Sunday, April 16, 2006


(It seems like this is a good day to write this up. Not only because tonight's episode of 'The West Wing' focuses on Leo McGarry's funeral, but also because it's Easter......)

As I just mentioned, tonight the principle players in the Bartlet Administration, as well as many of the featured guest stars we've come to know over the years, will say good-bye to Democratic warhorse Leo McGarry.

The death of the character, as most should know by now, was predicated by the real life death of the actor who portrayed him, John Spencer, who passed away of a massive coronary on December 16, 2005. Because he was so integral to the plotline of the show, there was no other way to get around his absence on the series, and so the decision was made for Leo to pass away as well.

That they did it in such a dramatic fashion - just hours before the polls closed in the election - has been questioned in a lot of blogs and reviews. But when it comes to the world of Television, that's the nature of the beast.

The thing is, because of that particular storyline on 'The West Wing', we don't have to be mourning Leo McGarry today. For at least the last two seasons, they've been presenting their episodes so that they were set in the future by about two years.

Therefore, in the alternate TV dimension of 'The West Wing', Leo McGarry still lives because he died on the night of the next presidential election. Since by law the election is to be held on the Tuesday following the first Monday of November, that means Leo McGarry will be alive in the concept of Toobworld until November 11th, 2008.

And remember, this is an alternate version of the main Toobworld, Earth Prime Time. That's because the President of the United States is currently Josiah Bartlet, rather than George W. Bush as is the case in Toobworld as well as in the Real World. (I've been calling it "Earth Prime Time-Jed" for want of a better term, although it makes me think of 'The Beverly Hillbillies'.)

Although we probably won't ever see most of them, all of the characters in the various alternate TV dimensions have counterparts in the main TV universe. Only on shows like 'Sliders', 'Star Trek', 'Deep Space Nine', 'Hercules: The Legendary Journeys', and 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' do we see these doppelgangers on a regular basis.

Sometimes we have to go to other TV shows entirely to see these characters' counterparts and how they differ from the versions we know. And Leo McGarry is no exception. To see how his life played out in the main Toobworld, we have to watch an episode of 'Touched By An Angel'.

In October of 1995, Monica was assigned to help a troubled TV reporter named Debra Willis do the right thing after she struck a teenager with her car in a hit-and-run accident. Debra found herself reporting on her own crime and trying to manipulate the investigation because one of her oldest friends was the detective in charge.

And that cop friend was named Leo, played by the late John Spencer. And based on the information that I've found so far on the episode, we never do learn Leo's last name.

So why can't it be "McGarry"?

As such, we can make the reasonable assumption that in the main Toobworld, Leo McGarry didn't go into politics after finishing his tour of duty in the Air Force during the Viet Nam War. Instead, he joined the police force, finally rising up to the rank of detective.

I can't say for certain what his physical condition was supposed to be naturally, but I would think that without the high-stress pressures of politics squeezing him from all sides as happened when he was the Chief of Staff for the Bartlet administration, this Leo McGarry would probably be spared the heart troubles he experienced on 'The West Wing'.

And that way, his character would still be alive in Toobworld.

(There's a very detailed website dedicated to 'Touched By An Angel' which has a picture of John Spencer as Leo in "
The Driver".)

By the way, Leo McGarry wouldn't be the only member of the cast from 'The West Wing' who has a doppelganger in the main Toobworld who went on to follow a different career path in Life. In an episode of 'St. Elsewhere', probably the center of the universe for Toobworld, there was a doctor mentioned who was working over at Boston General. His name was Josiah Bartlet.......

The producers and writers of 'The West Wing' did a fine job in my opinion with regard to how the death of Leo McGarry should play out in those waning hours of election night. They didn't allow it to overwhelm the overall storyline; instead it flavored various aspects in the plot, especially when it came to its impact on Josh. I have no doubt that tonight's episode will allow the many characters their chance to grieve and thus allow us to mourn along with them. We get the chance to say good-bye without diluting the buildup to the biggest storyline of the season.

But it could have been a lot trickier in trying to recover from such a tragic loss. This wasn't the first time, nor will it be the last, when a key player in a TV series passes away while still involved with the show's production. And my Iddiot compadre "Cousin Steve" came up with a possible solution for when producers need that most final of exit strategies:

I've LONG been a believer that series actors should be required to put a segment of tape/film in the can that might explain their sudden demise, departure, deportation, career change, or real life disappearance.

It was corny when 'The Sopranos' tried to lip sync Mother Soprano's exit. For 'The West Wing', they might have to use a long range body double through the cross hairs of a sniper. Or the out takes of Leo's heart attack scene. [Cuz wrote this up for the
Iddiot's Delight Digest soon after John Spencer's passing.]

So, my contractual insertion for actors would require that every two years or so, they go before the cameras, maybe with other actors, and create a death scene, or an accident, or an airline flight to a foreign banishment, or a jail sentence, or a marriage overseas, or a career change, but not a face lift.

It makes sense to me. It would certainly save us from recasting the role and thus dispelling the belief in the world created by the show.

As for that reference to 'The Sopranos', that horrific scene would have worked just as well if they just showed Tony talking to his mother on the phone, where they could have just used those strung-together clips of her dialogue from those scenes. That way we would have been spared the ghastly attempt to blend various images of Nancy Marchand together.


Yes, even though we'll be mourning the loss of Leo McGarry tonight on 'The West Wing', at least we can take heart in the fact that at present he's still alive over there in the TV universe for at least another two years. In that way, he's like Kirk and Bones and Scotty and Spock and his father Sarek - but in their cases, they haven't even been born yet, let alone died in the TV Universe.

(To be exact: The deaths of Scotty and Bones are not confirmed in Toobworld yet; only the actors have passed away, and who could replace them in our hearts? Both Sarek and the actor who played him, Mark Lenard, are dead. Kirk died in the 'Star Trek' movie, "Generations", while Spock died in "The Wrath Of Khan". But he was brought back to life in the following movie, "The Search For Spock".)

Sadly, there's no splainin that can get me around the loss of John Spencer, an actor who quickly rose to the top tier of my favorites with his portrayal of Tommy Mulloney on 'L.A. Law' (another character of his who yet lives in Toobworld).

Unfortunately, the Trueniverse trumps all.


"There's a saying:
'Every man is put on Earth condemned to die,
Time and method of execution unknown.'
Perhaps this is as it should be
Rod Serling
'The Twilight Zone'


WordsSayNothing said...

Presidential elections in The West Wing's universe since at least just after the Nixon administration are offset from reality by two years. The (first?) election of Matthew Santos to the presidency occurred in West Wing year 2006. So, unfortunately, we only have Leo "alive" for another few months.

For more ideas about the West Wing timeline, see this Wikipedia article on the topic. I especially like the "Nixon's early resignation" theory and am fascinated by the interesting interpretations of Article II of the Constitution of the United States and the Presidential Succession Act of 1886 put forward above that.

Toby said...

See the comments in the "Wish-Craft" post about Requiem that was published the following day