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Columns
Sorkin's glad to be back and working on 'West Wing'

Monday, July 23, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Just as chaos erupted in the Bartlet administration at the end of last season on "The West Wing," turmoil brewed this summer behind the scenes of the acclaimed NBC series.

"The West Wing" creators Thomas Schlamme, left, and Aaron Sorkin pose backstage after winning their TCA Award at the 17th annual Television Critics Association Awards in Pasadena, Calif. (Kevin Winter, Associated Press/Image Direct)

Series creator Aaron Sorkin was arrested for trying to carry illegal drugs onto an airplane at Burbank Airport in April (Sorkin is now completing a drug diversion program), several writers bolted from the show over pay disputes, and four cast members (Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer and Bradley Whitford) banded together to gain a raise before production on the third season began last week.

Appearing before a throng of reporters at an NBC party during the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Sorkin said contract negotiations between the actors and the studio that produces "West Wing," Warner Bros., were honorable on both sides and concluded successfully. He's happy to be back at work and have his legal troubles behind him.

"I did something very stupid and it was so very public and very embarrassing, and there are obviously still consequences to live through," Sorkin said. "To be able to go back to what feels like home to me -- to what feels like a family -- that doesn't just take my mind off that, it takes my mind to a great place, which is wonderful."

Marlee Matlin, who has a recurring role on "The West Wing" as a pollster, said she had no inkling Sorkin's drug problem had resurfaced until his arrest (he's spoken openly about getting treatment for addiction in the past).

"You could never see any unpredictable behavior," she said through her sign language interpreter. "The best you can do is hope he takes care of it, which he did. As long as he's standing on his own two feet and knows what he did is wrong and he's working on it, then all you have to do is applaud him and be there for him."

Sorkin, who writes almost all the "West Wing" scripts himself, said his work schedule had nothing to do with the arrest.

"It would be a mistake to think the trouble I got in in April was a result of pressure," he said. "It was a result of stupidity and nothing else."

Sorkin said his own problems weren't mirrored in "The West Wing" season finale, but the show's upcoming story does have some parallels to real life.

"Writing the season opener, I found that a lot of what I feel about the chaos of the time, the invasion of privacy ... there's a feeling of that in the season opener," Sorkin said. "Everyone, including the press in the fictional world, feels a sense of betrayal and is reacting in certain ways. In President Bartlet's world, the press, which by and large has been very supportive and sympathetic to this guy, feel like they were responsible in getting him elected, all of a sudden come down on him like a brick bag."

The season premiere picks up three months after the season finale, with Bartlet and a team of campaign advisers (played by Ron Silver, Evan Handler and Connie Britton) meeting in New Hampshire to craft his official campaign announcement. The two-part season premiere will include flashbacks to the moments immediately following Bartlet's announcement that he suffers from multiple sclerosis and the reaction of his staff.

"They're a little shellshocked," Sorkin said. "This guy they loved and trusted so much and worked so hard for has surprised them with something they didn't expect. They're not 100 percent on board, and he's got to get them back on board."

Sorkin said he's glad the halo over Bartlet has been tarnished.

"I love that it put some dents in the bumper of this guy," he said. "I think Martin really likes it too."

That said, Sorkin has no interest in "The West Wing" concentrating only on fallout from the president's medical coverup or his campaign for re-election.

"The heart of the show stays in the West Wing of the White House, involving not just political and social issues, but our people and the lives of our people," he said.

Also on "The West Wing":

Expect the new campaign advisers to clash with the West Wing staff.

The president's wife (Stockard Channing) will be added to the show's opening credits, though Channing is only contracted to appear in 12 episodes so far.

Recurring characters, including Republican White House lawyer Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), will be back. Actors Oliver Platt, Anna Deveare Smith and John Amos also return for guest shots, but don't expect to see more of Mrs. Landingham's ghost ("I wouldn't want to make a gimmick out of it," Sorkin said).

TCA Awards

The Television Critics Association handed out its annual awards Saturday night, giving "Malcolm in the Middle" the best comedy series award for the second year in a row. "The Sopranos" and "The West Wing" tied for best drama series and "Sopranos" won the group's program of the year prize.

Christopher Titus, star of the Fox sitcom "Titus," opened the ceremony with several funny, but harsh, jokes about "reality" TV shows.

He suggested one possible program for the future: "You hire six personal assistants to Gary Condit and the last one not to disappear wins. In season two, the winner has to be married to Robert Blake for six months and you see if she survives it."

Titus also made several jokes at the expense of "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, who was in the audience. Titus said he was impressed when Sorkin arrived for a court appearance and said he was embarrassed about his drug arrest.

"Of course he's embarrassed, it's the Burbank airport!" Titus said. "The drug-sniffing dog there has a permanent sinus infection."

Sorkin, accepting an award for "The West Wing," made light of the controversy surrounding him and his series.

"You've never seen a group of people so happy to be done with hiatus," he said. "In the doldrums of summer reruns and reality shows, television critics need something to write about. No need to thank us."

The WB's "Gilmore Girls" was named best new program, and ABC's "Life with Judy Garland: Me & My Shadows" won for best movie or miniseries.

"I made myself a promise to carry the torch of my mother's legacy," said Lorna Luft, Garland's daughter, "that the flame of her life and her talent would never die. I accept this on her behalf."

Jane Kaczmarek ("Malcolm in the Middle") won for individual achievement in a comedy and apologized to husband Bradley Whitford ("The West Wing") "for getting into character so much around the house."

James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos") took home the prize for individual achievement in a drama for the third year in a row. Last year when he couldn't attend, Gandolfini sent TV son Robert Iler to accept the award on his behalf. Gandolfini couldn't attend again this year, but in a videotaped acceptance speech he joked that he couldn't send Iler "because he's not allowed to leave the state" after he was arrested on robbery charges last month.

The Ken Burns PBS documentary "Jazz" won for outstanding achievement in news and information. In the children's program category, PBS's "Between the Lions" and "Sesame Street" shared the top prize.

Sid Caesar, host of "Your Show of Shows," received TCA's lifetime achievement award. His acceptance speech, following a long standing ovation, was the highlight of the evening. He resurrected an old bit, speaking in French gibberish (with a few recognizable words, such as Napoleon and Madame Curie). Then he started over again in German gibberish and lastly in Italian. Finally, he spoke in English.

"It has been a wonderful, wonderful ride," Caesar said. "The audience has given me many, many awards, but this is an award I will not forget. Truly."

He described a lecture at Columbia University where he discussed performing a live weekly 90-minute national program. When he was done, the producers, directors and actors in attendance had some questions.

"Mr. Caesar, we know your show is an hour and a half long and you did it live, but can you tell me how long did it take to shoot?" the first questioner asked.

"About 90 minutes," Caesar replied.

"What'd you do if you didn't get any laughs?" the questioner asked.

"We'd move a little faster," Caesar answered.

Founded in 1978, the TCA membership includes about 200 reporters and columnists in the print media from the United States and Canada.

Oops

Virgin Music ran an ad in Friday's edition of Daily Variety congratulating David Letterman on winning a TCA Award. Letterman was nominated for a lifetime achievement award, but he didn't win.

ABCs of programming

Despite a ratings meltdown last season as viewers lost interest in "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," ABC executives said they don't regret airing it four times a week because it allowed them to concentrate on developing new scripted series for this fall.

"That show was fabulous and is fabulous for us," said Stu Bloomberg, ABC Television Entertainment Group co-chairman. "Now we're able to preserve its specialness by having it on twice a week."

Thursday night "Millionaire" broadcasts will be traditional shows, but Mondays at 8 p.m. ABC will experiment with themed episodes. They begin Sept. 10 with a "sports superstars" edition, featuring Charles Barkley, Johnny Bench, John Elway, Jeff Gordon, Tony Hawk, Leila Ali and Serena Williams.

Other ABC news:

With "Once and Again" moving to 10 p.m. Friday, weekly repeats on Lifetime will air Sunday at 11 p.m.

Stephen King will be writer and executive producer for "The Kingdom," a series planned for fall 2002. It's based on a Danish miniseries and is set in a haunted hospital built atop an ancient graveyard (sounds sort of like "All Souls," the failed UPN haunted hospital show that aired this past spring).


Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

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