about president Jimmy Smits? I can't say for certain, but the producers never gave them the chance to decide. By saving the inauguration until the very end of the season, the producers effectively surrendered to the idea that the show had to end with Martin leaving office. By having no episodes with Jimmy Smits as president, they never made the argument for the existence of a show with that premise.

Why didn't they at least give it a try? Couldn't they have followed the normal timeline of the show and had Jimmy win the election during the last episode of November Sweeps? That way he could have been inaugurated in the first episodes of the new year, and the show could have followed the story of transitioning power, showed us how Martin Sheen dealt with stepping down from the most powerful position in the western world, and followed Jimmy through his first few crises.

Would doing so have guaranteed an eighth season? Of course not - but it would have created the possibility of one by giving the network, the audience, even the actors a sense of the show they'd be doing if everyone chose to tune in again that September. As it was, the producers were essentially asking all involved to buy an entirely new show, and nobody did.

What does all this have to do with The Mentalist? Simple - the Red John mystery is going to be wrapped up eight episodes into season 6. I'm sure of this because the eighth episode is titled 'Red John', the kind of title you don't throw around unless you're finally ready to pull the trigger on this thing.

Will there still be a 'The Mentalist' after that episode? Will the characters and relationships make sense? How will they justify keeping Patrick on at the CBI? Are they going to try to build a new overarching story, or just continue the show as a procedural with the occasional multi-part arc here and there?

These are all important questions, and if they were being posed to the audience, the network, the producers, and the cast at the end of season 6, The Mentalist would have been in the exact same position as The West Wing was at the end of season 7 - with so much up in the air that it would be difficult to justify bringing it back for another season. They'd have been asking too many people to put too much trust in them.

That's the genius of closing this out by the end of November - unless there's some kind of a bizarre mid-season cancellation, which is basically unheard-of in a show this long-running - the producers of The Mentalist are going to get between 14 and 16 episodes after the Red John reveal to make an argument for why the show should be allowed to keep going into a seventh season and beyond, NCIS-style.

Do I have any idea what the show is going to look like post-Red John? No, but I have enough faith in the creative staff that if it were up to me, I'd have given them a seventh season to try even if 'Red John' had closed out season six. The fact that they're playing it this smart impresses me even more, and suggests that however the Red John storyline wraps up, there won't be any reason to skip episode 9.

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