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Tuned In: 'The West Wing' holds promise as TV drama

Wednesday, September 22, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In promotional spots airing over the summer, NBC beat the drum continuously for its new White House drama, "The West Wing." And guess what? It lives up to the hype.

"The West Wing" is an intriguing behind-the-scenes drama with moments of dewy-eyed idealism.

Martin Sheen makes a commanding entrance late in tonight's premiere as President Josiah Bartlet. But it's the men and women who work for the president who are the lead characters in "The West Wing," including Rob Lowe as deputy communications director Sam Seaborn.

Seaborn is supposed to be one of "The West Wing's" most important characters, but in tonight's premiere (9 on WPXI) he's not good for much more than a few laughs -- some unintentional. Seaborn gets involved with a woman whose vocation and habits would lead to his dismissal from the White House if word of their association leaked to the press. So he has to part company with her, and viewers are expected to feel sorry for him -- after a one-night stand. Sorry if I didn't feel too bad for you, Sammy.

But despite that preposterous element, the rest of tonight's pilot is dramatically sound.

While NBC plays up Lowe's character in promos, John Spencer (Tommy Mullany on "L.A. Law") is the show's true center as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. He's a longtime friend of the president who obsesses over an error in The New York Times crossword puzzle.

The job assignments of the rest of the characters aren't always clear, but they all scurry about the White House and look busy. Here's a viewer's guide: Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is communications director, C.J. Gregg (Allison Janney) is the press secretary, and John Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is the deputy chief of staff whose job is on the line tonight.

Moira Kelly appears as Madeline Hampton, a political consultant who used to date Lyman and now plans the campaign of a senator who will challenge President Bartlet in the next election.

"The West Wing" was created by Aaron Sorkin, who unveiled ABC's "Sports Night" last season. Don't hold that against "The West Wing." So far the characters aren't as annoyingly full of themselves or prone to the same redundant banter as the cast of "Sports Night." Instead, the dialogue is similar to Sorkin's work in the films "A Few Good Men" and "The American President."

Although President Bartlet is clearly a Democrat, tonight's pilot won't alienate conservatives as much as I originally feared. There's still a scene with the president giving right-wing zealots an earful, but a balancing scene had been added where McGarry makes it clear Democrats have their own bad apples.

If nothing else, NBC's "The West Wing" provides a different workplace setting. Shows based in hospitals or squad rooms have become overly common, but aside from a handful of failed sitcoms ("Mr. President" on Fox in 1987 and "Hail to the Chief" on ABC in 1985), the White House is fertile ground for television drama.

Some prognosticators speculate the American public won't watch "The West Wing" because we hate politicians. Undoubtedly true, but moviegoers showed up in droves to support actors playing the chief executive in "Dave" and "The American President." Viewers might also grow accustomed to weekly visits to "The West Wing."

"Oh Grow Up" (9:30 p.m., WTAE)

Despite the stereotypical sitcom situation -- three guys live together in Brooklyn: One's horny, one's an artist, and one's gay -- ABC's latest attempt to program the half-hour after "The Drew Carey Show" fares better than last fall's stinker, "The Secret Lives of Men."

In tonight's pilot, horndog Hunter (Stephen Dunham) discovers he has an 18-year-old daughter (Niesha Trout) he didn't know about, artist-in-the-making Norris (David Alan Basche) vows to give up his dream if he can't sell a painting, and newly gay Ford (John Duecy) faces his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Suzanne (Rena Sofer), who's bottled up a little hostility about their dissolving marriage.

Although it's a show about three guys who refer to each other as "dude," Suzanne is the funniest element in the mix. Sofer was over-the-top last season in "Melrose Place," but she's slightly more down to earth in this standard-issue sitcom.

"Well, honey, you promised to love, honor and not go nancy on me!" Suzanne yells at Ford. In the wrong context that line would sound blatantly homophobic, but in "Oh Grow Up" it's just shockingly juvenile. For a comedy about people who still have some growing to do, that's somehow appropriate.

"Star Trek: Voyager" (9 p.m., WNPA)

When we last visited the good ship Voyager, Capt. Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) was about to get killed by a flying alien that looked like it escaped from a "Ghostbusters" movie.

Suffice it to say, Mulgrew signed her contract to return to the show, and Janeway lives to save the day once again. But first she gets in a tiff with her first officer, Chakotay (Robert Beltran).

That's the best part of this cliff-hanger wrap-up, titled "Equinox Part 2." The conflict between Janeway and Chakotay resonates even as her actions seem extreme and illogical. Ultimately she admits as much, realizing she holds a wee bit of a grudge against Capt. Ransom (guest star John Savage), who has broken Starfleet rules in an effort to quickly escape the Delta Quadrant and return to Earth.

Just as the Janeway-Chakotay conflict gets interesting, the Janeway-Ransom discord disappears and the episode's resolution comes about too quickly and easily. In that regard, "Voyager" remains true to form.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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