Ty Burr says 15 minutes of hammy patriotism is no way to wrap up the otherwise engaging political series

By Ty Burr
Updated October 13, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The West Wing

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”The West Wing” runs into script problems

If politics is show business — if we’re long past the point where we can comfortably elect an actor to the presidency — why can’t anybody come up with a decent TV show on the subject?

I’m referring to NBC’s new series ”The West Wing,” which is, admittedly, three quarters of a decent show. Lord knows, it’s an improvement over ”The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer.” But this hour-long drama wants to be the ”ER” of the Oval Office, and while it’s an engaging, pointed, funny hurry-scurry for the first 45 minutes, there comes a time in each of the three episodes that have aired to date where the plot train screeches to a halt, the music kicks into noble Aaron Copland mode, and Martin Sheen, playing President Josiah Bartlet, starts bludgeoning the script with a full side of U.S. Grade-A ham.

It’s not Sheen’s fault, really. The blame for ”The West Wing”’s weekly gainer into high patriotic corn probably has to go to creator/executive producer Aaron Sorkin, who clearly has a fondness for this subject. In addition to writing ”A Few Good Men” and serving as creator for TV’s ”Sports Night,” Sorkin also scripted the 1995 movie ”The American President,” which cast Michael Douglas as a widowed Commander in Chief who falls hard for a lobbyist played by Annette Bening. Nice movie, and also a tale that took the institution of the Presidency a little too seriously to completely lift off.

But what’s wrong with that? After the low-rent farce of the Lewinsky days — Plautus by way of ”Tobacco Road” — shouldn’t Sorkin be commended for trying to reclaim a little idealism, to raise the subject back into Frank Capra territory, for literally striving to give the office of the president some sheen?

Well, yes, he should, even if said appeal to higher values flies in the face of what we now know about Oval Office shenanigans from Warren Harding (at least) on down. Unfortunately, ”West Wing”’s habitual seventh-inning grandstanding has a tendency to wreck its smart, adroit character-based flow.

Who would have thought, for instance, that I’d look forward to a show because it had Rob Lowe in it? Yet Lowe is extremely and subtly funny as White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn — a guy who accidentally slept with a high-priced call girl in the opening episode and has since been driving his coworkers nuts by insisting that he still wants to see her.

There’s also wonderful trench work by Allison Janney (that kinda horsey, kinda sexy character actress you’ve been seeing everywhere for the past few years) as a beleaguered press secretary and Richard Schiff as a decent, intemperate, aging lefty of a Communications Director. ”The West Wing”’s strong suit is its implicit acknowledgement that office politics are the same everywhere — only they’re faster, nastier, and entwined with national politics at the White House.

Good, smart stuff — but then Sheen will wander in, barking and ruminating and casting common-man observations before these interesting swine, who dutifully stand at attention while the air audibly leaks out of the proceedings. I won’t even go into the second episode’s subplot involving the President’s doctor, a guy who had ”Lunchmeat” stamped on his forehead and ”Disposable Last-Minute Minority Character” stapled on top of that.

Here’s my own internal memo: Please, Aaron, can’t you find a way to send Josiah Bartlet on a fact-finding trip to the Solomon Islands for a month or two? And while you’re at it, let his staff get down to the dirty business of politics for a full hour.

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The West Wing

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