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Regime Change

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Can a new producer and a new president save “The West Wing”?

I used to love “The West Wing,” I really did. Its first two years on the air it was a truly brilliant show, combining everything that’s fascinating about politics with the formula of network television drama, and propelled by great actors to boot. Yes it came from a blatantly liberal perspective, but it was always fair and never turned into propaganda.

Somewhere around the third season though, trouble began, and the quality began to slowly slip. Then George W. Bush became president and the show’s depiction of White House life began to move further and further away from the way things really were. Then September 11 happened, severing whatever links that remained to reality and even further establishing that “West Wing” was still living in 1999. This was underscored by a disgustingly condescending episode of the show that aired weeks after 9/11, in which the characters spent an hour “lecturing” a group of teenagers about “tolerance” in the face of terrorism.

Creator Aaron Sorkin was arrested on drug charges, several cast members, writers, and Sorkin himself got into disputes with the network and each other, and the quality of the show slowly began to decline: the third and fourth seasons consisted largely of the president’s re-election campaign, weakly imagined by Sorkin as a fantasy in which the Clinton/Gore surrogate (Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet) easily vanquished the dem-witted Bush stand-in (Josh Brolin’s Bob Ritchie).

Ratings nosedived during the fourth season (last year), as star Rob Lowe left the show, and storylines became more and more lazy- Sorkin began resorting to the played-out “ripped from the headlines” shtick popularized by “Law & Order,” and also wrote several convoluted, hard-to-follow episodes in which the action shifted between the present-day and flashbacks, despite the same characters appearing in both periods looking exactly the same. And Sorkin’s habit of relying on long speeches instead of the usual rapid-fire dialogue soon became more grating than ever.

Then came several instances of desperate stunt-casting, as Matthew Perry, Christian Slater, and others were brought in for brief stints, and in an effort at “balance,” their characters were all Republicans. Finally, the fourth season ended with an admittedly interesting storyline in which Bartlet’s daughter was kidnapped by terrorists, the president invoked the 25th amendment in order to temporarily step down and, since the vice president (Tim Matheson) had resigned weeks earlier in a sex scandal, the presidency passed to the Republican Speaker of the House, played by John Goodman.

That episode was Sorkin’s swan song; soon after he announced that he was leaving the series. Inexplicably, the show won the Emmy last week for Best Dramatic Series; the first 15 minutes of the first episode of last year’s “Six Feet Under” likely had more drama than the entire season of “West Wing.”

After Sorkin’s departure the show was left in the hands of executive producer John Wells, the man behind “ER,” and it seemed for awhile that Sorkin had left an interesting setup: the cliffhanger over Zoey Bartlet’s fate combined with the interesting juxtaposition of a conservative Republican president working with the liberal Democratic White House staff we all know and love. In interviews Wells has expressed a desire to make the show more “balanced” politically, by bringing conservative voices into the traditional bastion of liberalism. But judging by the first episode, the new regime has failed on nearly every count.

The idea of adding more conservatism to the show in order to encourage conservatives to watch may be the worst brainstorm by a TV network since the greenlighting of “Cop Rock.” To conservatives, “West Wing” has always had a left-wing taint, and they’re not about to start watching again just because the show added a temporary Republican president. James Lileks has said that Phil Donahue’s MSNBC talk show failed because liberal viewers would rather hear the same words come out of Martin Sheen’s mouth on “West Wing”; by the same token, a GOP president on “West Wing” will fail because Republican viewers would rather hear the same words from Bill O’Reilly’s mouth.

Besides, Goodman is clearly set up as the villain: the actor, now so morbidly obese that it’s frankly a distraction, plays the president as an exagerrated archetype of a Democrat’s worst nightmare: a slovenly Southern good ol’ boy whose first reaction to any situation is to go bomb somebody, even if he doesn’t know who that “somebody” is. And it’s not even a dig at Dubya; even those who call Bush a warmongering fascist realize that he waited a month after 9/11 to bomb Afghanistan and let the invade-Iraq question marinate for nearly a year. Goodman’s Glen Walken is sending fighter jets across the globe about 45 minutes into his presidency. And his smarmy chief of staff is played by expert-villain actor Zeljko Ivanek, who portrayed both the scheming Governor Devlin on “Oz” and the Serbian heavy on the first season of “24.”

Yes, the episode did contain some touching moments related to the Zoey Bartlet character, though it also features an unsatisfying wrap-up to the Bartlet-blows-up-a-terrorist’s-plane storyline from two years ago, as well as a foreign-invasion montage that just isn’t convincing, especially considering what we’ve seen in real life lately.

Another goof: for the last couple years the primary foreign-policy concern of the Bartlet administration has been “Qumar,” a fictional Arab/Muslim Middle Eastern country that’s supposed to represent a hybrid of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, an “ally” of the United States that nevertheless supports terrorism. As opposed to “24,” which spent an entire season referring to a nuclear bomb plot by “three Middle Eastern countries” that were never named, Sorkin chose to make up a fake country.

On the premiere we finally see a map of Qumar, which is apparently carved out of southern Afghanistan and also borders Iran to the East. But Qumar has been referred to all along as “Arab country”- never mind that the “Arab World” ends at the Iran/Iraq border, and the people of neither Iran (Persian) nor Afghanistan (Pashtun and others) are Arabs. What ethnicity are people from Qumar? Qumarese? And what about Iraq- is Saddam Hussein still in power in “West Wing”‘s universe? The paradoxes just boggle the mind…

Ever since the NBC-owned Bravo network (swelling in viewership due to the success of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”) began airing the early “West Wing” episodes nightly, the show has begun to suffer the same syndrome that befell “Seinfeld” in its later years- the perpetual airing of classic episodes has only served to make the current version of the show look weak. The difference is that the “Seinfeld” classics were 6 or 7 years old; the “West Wing” classics are 2 or 3 years old.

Regardless of whether Zoey Bartlet lives or dies, Martin Sheen will likely be back in power within weeks, and the great “Republican experiment” will have come to an end. Can “The West Wing” reclaim its former glory? I asked the same question this time last year and thus far the answer’s been no.

Many supporters of Howard Dean have compared their candidate to Bartlet: both are liberal former governors of Northern New England states. And it’s often been stated that “West Wing” will have to end in 2006, since that’s when Bartlet’s second term expires. But can the show last that long? At this point, two years from now I think we’re more likely to see a President Dean than President Bartlet.

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