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Sheen for president: Just another Clinton?

Sunday, September 19, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. - If you're doing a TV show about what goes on in the White House, political issues can't be avoided. But how do you make the show appeal to the broadest possible audience without alienating viewers who hold political views opposite those of the show's lead character?


"The West Wing"

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday on NBC

Starring: Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe


That's the challenge facing Aaron Sorkin, creator and writer of NBC's "The West Wing," a White House-set drama with Martin Sheen as the president of the United States. The series premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Sorkin wrote the movie "A Few Good Men" and came to prominence in TV last season creating and writing ABC's "Sports Night."

Now he's returning to the arena he visited in the 1995 movie "The American President." "The West Wing" even uses the same set as that film, and the political tone is pretty much in step with past Sorkin projects.

That is to say, Sorkin is a liberal guy. "The West Wing" comes across as a pretty liberal show in the first episode with Christian Coalition, anti-abortionists depicted as anti-Semitic deal-makers who sent the president's 12-year-old granddaughter a doll with a knife in its throat because she said she was pro-choice in an interview.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all that we get letters that the Christian Right isn't happy," Sorkin said during a recent press conference. "It certainly wasn't my intention to drop a brickhouse on the Christian right, to make that kind of generalization.

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"On the other hand, I will cop to this being one of those moments where I take a personal passion of mine in life, I get up on a box and I let you all know about it," Sorkin said. He based "The Lambs of God" in "The West Wing" on "The Lambs of Christ," a real-life group Sorkin said does "violent things and they harass people."

Sorkin acknowledged the first episode of "The West Wing" may make viewers think the show is about a left-leaning White House. But just wait, he said. "This White House has a president who is extremely unpredictable, politically. We come back in [a future episode] with the president taking a position on a military action that is so hawkish, so right-leaning, that he actually frightens the joint chiefs of staff."

But will the first episode frighten away some viewers? For that matter will the premise of a TV show set in the White House turn people off given what the country recently went through?

"The West Wing" frightened NBC.

Sorkin and executive producer John Wells first approached the network in winter 1998, just as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was breaking.

"NBC was very nervous about making it," Wells said. "There have been a lot of political shows, and all of them have failed. It didn't help us to have the president, during the same week I was trying to get them to pick it up, standing up on television saying, 'I never had sex with that woman.' That wasn't a great selling point for us at that moment."

But Wells, a 1979 Carnegie Mellon University graduate, had some leverage. As executive producer of "ER" he had a deal with NBC that said they had to either make "The West Wing" pilot eventually or pay him a large sum of money.

"It was cheaper to make it," Wells said.

NBC chose to pick it up as a series, and soon the network will learn whether viewers will choose to watch or if a TV show about the president will come off as a joke.

"There's no question that the events of the last year-and-a-half in the Clinton White House have been dismaying," Sorkin said. "You're setting yourself up for the snicker factor and the giggle factor anytime you mention the president."

Sorkin said he won't do a ripped-from-the-headlines story about the president having an affair with an intern or any other scandal, at least not right away.

"It's kind of ruined scandals for everybody," Sorkin said. "And believe me, I could have written a good one."

Sorkin and Wells both see in "The West Wing" a sort of wish-fulfillment, that viewers will want to tune in to see an idealized White House.

"From the first [televised] debates we saw the way to get the press is by responding in sound bites and things that are easily quantifiable that people can kind of grab onto," Wells said. "By taking people behind the scenes at a fictional White House and showing that debate occurring, I'm hoping it will make everybody expect a little bit more, because we've got a political climate now where nobody expects more from the political leaders."

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