In general I've been pleasantly surprised with The West Wing this season. Writer Aaron Sorkin's departure does not seem to have doomed the show, in my opinion. But last night's episode, dealing with the political realities of an appointment to the Supreme Court, was the first since Sorkin's exit that actually felt like a Sorkin episode. A lot of the old Sorkin touches were there: the idea that public service is an honorable thing, and that committed people on opposite sides of the aisle can still have a constructive debate; rapidfire dialog with occasionally humorous results (twice involving the ever-amazing Lily Tomlin); badmouthing of conservatives until one actually shows up and makes them realize that they're not actually demons-in-disguise; and the old trick of having a character come up with an idea that couldn't possibly work, although in the end it works perfectly.
Basically, what happened is this. Earlier in the season, there was an episode involving the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and his troubling health; in a closing scene, that Chief Justice -- apparently a giant of Earl Warren stature in the West Wing universe -- bemoaned the fact that Washingtonian hyper-partisanship now means that only bland moderates can get confirmed. To start last night's episode, then, a SC justice has died (not the Chief Justice, though, which becomes an important point). The White House staffers gather a list of nominees, leaning toward one guy who's exactly the kind of bland moderate they don't want to have to settle for, and for window dressing, they interview a firebrand liberal justice (played by Glenn Close). Problem is, Josh Lyman falls in love with the idea of getting this woman onto the court, which is clearly not possible.
Except that Josh comes up with an idea: if he can talk the Chief Justice into stepping down as well, thus creating two vacancies, the White House will name as its second nominee whoever the Judiciary Committee picks -- and the Committee is, of course, run by Republicans. In comes a very conservative justice (played by William Fichtner -- some great casting in this episode), and in the end, President Bartlet ends up nominating both judges to the Supreme Court, under the idea that the Court produces its best work when it has both a brilliant liberal and a brilliant conservative to battle each other.
This was just a really good episode that had that first or second-season feel, the message that "Yeah, there's lots of partisanship down there, but Washington really doesn't suck".
The only downside, as far as I could see, was a bit of a continuity error: the episode oddly makes no mention at all that President Bartlet already has made a Supreme Court appointment. One of the major story arcs of the first season involved the confirmation battle to get Judge Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) onto the SC. I don't recall if anything in last night's episode specifically contradicts that, but it seems an odd fact to not come up at all in the show.