A common lament among fans of “brilliant but canceled” TV programs is, if only the network had given my favorite show more time, it surely would have found a larger audience. The legendary tale of Seinfeld‘s development from notoriously awful initial audience testing to spectacular ratings success, or the track of Cheers from the bottom of the Nielsens all the way to the top, gives hope to wild-eyed optimists advocating patience for almost anything and everything that makes it to air. (TV by the Numbers’ brutally calculating Cancellation Bear lampoons such reasoning with the ironic hashtag #SaveGunsmoke.)
The reason such successes are rare says as much about how television is made as it does about how it is consumed. Starting with pilot season, the major networks obsessively analyze scripts, casting and premises for the most marketable projects. Once the best of the best are chosen, the network puts considerable advertising muscle behind its new shows, often hand-picking one or two to get the full promotional treatment…a must-see hit, if you will. When done right, a large initial sample to the right show can carry a show to a long run; if audiences don’t respond instantly and ratings drop fast, the network can readily give up, reasoning that a show everyone already knows about is an unlikely candidate to be “discovered” down the line.
But is the reverse true, that any show that finds a large audience in its first season will continue to have a long, high-rated run? If so, networks would be smart to throw their resources behind one or two shows per season at the expense of veteran shows looking to grow.
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By its second season, The West Wing’s increasingly ambitious set pieces were helping to cement its reputation as one of the most expensive shows on television. “The Portland Trip” exists in part to show off the program’s Air Force One set, complete with exterior shots of a real Boeing 747, so the episode could easily have felt like a gimmick. Even so, it manages to tell a meaningful story that probably couldn’t have been accomplished any other way.
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It had been a while since The West Wing released an episode devoted mainly to some arcane part of the lawmaking process by the time “The Lame Duck Congress” came around. Despite devoting much of its first season to exploring the minutiae of governance, the show had lately been focused on much bigger themes. But this episode marks the point when the show seems finally to have moved past the roller coaster of its early second season.
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A recurring theme in the early episodes of The West Wing’s second season is that the characters haven’t always been at their best. “And It’s Surely To Their Credit” brings that issue right to the surface, giving one of the deepest looks yet into the staff’s attitude and taking the time to lay out a real explanation.
The focus of the action is new recurring character Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), the Republican and former media personality who’s starting her first day working in the White House. She still doesn’t have any friends in the building, and her boss, the incredibly bombastic White House Counsel Lionel Tribbey (John Larroquette), calls her an idiot at their first meeting.
Ainsley’s one defender is C.J. (Allison Janney), who accurately notes that the obsession over her is more than a little sexist. But C.J. has to spend most of the episode dealing with General Barrie (Tom Bower), the retiring Army chief of staff, who plans to publicly trash President Bartlet’s record on military readiness while on his way out the door.