Every Season Of The West Wing, Ranked Worst To Best

For seven seasons, audiences tuned in to watch the fictional Bartlet Administration face the pressures of running the office of President of the United States of America in "The West Wing." Created by Aaron Sorkin, the series ran from 1999 to 2006 on NBC and followed President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his dedicated staff as they overcame crises on a domestic and global scale while maintaining public support. Widely acclaimed across its entire run, "The West Wing" was nominated for a staggering 95 Primetime Emmys and ultimately won 26, including a nomination for its 2021 reunion special.

Praised for its frank tackling of real-world issues and its idealistic depiction of a liberal-oriented federal government functioning relatively free of cynicism, "The West Wing" is still one of the most highly influential political dramas on television. However, with creative shake-ups behind-the-scenes and several longstanding storylines that didn't quite click, not every season is as sterling as its superior counterparts. Here is a complete ranking of all seven seasons of "The West Wing," from its weakest to its strongest across its award-winning run.

7. Season 5

After working closely on the first four seasons, series creator and showrunner Aaron Sorkin, along with executive producer and prolific director Thomas Schlamme, both left "The West Wing" shortly before the Season 4 finale aired. Executive producer John Wells, who had been with the series since its start, replaced Sorkin as showrunner but, despite his best efforts, the creative change is immediately noticeable at the start of Season 5. Picking up from the cliffhanger ending of its predecessor, the fifth season rushes through resolving the dangling plot threads left by Sorkin, while struggling to find its direction without him.

Right from the season premiere, the series' tone veers more into melodrama, while the main characters don't quite have the same restrained poise as they did during Sorkin's tenure. The character that suffers the most from the writing change in the fifth season is Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), who always maintained a sardonic edge, but is written more as an outright jerk following Sorkin's departure. There are some interesting developments in Season 5, including Bartlet regularly forced to compromise his ideals as he works with a Republican-held Congress, but Sorkin's absence is sorely felt from top-to-bottom across the entire season.

6. Season 6

"The West Wing" discovered its footing without Sorkin in Season 6, striking a greater balance in tone and direction than the fifth season, but the drop in narrative quality is still evident. There is some forced drama between the main characters, particularly President Bartlet and his chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), with the whole spat feeling like a contrived way to shake up the cast. What the sixth season gets right are the additions of Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), the two presidential candidates vying to be Bartlet's successor. Santos and Vinick give the show the clear path it needs toward its eventual conclusion while infusing much-needed fresh energy into the proceedings.

If the character that comes off the worst in Season 5 is Josh, the character that gets the short shrift here is First Lady Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing). Introduced as a highly intelligent and understanding figure within the administration, Abbey grows combative and pushy in the post-Sorkin era, with the sixth season marking the character's nadir in effective handling. Channing makes the most of the material she's given, with Abbey justifying her behavior over concern for her spouse, but this feels like a step backward by placing her firmly in Jed's shadow. Abbey's husband may be the commander in chief, but she was never a character confined and defined by that, making this odd direction for her all the more frustrating, holding the season back.

5. Season 7

The seventh and final season of "The West Wing" primarily focuses on the presidential race between Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick introduced in Season 6's second half, and is all the better for it. A lesser show would've made one of the candidates a clear antagonist, but "The West Wing" makes the case for Santos and Vinick both being worthy of the presidency while Smits and Alda excel in their respective roles. John Wells creates a compelling contest at the season's core, with neither candidate overly relying on underhanded tactics for the advantage and each campaign having memorable supporting characters.

Where the final season of "The West Wing" falls short is the direction it takes the characters that have been around since the beginning, in as much as it doesn't really have a direction for them at all. More than just feeling like the lame-duck president that he is, Bartlet is largely reactionary and sidelined for the season, while Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) makes the most egregious departure of all by leaking state secrets. For all these faults, the season's funeral for Leo McGarry is "The West Wing" at its most emotional, reflecting the death of the character's actor John Spencer in a somber tribute between the election storyline and series finale.

4. Season 1

"The West Wing" Season 1 is a curious beast, as Sorkin and company are figuring out the minutiae of the show and character arcs as it unfolds before our eyes. Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) is the most prominent character of the early episodes, with Bartlet more on the periphery until the focal points shift. Similarly, Lyman is given a different will-they-or-won't-they romantic dynamic with Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), before his natural chemistry with Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) becomes impossible to ignore.

This isn't to say that "The West Wing" doesn't start strong out the gate; a lot of the themes and sensibilities consistent with later seasons are right there from the series premiere. It's just that the show still hasn't completely gelled yet, though it does find its voice rather quickly, fortunately, while Martin Sheen's Bartlet gets one of the best introductory scenes in recent memory. Looking back, it's a wonder how strongly Aaron Sorkin executed his vision and leaned into his cast's strengths off the bat, but the first season is just an appetizer for even greater things to come.

3. Season 3

"The West Wing" Season 2 laid the gauntlet of having President Bartlet decide to run for reelection while the scandal of him deliberately keeping his multiple sclerosis diagnosis from the public was exposed. These outstanding plot threads provide the third season with its overarching narrative, while the show took a greater emphasis on international intrigue, particularly the rise of state-sponsored terrorism. The latter development came in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which occurred approximately one month before the season premiere, with Aaron Sorkin quickly pivoting to have his characters address similar incidents.

The abrupt change to have Bartlet become more of a de facto wartime president is one that felt forced and, at times, heavy-handed in the show's attempts to closely mirror contemporary issues. Decades later, the third season is a fascinating look back at a show reacting, more or less, in real-time to the crises of the real world, at times clumsily in its handling and self-important posturing. Even more to the season's detriment, the terrorism angle overshadows its preexisting storylines, with the presidential scandal in particular resolved too neatly to tighten the focus.

2. Season 4

Aaron Sorkin's final season on "The West Wing" is one that concludes many of the major plot threads that he had steadily introduced in the first three seasons of the show while stirring up new ones. President Bartlet's bid for reelection is finally decided, while Sam Seaborn decides to leave the administration to embark on his own political career, with mixed results. Meanwhile, Bartlet's vice president, John Hoynes (Tim Matheson), endures his own scandal as a fresh wave of international incidents arises.

The fourth season is an all-around improvement over the third, with Sorkin taking a more balanced approach to the intricacies of addressing terrorism and rogue states. The biggest thing that holds it back from taking the top spot is the extended diversion to write Seaborn out of the show in the season's first half. By contrast, the final two episodes of the season are among the most tightly written conclusive arcs the show has ever had, culminating in the ultimate cliffhanger ending.

The penultimate episode alone has three declarations of love, a terrorist plot, and kidnapping, standing as a masterclass in taut pacing and paying off long-building plot points. Simply put, the fourth season is largely "The West Wing" firing on all cylinders.

1. Season 2

Having firmly established itself, the sophomore season of "The West Wing" takes the time to pull back the curtain on its characters, employing flashbacks to reveal more about them before the start of the series. This window into Jed Bartlet and the other characters before the inauguration is matched with the administration becoming much more adept at playing the game in getting legislation they support passed by Congress. However, even a president as well-intentioned and idealistic as Bartlet has skeletons in his closet, which are leaked to the public as he faces a personal tragedy.

The level of storytelling confidence in "The West Wing" Season 2 elevates the show's quality significantly above its predecessor while avoiding the occasionally sanctimonious tone of later seasons. Just as the Bartlet Administration is enjoying a momentum of public support and political capital at the start of the season, so too is the cast and crew's handling of the material.

Shows like "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" are cited as kickstarting the era of prestige television. With shows like "The West Wing" running concurrently with its premium cable counterparts, Aaron Sorkin and company's second season proves that not all prestige television was airing on HBO. "The West Wing" may have found its voice early in its inaugural season, but it was the second season that solidified and took full advantage of that foundation to stellar effect.