BURBANK, Calif. -- Martin Sheen has a big head. Not in a stuck-up way, but his oversized head has been pasted onto the smaller bodies of real American presidents in photos with world leaders that hang all over "The West Wing's" White House set.
Not that viewers at home see those background details. Heck, you can barely keep track of the foreground action with the cameras and actors moving so often and so quickly. While the show's "ER"-like pace defines its style, something else explains why the show's a hit -- the writing.
Like the best television dramas of the past two decades, the scripts for "The West Wing" (9 tonight on WPXI) emanate from a singular vision: creator Aaron Sorkin. Last season Sorkin created the critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged "Sports Night." This time around he's built a show that appeals to both critics and viewers.
This isn't Sorkin's first journey to a fictional White House. He ventured into the iffy waters of politics-as-entertainment in the 1995 film "The American President." The movie did respectable business at the box office, but NBC remained nervous about a politically themed series, especially in the wake of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
Now the network has reason to cheer. "The West Wing" is tied with "Ally McBeal" at No. 28 among all network series in households this season. But unlike "Ally," "West Wing" doesn't yet crack the Top 15 in the advertiser-friendly 25-54 demographic.
To draw more young viewers, NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier said Sorkin will add a young character next season (probably not a White House intern, thankfully). And there may be a few cast departures.
Moira Kelly's political consultant was never fully developed and will be written out at the end of the season. Rob Lowe's Sam Seaborn had little to do the first half of the season, leading to reports Lowe threw tantrums on the set. At a press conference on the Warner Bros. lot last month Lowe dodged a question about those reports, but his character has had more to do lately, so maybe he's happier.
Whether or not Lowe was disgruntled, his frustration is at least a little understandable. Lowe gets top billing in the series, and he probably expected to be the center of attention. "The West Wing" was originally conceived as a show without the president in the regular cast.
"I wanted it to be about the senior staffers, and I had this fear the character of the president would necessarily steer the show in a different direction," Sorkin said last month. Then Sorkin and crew worried about the hokeyness factor. Sorkin feared by not having the president in the show at all the senior staff would continually "just miss" the president. "We'd be seeing the back of his head, or he'd become like the next-door neighbor on 'Home Improvement,' and that was going to be silly."
Martin Sheen signed on for a recurring role as the president, but during production of the series pilot, the producers changed their minds again.
"When we saw Mr. Sheen's dailies at the end of the first day, we all looked at each other and said, 'This is a mistake,' " said executive producer John Wells. "Sometimes you put an actor in a guest part or a part where they'll only come back occasionally, and then you realize that's someone you want to see all the time, someone you want to write for."
Wells has been in that situation before. As executive producer of "ER," he almost killed off Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) in that show's pilot, only to keep her. She went on to become one of the program's most popular characters. The same is true for Sheen in "The West Wing."
Though Sorkin is a Hollywood liberal through and through, "The West Wing" appeals to viewers of every political stripe. Sorkin takes pains to point out President Bartlet's conservative streak (bombing a Middle Eastern country when his personal physician's plane was shot down early in the season, refusing to commute the death sentence of a federal prisoner a few weeks ago), but the character is a liberal Democrat.
The show's broad appeal can probably be attributed to wish fulfillment -- a moral president who tries to do right with the aid of his smart, well-meaning staff -- and an inherent patriotism that has no political allegiances.
"It goes back to one of my trips to the White House when I researched 'The American President,' " Sorkin said. "I sat with George Stephanopolous in his office for 20 minutes. He was eating his lunch off a tray, and I was very, very nervous because I was in the White House for the first time. Turned out we knew a couple people in common -- his college roommate I went to high school with -- and all of a sudden I'm sitting there in the White House with a guy who is my age, about 20 feet from the Oval Office, having a conversation that could just as easily have taken place in my dorm room a few years earlier.
"It didn't make me nervous that these aren't men of steel running the place. It's me and you that are running this place and that made me feel fantastic and as patriotic as I've ever felt. I'm filled with this feeling every time I write a 'West Wing' script."
It's not the only feeling. Unlike the executive producers of some TV shows who plot out their seasons in story arcs months at a time, Sorkin charts a more precarious course.
"The hardest part of the show isn't the hours, it's living in constant fear of, 'Oh no, I don't have an idea for next week,' " Sorkin said. "When I was writing the pilot, I didn't have any idea what was going to happen in episode two much less episode 12. Before I came [to the press conference on a Thursday morning], I finished writing the second act of the episode that will start shooting on Monday. I have a certain degree of confidence what's going to happen in the third act, less of what's going to happen in the fourth act and no idea what's going to happen in the episode after this."
While nerve-wracking to some, that approach offers more opportunities for spontaneity. Last week's episode was structured around a symposium where deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) was interviewed. Tonight the president goes on a Democratic fund-raising trip to California.
"We'll be on Air Force One [tonight] and to a certain extent I like showing the behind-the-scenes, cool stuff," Sorkin said.
Actress Stockard Channing, who has a recurring role as President Bartlet's doctor wife, said Sorkin builds her character with each appearance.
"I talk to Aaron, and he says, 'I didn't think she was going to go this way, now I want to do this, now I want to do that.' It's totally the opposite of anything I've ever done," Channing said. "We're doing it inductively rather than deductively.
"It's kind of fascinating, because when you don't set someone up, you can do anything you want," Channing said. Although she's not a series regular, she's "committed in spirit to the show" and willing to do episodes when her schedule allows, as long as Sorkin doesn't hatch a sweeps-month assassination plot.
"There's always some of those letter bombs," she said with a laugh.
Last month, when Channing, viewers and the president's chief of staff learned President Bartlet suffers from multiple sclerosis, it wasn't something Sorkin planned. He wasn't trying to make any statements about living with the disease.
"It all started because I wanted the president to be in bed watching a soap opera, and I had to figure out how he got there, and I didn't want it to just be the flu," Sorkin said. "I also wanted to reveal Stockard Channing was a doctor, and things started happening, and we arrived at that point."
Sorkin said viewers will learn more about the president's MS as the series progresses. For Sheen, who sometimes refers to himself as "the acting president," such revelations provide a challenge.
"The most remarkable part of these characters is the change," Sheen said. "Letting go of what's worked and venturing out into more-troubled waters and learning to be a better sailor."
Though Sheen claims little interest in politics ("I'm far more interested in public servants") he's well known for his devotion to liberal causes, getting arrested during protests on a regular basis. Wells said that hasn't disrupted the show's shooting schedule. Sheen tells producers in advance when he expects to be arrested over the weekend, lining up someone in advance to bail him out in time for work Monday morning.
"He has extraordinary convictions and believes in them passionately, and he's very professional in the way in which he follows them through," Wells said. "He never brings any of that to what we're doing in 'West Wing.' He does not confuse his character's politics with his own politics."
Whatever the politics of Sheen or the series, Sorkin creates complex, believable characters, from the deep convictions of communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) to the capable charm of press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney). Likable though they are, Sorkin said it's important his characters show flaws.
"It's a battle between doing well or doing good, being popular or doing the right thing, doing the political versus the principals," Sorkin said. "The high road doesn't always win. We're going to see plenty of characters come in and go out who have their eye more on the bottom line, but I don't think any of these characters are marble statues."
Smart, complicated characters aren't just a campaign promise. With each episode, Sorkin proves to be a dynamic writer, up to the task of putting words in the mouth of TV's chief executive. It's the reason viewers vote with their remotes for "The West Wing" week after week.