The powerfully attractive fairy tale behind writer-creator Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing is that the White House staff is a family — one that is both functional and dysfunctional, whose members are squabbling and obstreperous, but true-blue loyal to each other. It’s at once an idealized and exaggerated version of our own families, since this one’s led by the wisest, biggest daddy in the land, the President of the United States.
Sorkin’s big daddy is Democratic chief executive Josiah Bartlet, embodied by Martin Sheen, who’s got the right gruff-voiced intelligence and twinkly-eyed playfulness to pull off what is clearly Sorkin’s goal: a combination of JFK and Teddy Roosevelt — an aging glamour-puss and Rough Rider, fair and tough. He presides over a staff of familiar faces, foremost among them L.A. Law‘s John Spencer as the President’s chief of staff and closest friend, and Rob Lowe as (surprise!) a randy deputy communications director who, in the series’ most unlikely subplot, has befriended a prostitute (Lisa Edelstein) whom he hopes to reform. This, while trying to avoid the scandal of having what Lowe’s Sam Seaborn insists on calling a ”call girl” for a chum. (The credits list political pros Pat Caddell and Dee Dee Myers as ”consultants”; wonder if either of them helped earn their paycheck by suggesting a prostitution story line.)
One of The West Wing‘s executive producers is ER‘s John Wells, and the new series replicates that show’s swooping cameras and frenetic pace. Combine this visual style with a slightly toned-down version of the overlapping dialogue Sorkin uses in his other series, ABC’s Sports Night, and you’ve got one zippy little hour. That’s good, because when you stop and examine each plot strand, the show starts to unravel.
In the show’s pilot, the President’s aides confront a delegation of bigoted conservatives, letting them know their boss will not be bullied over social policy, even as the leader of the free world is trying to help Cuban refugees in leaky rafts land safely in America. Some reviewers said this episode proved The West Wing was going to be a weekly tract for liberalism, to which I had two responses: First, so what? TV could use more dramas with political agendas, and why can’t the Right mount its own series in response? You know, Tom Selleck as a genial, pistol-packin’ conservative congressman. And second, fat chance. No way would a major network allow itself to present a Democratic infomercial.
By the third episode, my ”fat chance” was borne out. Sheen is incensed over a Syrian terrorist air attack that killed a bunch of Americans — including a black Navy doctor who had recently become a father, and who had just given the President a flu shot (you’ve gotta admire Sorkin’s shamelessness). The Commander-in-Chief wants to ”blow [the offenders] off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s thunder!” (Another irony about calling the show liberal is that the President’s most impassioned speeches actually sound more like the majestic screeds Peggy Noonan used to cook up for Ronald Reagan.) So we have a warm and fuzzy Prez so hawkish he makes his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Good Times’ John Amos — yay!) a little nervous.
World wars aside, The West Wing features lots of interoffice soap opera. Aside from Sorkin’s clever idea to play off Lowe’s real-life sexual indiscretions (and Lowe’s willingness to play along, as a sort of George Stephanopoulos with cojones), there’s also a stab at Tracy/Hepburn byplay between competitive ex-lovers portrayed by Bradley Whitford as the deputy chief of staff and Moira Kelly as a political consultant. But the relationship seems dead, and these actors come to life only when they’re talking to someone else, like Allison Janney’s canny press secretary C.J., or Richard Schiff’s beagle-faced communications director. (The show is exceptionally well cast with semi-familiar faces — it’s great to see thirtysomething’s Timothy Busfield as a jaded reporter — with whom you feel an instant rapport.)
One potential pitfall: The West Wing could collapse under the weight of its own sappiness. A subplot features not just any young man applying for a White House messenger job, but a young black man (Dule Hill) whose police-officer mother was killed in the line of duty five months earlier. He barely walks in the door before being instantly bumped up to personal aide to the President, and in a breathless moment of crisis, he’s the only staff member who can locate the President’s reading glasses, mere seconds before the Great Man goes on TV to announce his bombing plan. Whew — forget Syria: That was a close one!
Like I said: shameless. Sorkin also wrote the 1995 Michael Douglas film The American President and Jack Nicholson’s ”You can’t handle the truth!” oration in A Few Good Men, so he knows his way around war rooms and White House offices. But the thing is, as he also proves with Sports Night, Sorkin knows how to make the camaraderie of working hard and pulling all-nighters seem like fun, and fun may be what ultimately dries up the sap and makes the White House an address that feels like home. B
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