PASADENA, Calif. -- NBC's "The West Wing" achieved a landslide victory at the 16th annual Television Critics Association awards over the weekend. The freshman drama won three TCA awards, including best drama, best new program and program of the year.
Thomas Schlamme, the show's director, praised series creator/writer Aaron Sorkin, saying, "I drive to work every day thanking God, and I drive home every evening thanking Aaron."
More important to fans is the show's future, following May's season finale assassination attempt cliffhanger. At a press conference Friday, Sorkin revealed the program's two-part season premiere will pick up minutes after the shots rang out and cast members slumped to the ground in slow motion. Filming begins tomorrow with the crew returning to Washington for some location shooting.
"I can't give you the health status of any characters on the show," Sorkin said, but he confirmed the entire cast will return, with the exception of Moria Kelly, whose character wasn't even involved in the shooting.
Sorkin acknowledged he took some flack for the season finale, but he stands by it.
"I knew how I wanted to begin this season, and I knew how I had to get there," Sorkin said. "[The season finale] was as exciting a piece of film as I've ever been involved with. It was actually the one moment in the entire season that I planned ahead, that wasn't written on the fly. I know many of you were troubled by it, that it didn't quite seem like the show. We went from people talking in rooms to something else entirely, that the cliffhangerness of it all seemed like a step down from what you expected. I'll not try to talk you out of your opinion of the show, but the season opener I think will possibly go a ways to helping you with the last two minutes of the season finale."
Sorkin said there will be continuity challenges in picking up just two minutes after the season finale ended. Martin Sheen lost 10 pounds. Allison Janney's hair is blonder, "and for all I know, she's gotten taller," Sorkin joked.
The season premiere will take place in the West Wing and in a D.C. area hospital, but much of it will feature flashbacks explaining how the president's staff came to work on his campaign. Sorkin said the second season of "The West Wing" won't dwell on the aftermath of the assassination attempt after the first couple episodes, but he said it will "allow us to get into all kinds of things: civil liberties for hate-crime groups if you're trying to crack down on them. Are there psychological effects of what happened? Possible mistakes that were made? How will the [president's multiple sclerosis] play? This president got elected with so few people knowing about it. Did the first lady break any laws? Was there someone she persuaded or did she remove something from a file? All those things could be explored."
Sheen, who plays President Bartlet on "The West Wing," confirmed his character at least goes to the hospital following the shooting, and during the course of a blood test, his MS is revealed to more people.
Sorkin said an eighth regular cast member, a young woman, will be added to the show, but he wouldn't provide any details about the character. In addition, Janel Moloney, who plays Donna, the assistant to Josh (Bradley Whitford), will become a series regular.
"There remains great chemistry between Brad and Janel, and we like to exploit it at every opportunity," Sorkin said. But is that chemistry sexual or sibling rivalry? "We're not sure either, and Tommy won't let me find out. Every time I come up with an idea to go a step further, he says, 'Wait till year five.' "
Last year "The West Wing" shot on two soundstages on the Warner Bros. lot, but this year the sets have been consolidated into one huge soundstage.
What that means to viewers, Sorkin said, is, "Tommy's SteadiCam shots will be about three times as long."
Sorkin said Marlee Matlin may return to the show but probably not early in the season because she's about to give birth. The show's other recurring actors -- Tim Matheson, Timothy Busfield, John Amos and Edward James Olmos -- also will be back.
Perhaps the biggest change behind the scenes is the reduction in Sorkin's responsibilities now that "Sports Night" has been canceled. Although he was sad to see the show die, having only one series on the air will make Sorkin's life easier.
"It was constantly feeling like I was cheating on my girlfriend," Sorkin said. "Wherever I was, it felt like I had a secret family somewhere else. As much as I'll miss 'Sports Night,' writers really should be writing one thing."
OTHER WINNERS: I tend to think of the TCA Awards as a nice little shindig we throw to honor TV shows. Sure, we procure a brand-name host (this year it was Ben Stein), and the stars turn out to collect their awards. But now it seems like the TCA Awards are gaining clout within the television industry.
In Friday's issues of Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, full-page ads congratulated some TCA awards nominees. HBO bought a full-page ad for its shows and stars with nominations. Talent agencies Endeavor and Creative Artists did the same.
At the awards ceremony, "Malcolm in the Middle" was named best comedy series by the critics, with series star Jane Kaczmarek winning for individual achievement in comedy.
"This prize belongs to everyone who grew up in a house with one bathroom," she said.
"Sopranos" star James Gandolfini won for individual achievement in drama. He wasn't able to attend the ceremony, so he sent his TV son, Robert Iler, to claim his award.
"ABC 2000," the network's round-the-world coverage of the dawn of the new year, won for outstanding achievement in news and information. PBS's "Between the Lions" picked up honors for television programming, with one of the show's puppet characters, Leona, bounding to the stage on the arm of her puppeteer.
HBO's miniseries about the drug trade on one street in Baltimore, "The Corner," was named best movie, miniseries or special.
Dick Van Dyke received TCA's annual career achievement award, poking fun at himself and the chances that his series, "Diagnosis Murder," will last beyond this season.
"They put us against 'ER' [this fall], so we're dead," Van Dyke said. "There's no doubt about it."
EASY AS ABC: Upon returning from "The West Wing" press conference Friday, TCA members found fire trucks and a hazardous materials team in front of the hotel where most reporters stay.
"The HAZMAT team's here for the ABC pilots," quipped one critic. He could have just as easily said Fox. Or NBC. Or UPN.
The pickings this fall aren't just slim, they're almost nonexistent. The casualty rate for new shows will probably be worse than normal due to a lack of creativity on the part of producers and cowardice on the part of network executives who agreed to air some truly bland new programs.
Yesterday, the first day of ABC's presentation, the network's audience research guru proved more informative than a session with the network's top programmers. But I guess that's what happens when there are only four new shows on your fall schedule, and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is taking up four hours each week.
In recent weeks, there's been talk that ratings for "Millionaire" have started to soften, and indeed, ABC's own chart showed the ratings among adults 18 to 49 were down from 10.3 in January to 7.1 in June. But ABC executives contend expanding "Millionaire" to a fourth night is a smart move.
"We don't look at it as mortgaging our future," said ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairman Lloyd Braun. "It will give us a better chance of having future success" if the show is able to help improve ratings for programs in the time periods before or after "Millionaire."
Larry Hyams, vice president of prime time audience analysis, came prepared with all sorts of data. Did you know 74 percent of "Millionaire" viewers ages 18 to 49 live in a single family home, while 20 percent live in apartments? Did you know 30 percent of "Millionaire" viewers are white collar while 35 percent are blue collar, with 20 percent in sales and 15 percent retired/not working?
Or how about this: Hawaii is the No. 1 state for "Millionaire" viewing, while Pennsylvania comes in at No. 4.
Aside from useless trivia, there was little news from tight-lipped ABC executives. ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairman Stu Bloomberg confirmed there may be more specialty "Millionaire" episodes on the way, including a possible week devoted to high school graduates and another to college scholarships.
Braun confirmed the long-in-development "Millionaire" follow-up, "Mastermind," is dead in the water at least as far as ABC is concerned. The game show was developed by Michael Davies, mastermind of "Millionaire," but it "did not feel distinctive enough," Braun said, adding that "Mastermind" could turn up on another network.
The only other programming news was Bloomberg's announcement about a two-hour documentary executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and featuring Tom Hanks as narrator. "Shooting War," about the combat cameramen of World War II, will air Dec. 7 and feature rare and never-before-seen footage from the war.
So it's airing on Pearl Harbor Day on ABC, a Disney-owned network. It's probably no coincidence that next Memorial Day's big-budget movie release is "Pearl Harbor," produced by a Disney company. What do you want to bet that a "Pearl Harbor" trailer airs during this WWII documentary?
Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour through July 25.