The White House show's premiere thankfully returns to the series' strength ? quick-witted political melodrama, says Bruce Fretts
Richard Schiff, The West Wing
Credit: The West Wing: Warner Bros

The President runs for reelection

Stop the presses — Jed Bartlet’s running for reelection! It was perhaps the worst-kept cliffhanger secret in TV history. (Did you really think they’d do a show about a lame duck?) Still, the lack of suspense didn’t keep ”The West Wing” from kicking off its third season with an kick-ass hour of television.

Last week’s terrorism-themed preseason episode, ”Isaac and Ishmael,” was a love-it-or-hate-it affair; I may have been the only person in America who had a mixed reaction. But from the opening scene of ”Manchester, Pt. 1,” in which Martin Sheen?s MS-stricken chief exec answered the are-you-seeking-a second-term question (”Yeah, and I’m gonna win”), I was on board.

It’s clear now that ”Isaac” was merely creator Aaron Sorkin’s preemptive strike against charges that the White House drama was rendered irrelevant by Sept. 11. Having addressed issues raised by the attacks, he can return to what ”West Wing” does best: lightning-fast, politically charged melodrama.

What a relief to see the staffers freed from the claustrophobic White House mess set and back where they belong: Josh (Bradley Whitford) and Donna (Janel Moloney) doing their walking-and-talking, bantering-and-bickering thing in the hallways; C.J. (Allison Janney) standing in the press-room line of fire. No matter that the show set up another suspense-free cliffhanger by suggesting that C.J. might resign over her gaffe (as if!) — it was still a great scene.

Thrillingly directed by Emmy winner Thomas Schlamme, the episode flashed back and forward between the immediate aftermath of the President’s announcement in Washington, D.C., and the eve of his first official campaign event in his home state of New Hampshire four weeks later. Adding to the excitement were the myriad swirling subplots — about the U.S. military’s operation to restore democracy in Haiti, the White House’s war on Big Tobacco, the FDA’s pending approval of abortion pill RU-486, and the spectre of a Congressional investigation into the administration’s coverup of the Prez’s disease.

Somewhat lost in the bustle were three new characters who’ll form the core of Bartlet’s reelection effort, played by Connie Britton (a veteran politico from ”Spin City”), Evan Handler (”it’s like, you know…”), and Ron Silver, whose outspoken real-life persona seems better suited to ”West Wing” than it ever did to ”Veronica’s Closet.” At least Silver got the best line: Critiquing a pessimistic draft of a presidential speech, he cracked, ”I am reading things that would make the cast of ‘Up with People’ sit down on the floor and cry.”

Or maybe the best line was Sheen’s, in the atypically quiet final scene. After chief of staff Leo (John Spencer) urged him to delay his campaign kickoff, the Commander in Chief confidently stated, ”Screw it — it’s game time.” To which I say: Play ball!

What did you think of the episode?

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