Martin Sheen's character can't get no respect, and Bruce Fretts worries that his stature might be diminishing too much

By Bruce Fretts
Updated November 15, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
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Martin Sheen, The West Wing
Credit: The West Wing: Warner Bros.

President Bartlet is becoming a sitcom dad

Forget Martin Sheen. Maybe they should’ve hired Rodney Dangerfield to play President Jed Bartlet. I tell ya, this guy don’t get no respect. His underlings are always dogging him. Hell, Bradley Whitford just won an Emmy for the episode in which Josh screamed at the Commander in Chief, ”You must LISTEN to me!”

In the Nov. 14 episode, ”Gone Quiet,” it got even worse. Charlie (Dule Hill), Bartlet’s ”body man,” got away with a crack about the prez’s diminutive stature, telling him he shouldn’t be worried about his neck getting caught in a copter’s blades. Later, Chuckles rolled his eyes at one of his boss’ tiresome references to ancient Rome and informed him that he shouldn’t go to New Hampshire to put his own name on the ballot for reelection. ”You’re pretty mouthy today,” Bartlet finally told Charlie. It’s a measure of Hill’s ever-increasing confidence as an actor that he was able to pull these scenes off with a sense of humor and without coming across as an impudent twerp.

The chief exec was also dissed by ancient Assistant Secretary of State Albie Duncan (Hal Holbrook, an old vet of the Oval Office from his days playing Abe Lincoln in a one-man stage show and the two ”North and South” miniseries). Albie was called into the White House when radio contact was lost with a U.S. submarine that had intentionally violated North Korean waters. Bartlet tried to explain how this screw-up occurred, to which Albie insultingly responded, ”I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.” To which Jed should have — but did not — reply, ”You must LISTEN to me!” The Leader of the Free World wound up looking like even more of a buffoon when he decided to send in the Pacific Fleet to rescue the sub, only seconds before the crew sent word they’d gone ”deep quiet” to avoid detection. Oops!

White House Counsel Oliver Babish (Oliver Platt) made First Lady Abby Bartlet (Stockard Channing) look almost as foolish. He questioned her about patients who’d filed malpractice suits against her and had now been put on the witness list of the congressional committee investigating her husband’s coverup of his MS. Babish scolded Abby that she should be ”ashamed” of herself for writing prescriptions for the president under her own name, and said that her idea to cut a deal with the opposition ”stinks.” Again, only a thespian as skilled as Platt could make these scenes swallowable. He really should be made a regular; this is easily Platt’s best role since he played Warren Beatty’s frazzled political aide in ”Bulworth.”

Don’t expect President Bartlet to start commanding respect anytime soon. In the ad for next week’s episode, the most powerful man on the planet calls a hotline to find out how to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving. C’mon, Aaron Sorkin, we need to look up to our fictional leader in this time of national crisis. Don’t turn him into our nation’s clueless sitcom dad. At least Sheen wasn’t inexplicably forced to sing ”I’m Too Sexy” over and over — unlike Allison Janney.

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

The West Wing

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  • TV Show
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  • Off Air
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  • NBC

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