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''West Wing'''s been coasting since its Emmy win

Where there once was conflict, now there’s nothing but smugness and hugs, says Mark Harris

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Rob Lowe, John Spencer, ...
West Wing: James Sorenson

”West Wing”’s been coasting since its Emmy win

There is good TV. There is bad TV. And then there is infuriating TV — shows that rankle and nettle and irritate because of their refusal to be quite as good as they could be. In recent weeks, there’s been a lot of buzz about whether a Republican presidential administration would hurt the liberal Democrat presidency currently enshrined on Aaron Sorkin’s NBC hit ”The West Wing.”

My guess: It’ll only help — Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlet has now gone from being the President some Democrats wish they had to the president ALL Democrats wish they had. Besides, the truth is that ”The West Wing” is currently weathering something far more damaging to its structural integrity: the Emmy award for Best Drama Series. Ever since it capped a superb first season by bagging a record number of Emmys last September, ”The West Wing” seems to have been taking a long, slow, self congratulatory victory lap, coasting on the admittedly considerable charms and talents of its superb cast but essentially sleeping at the wheel.

To wit: A first season riddled with spiky, exciting conflict between the members of Bartlet’s inner circle has given way to a workplace in which everybody likes and respects everybody else. Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), a fairly terrifying boss last season, is suddenly everybody’s kindly AA and therapy driven uncle.

Characters who used to stride manfully through the halls (in Aaron Sorkin’s universe, people are only allowed to speak while striding manfully, even if they’re Allison Janney) snapping interestingly at each other are now doing nothing but tossing back and forth that grating sub ”His Girl Friday” dialogue that goes by just quickly enough so that you don’t quite notice it sounds like rejected pages from old ”Mad About You” scripts. (”I need to talk to you about the thing.” ”The thing?” ”You know… the thing.” ”Oh… the THING.”)

Worse still, almost every episode seems to end with hot fudge poured over it — a group hug, a group sing, or a slow panning shot in which the ensemble, bathed in the lustrous glow of their higher purpose, beam at one another, suffused with pride at having done the right thing. This kind of onanistic malarkey is what helped kill Sorkin’s ”Sports Night,” which in retrospect looks like a dry run for ”The West Wing” that failed largely because American viewers, no dummies, didn’t buy the idea that producing a nightly highlight reel TV show WAS a higher purpose.

This season, ”The West Wing” has been sidetracked by a pointless equal time subplot in which a Republican lawyer was brought in to articulate the Other Side. Please, Mr. Sorkin, keep her down in that windowless office, and lock the door. If you want the other side articulated in a way that might make for forceful, tense drama, how about introducing a Republican with actual power — a Trent Lott like majority leader or Speaker of the House? In fact, while you’re at it, couldn’t this President use… what’s that thing called? Oh yeah — a CABINET? As much as we love Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe, surely every policy decision can’t be made by them.

Increasingly, ”The West Wing” seems hobbled by the tininess of Bartlet’s inner circle — it’s stuck shaping one episode mini crises — a downed plane, a Third World revolution, some Chinese refugees — that are neatly solved just in time for Martin Sheen to deliver some homily about small d democracy.

How about a political or national crisis that plays out over several episodes? How about some conflict or ugliness or tension or just plain disagreement on the staff? How about exploring the ramifications of Bartlet making a bad decision that blows up in his face? How about exploding one of the two ticking time bombs — Bartlet’s hidden MS diagnosis and the bitterly Machiavellian schemings of Vice President Hoynes (the sharp Tim Matheson) that were so shrewdly planted last season? It’s worth carping, because at its best, ”The West Wing” isn’t just good, it’s great. And right now, it needs to be better.