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Tuned In: 'West Wing' elects to keep its idealistic platform

Wednesday, October 04, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Who's been shot?

It's the question fans of NBC's "The West Wing" have been asking all summer following the show's season finale shooting attack on the president and his staff. Tonight viewers will get their answer.

NBC refused to send critics tapes of new episodes out of fear that some unthinking clod would lend the tape to his brother's girlfriend's cousin who might post revelations to a Web site, spoiling the surprise for everyone.

But here's what I do know: NBC isn't going to do a thing to mess with "The West Wing," a medium-sized hit last season that's poised to become a much bigger success this fall. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if "West Wing" takes the "ER" spot on Thursday night within a few years.

TV Preview

"The West Wing"

When: 9 tonight on NBC.

Starring: Martin Sheen, John Spencer, Allison Janney, Brad Whitford.


Don't expect President Josiah Bartlet (Emmy nominee Martin Sheen) to die tonight, assuming he was even hit. But I wouldn't get too attached to the female Secret Service agent played by Jorja Fox. She has lined up a series regular gig starting with the second episode of CBS's "C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigations." Even if she survives the "West Wing" shooting, she'll be an infrequent guest star, at best.

Moira Kelly, who played political operative Maddy Hampton, was not caught in the gunfire, but her character will disappear from the show.

The season finale shocked some viewers and critics who found the assassination attempt plot too far afield from the nonsensational stories that came before it last season. Actor Brad Whitford, who plays deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman, was surprised by the negative reaction.

"It's something that's happened three times in my lifetime where somebody has shot at the president," Whitford said at a July press conference in Pasadena, Calif. "A lot of the appeal of the show is what goes on behind the castle walls. To see what happens at a White House when shots are fired at a president is fascinating."

Writer/creator Aaron Sorkin defended the season finale, at the same time acknowledging he understood why people were dismayed.

"We've had a show all year with basically people in rooms talking about things," Sorkin said at a July press conference in Burbank, Calif. "We really wanted to do this two-part season opener and [the shooting] was a good way to do it."

I wasn't surprised -- or dismayed -- by the season finale. As early as last summer, fellow TV critics joked about the inevitable "sweeps month assassination attempt." It was bound to happen. Better to get it over with early in the show's life and move on.

Tonight's two-hour season premiere begins just minutes after the season finale ended. As ambulances rush the wounded to Washington hospitals, chaos erupts at the White House. Flashbacks depict how each of the president's staff members got involved in his presidential campaign, a smart way to begin a second season show. New viewers will get introduced to the show's characters while fans from last season get a glimpse at how these noble civil servants came to work together.

Hard as it is to imagine the words "noble" and "civil servants" in the same sentence in these cynical times, "The West Wing" is emerging as a hit because it resists the cynical and embraces the idealistic.

Some paranoid conspiracy-theorists see the show as an ode to liberalism -- Sorkin is unabashedly liberal and President Bartlet is a Democrat -- but the series is more interested in portraying a White House full of high-minded people who work hard to do the right thing. If my Republican father can watch "West Wing" and love it, anyone can.

"The show is being attacked a little bit less that I thought it would," Sorkin said. "The show seems to straddle the ideological spectrum much more than I expected it would. At various times there have been conservatives troubled by the liberalness of the show. I would say to them, here's a show with no gratuitous violence, no gratuitous sex, that celebrates our institutions, is a valentine to public service and features the character of the president of the United States kneeling in the Oval Office praying. It seems to me their difficulty with the show is that it's populated with characters who, from time to time, disagree with them politically. If that is to be the criteria now for what is acceptable artistic expression in the country, we've got to redo everything."

Sorkin said the addition of former Reagan administration speech writer Peggy Noonan and former Reagan and Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater to the show's staff was not in reaction to the complaints of conservatives.

"What I tend to say to the staff is, 'Tell me what you think and tell me what a really smart person who disagrees with you will say to that,' " Sorkin said. "Peggy and Marlin can now be that really smart person in the room. I spoke to Marlin on the phone about hiring him and he said, 'I don't need to be the right wing guy on the staff.' Peggy had no such problems. I think the two of them are going to make a great contribution."

Janel Maloney, who played the secretary to Josh on a recurring basis last season, will become a series regular tonight. They had a sweet, Nick and Nora-style relationship, and Whitford expects that to continue.

"I think what Aaron has written is two people who are just in their reptilian brain stems, mad for each other but they have no idea," he said. "It's an interesting dynamic in a relationship you don't see very often."

Sorkin admits to a love of romanticism, which he brings to the script of every "West Wing" episode.

"It can be so romantic because it can work out perfectly, because you do know just the right thing to say to the girl -- but you had four days to come up with it," Sorkin said. "I like writing romance, not just boy-girl romance, but lofty romance. In order to do that, your characters, while they necessarily must be flawed, also have to be heroic."

And that's the key to "West Wing's" appeal, Sorkin said. It's real enough to be believed and idealistic enough to make viewers pine, "Why can't politics be that way? I want it to be that way."

"We're not asking anyone to eat their vegetables, that's still true, we simply set out to captivate you for however long we've asked for your attention," Sorkin said. "If along the way ... people have been stimulated by that debate and gotten something more then entertainment from it, that's always fantastic."

This fall's real-life presidential election won't affect "The West Wing," which exists in a parallel universe. Mid-term elections are coming up on the TV show, meaning it will be two more years before President Bartlet has to run for re-election. But the outcome of the real-life election might change some of what viewers see on TV.

"Either one getting elected will affect our show only from a production point of view," said executive producer and director Thomas Schlamme. "[The Clinton] administration has been phenomenally friendly to us. When we've gone to Washington we've had access to things. This year the backdrops outside the ['West Wing'] White House [set] are real. They let us shoot real plates from there. For us, we'd like this administration to last as long as it could."

That cooperation turned to mostly friendliness at the end of last season, "The West Wing" cast was feted at several Washington events where President Clinton and members of his administration were in attendance. Sorkin said the only criticism he heard came from Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

"I was sitting next to Alan Greenspan and he was angry with me, not because the Federal Reserve chairman on 'West Wing' had a heart attack and died, but because no one seemed to care that much," Sorkin said. When informed, President Bartlet shows more concern about how the news will impact the stock market. "Mr. Greenspan was upset about that."

Upset enough not to watch tonight's season premiere? That's doubtful. Even Greenspan probably wonders with the rest of us: Who's been shot?

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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