Ron Silver and the reelection plot may be a gimmick, but they're working, says Bruce Fretts
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Martin Sheen, Stockard Channing, ...
Credit: The West Wing: Warner Bros

New cast members enhance the young season

When it was announced this summer that Ron Silver, Connie Britton, and Evan Handler would be joining ”The West Wing” in recurring roles as President Jed Bartlet’s reelection staff, a conspiracy theory soon spread. With four of the show’s regulars — John Spencer, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, and Bradley Whitford — then holding out for pay raises, speculation was that these three were being brought in as a shadow supporting cast, a not-so-subtle way for the producers to say, ”We could replace you four any time we want.”

Whether or not this was true, it was ridiculous. Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe may have started out as bigger stars, but ”West Wing” has evolved into as much of an ensemble show as ”Friends” or ”ER.” Good news: As the drama wound up its season premiere October 17 with ”Manchester, Part II,” the trio of new actors look like excellent additions to the group.

That’s because their characters bring an internal tension too often lacking in creator Aaron Sorkin’s scripts. One of the show’s inherent flaws (which also afflicted Sorkin’s ”Sports Night”) is that all the regulars are decent, hardworking people trying to do their best, which is nice but doesn’t cause a lot of natural conflict. Silver’s Prince of Darkness political consultant, Bruno Gianelli, and Handler’s abrasive speechwriter, Doug Wegland, (whose goals are to get Bartlet reelected at any cost), have already started to set off sparks with the White House staff (whose goals are to solve the country’s problems).

The episode’s arguments were varied and highly entertaining: Doug threw out the line, ”America rocks, therefore Barlet rocks,” and Josh (Whitford) corrected him, ”No, he really doesn’t.” Bruno castigated Josh for blowing the anti-tobacco issue too early in the campaign. Doug also butted bald heads with Toby (Schiff), leading to the instant-classic line, ”I’m from the United States of Suck My” (Can you imagine Toby snarling that at, say, Sam?). Britton’s Connie seems more the mediator, although Sam did admonish her for referring to the Chief Exec as ”Bartlet” instead of the proper ”President Bartlet.”

The promotion of Stockard Channing to full-time status as First Lady Abby Bartlet has also stirred up some much-needed stress on the show. She may be the only character who can get away with calling Jed ”Jackass.” The couple did kiss and make up by episode’s end, with Abby teasing her husband that ”I haven’t really made up my mind yet, but at the moment I’m leaning towards voting for you.”

Some may say the third season is too soon for ”West Wing” to launch a reelection campaign, but it can only benefit the drama. It raises the stakes: Everyone’s job is on the line, and not just from the grand jury who’ll hand out subpeonas in next week’s episode. And it provides an organic arc for the season — a godsend for a seat-of-his-pants writer like Sorkin who never seems to have plotlines planned out beyond the current episode. ”We’re writing a new book,” Bartlet told his staff. We can only hope the same holds true for Sorkin.

What did you think of this week’s ”West Wing”?

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