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'The West Wing' exits with dignity

Last night, after seven years of high-strung political drama, ''The West Wing" finally heaved a sigh. Famous for its huffing, puffing, and over-the-top twists, the NBC series said goodbye with an admirably restrained finale. The hour was a bittersweet coda with no big tears -- just a few heavily glazed eyes.

As President Bartlet and his staff moved out of the White House on Inauguration Day, a series of sad moments unfolded, none of which were milked shamelessly. Bartlet handed law-school-bound Charlie a worn copy of the Constitution. Bartlet opened a gift from Leo's daughter, which was the ''Bartlet for America" napkin Leo once used to get him to run. Bartlet and C.J. said farewell with not much more than significant eye contact.

The atmosphere was poignant, acknowledging the sorrows of the end of the Bartlet era but then turning toward ''Tomorrow," which was the title of the episode. ''Tomorrow" was also Bartlet's last word, after his wife, Abbey, asked him what he was thinking about.

Fortunately, the finale didn't need to resolve any big mysteries. Producer-writer John Wells has not been coy about how this series would end, once Jimmy Smits's Matt Santos won the election a few weeks ago. In recent episodes, we saw Josh and Donna finally relax into a sexual relationship and roles in the Santos administration. We saw C.J. choose Danny and turn away from the intensity of White House life. The only leftover question mark -- would Toby go to jail -- was answered last night when Bartlet signed a pardon shortly before leaving office.

And so the finale had the freedom to wind down, since we went into it knowing everyone's futures. Wells could let go of the show's trademark braininess in order to leave on a gentle note.

There was only one stunt, more accurately a stunt-ette. During the Inauguration, while Keb' Mo' performed at the podium, the camera caught the show's creator, Aaron Sorkin, in the audience. It was a deserved nod to the man who made ''The West Wing" great, before leaving it in 2003. The hour also provided a glimpse of Sorkin's future, with a commercial for his fall series, ''Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," a dramedy about a late-night-skit show that will feature ''West Wing" star Bradley Whitford.

Last night's finale was preceded by an airing of the ''West Wing" pilot, since a series retrospective was scrapped after cast costs became prohibitive. Watching the pilot offered its own pleasures; it was fascinating to see just how complete Sorkin's overall vision of ''The West Wing" was from the get-go. Interestingly, Bartlet began and ended the series with a cane, first for a bike accident and later for his MS.

Certainly, the pilot's focus on Rob Lowe didn't last long, as Martin Sheen and other cast members, particularly Allison Janney, gained prominence. And the atmosphere got darker. But still, the show's intelligence, sincerity, levity regarding the media, and joy in democracy were well in place before the first commercial.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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