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Show deals with challenge of combining realism and drama

Wednesday, February 23, 2000

When television depicts the work life of a lawyer or an emergency room doctor, it's easy to get a read on how accurate that depiction is. Just ask a real one. When it's the presidency, access to the source is tougher to come by.

Last month at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., Gerald Ford spoke at a press conference for PBS's upcoming 10-hour documentary "The American President" and commented on the realism of "The West Wing."

"Betty and I watched 'The West Wing' once or twice, and it's interesting to see how television portrays what they think happens in the West Wing," Ford said.

"They got the rooms right," he added after the press conference. "But it's so different for every administration. I might say it was accurate and some other administration may say it wasn't, so I'll let the public decide."

The one thing Ford criticized was the hyper pace: "I think that's overdone a bit."

"West Wing" director Thomas Schlamme said the former president is probably right, "but he didn't have to make a television show. He just had to create policy.

"You go to any police precinct and you walk in, and a guy's eating a doughnut and three hours later a guy is brought in and maybe something else happens. It's not very visually stimulating," Schlamme said. "I believe if you went to the West Wing, you'd see more movement than President Ford saw, because when you're an outsider looking at it, every person there seems like they're doing something terribly important. When you're an insider, you're just doing your job."

Production designer Ken Hardy said he toured the real White House to get ideas for building the sets for "The West Wing." He wasn't allowed to take pictures, and he couldn't see the real-life "situation room" in the White House basement.

"The real West Wing is very cramped," Hardy said. "It's a tenth of the size of what it should be, and everyone wants to be close to the president. The press room was pretty disgusting. It was pretty rundown."

No surprise there.

Hardy said former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, a consultant on the series who developed the story for last week's episode, helps keep the TV show grounded in reality. For instance, when the president hosts a town hall meeting, reporters are forced to watch on a monitor in a nearby room.

"They don't like to have the press in there," Hardy said. "They don't look good on TV. They're not laughing or clapping."

Hardy said it's a challenge to keep "The West Wing" set rooted in reality but also up to the standards of a prime-time TV show. Some liberties have been taken with the colors of the walls on the set.

"The West Wing, in some ways, is a boring office building," he said, "yet it exuded this sense of power."

For all its attempts to mimic reality, "The West Wing" won't try to compete with this year's presidential election.

" 'The West Wing' lives in a parallel universe," creator Aaron Sorkin said. "President Bartlet was elected just over two years ago. He'll be up for re-election two years after we elect another president [in real life]. I don't want to compete with the actual presidential campaign, which before too long will become very dramatic on its own."

-- Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

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