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Fall '99: "The West Wing"

The most sympathetic, likeable character in Aaron Sorkin's NBC drama The West Wing is a whore. And she's not even a regular.

In the series premiere, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), speech writer, spends a night with a woman he meets at a bar. By means of a silly plot contrivance, we learn that the woman is a prostitute. This poses a problem for Seaborn. As a White House operative, a dalliance with a call girl could prove embarrassing to himself and his boss if word of it leaks to the press. (Lowe plays this most convincingly, knowing all too well the ins-and-outs political sex scandals.) As a world-saving do-gooder with a weakness for members of the fairer sex, Seaborn cannot resist the temptation of trying to save the woman from a life of exploitation.

But our '90s Jezebel does not want to be saved. "In my life, I have never committed a federal crime, which is more than I can say for some people in your line of work. I don't need saving... I like what I do and it's putting me through law school."

Unsentimental. Only a little pretentious. A bit self-righteous, sure, but then it wouldn't be an Aaron Sorkin production otherwise, now would it? There may even be a little truth in what she says. I wonder how much of it Sorkin believes? No matter. Such flourishes make an otherwise unwatchable show watchable.

The West Wing is typical of Sorkin's oeuvre: sanctimonious, affected, self-righteous. You want the truth? Sorkin's heroes and villains are not characters, but caricatures. Conservatives are the Dark Forces of Reaction -- one-dimensional, mouth-breathing troglodytes. The liberal heroes of the mythical administration are enlightened, smart, but debilitated in some way, often by a kind of hopeless romanticism. Their idealism makes them more "human."

The whore-redemption subplot has been set aside for the time being, as the first-term administration of President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) tackles other crises -- terrorism, gun control, and that pesky budget. His administration is righteous, but humane. It is progressive, with good-hearted people who know they are right and who are unafraid to use the massive power and might of the United States government to show it.

But the show really isn't about President Sheen. It's about his people -- who they are, what they do, how they make the White House go.

There is Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), who stakes his reputation and his marriage on a getting a gun-control bill passed. A compromise bill passes, Leo's wife leaves him anyway, and it's back to AA -- Leo is a recovering alcoholic, naturally -- located conveniently in the basement of Old Executive Office Building.

McGarry's deputy, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitfield), has got problems of his own. His quick jibes earn land him in hot water with the mean Christian Right in the first episode. It doesn't help matters any that he is Jewish -- Sorkin uses that as an excuse to paint the moralizing antagonists as anti-semitic as well as ignorant. When a National Security Agency man gives him a card with instructions where to go in the event of a nuclear war, he suffers an existential crisis. I suppose many of us, placed in the same situation, would have pondered our place in the world, too. But only Sorkin could turn it into a meditation on Freudian psychology and childhood trauma.

Communications Director Toby Zeigler (Richard Schiff) is a liberal pain in the ass. Even the President doesn't like him very much. Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) is the Harried Career Woman.

Then there is Charlie (Dule Hill), a young black man whose mother was a cop killed in the line of duty. He applies to be a White House messenger and ends up as President Bartlett's "body man." Why is he in this cast? Because NBC needed a black character in the show. Once it became clear that the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza weren't buying Marty Sheen nee Estevez as a Hispanic actor (hell, even Sheen wasn't buying it), something had to be done fast. And it shows.

The only truly believable character is Moira Kelly's mercenary political consultant Madeline Hampton. She's also the most contemptible, except for the others.

Much has been made -- by television critics, any way -- of Sorkin's idea of who or what President Bartlett is supposed to be: a melange of Teddy Roosevelt, JFK, and Gerald Ford with a dash of Reagan. The militaristic gesture in the second and third episodes, it's said, is supposed to be an attempt at "balance." When middle eastern terrorists shoot down an unarmed Air Force passenger jet carrying the President's physician, the commander-in-chief wants to respond by blowing said terrorists "off the face of the earth with the fury of God's thunder." Hey, who wouldn't? But somehow this, too, rings false. And who the hell cares about balance? Assuming a network would air an overtly conservative drama -- in an alternate universe, perhaps -- it would be terrible for the same reason the The West Wing is terrible.

And the reason is that Sorkin tries too hard. Nobody speaks the way his characters do. Most rapid-fire conversations aren't as snappy, and don't have such symmetry. And I don't think an episode has gone by without a little homily from the President at the end, explaining What We Have Learned.

And yet, as unbelievable as much of West Wing may be -- the characters, the dialogue, the plots -- the political sentiment driving these people is right on. Woodrow Wilson once said, "If I cannot retain my moral influence over a man except by occasionally knocking him down, if that is the only basis upon which he will respect me, then for the sake of his soul I have got occasionally to knock him down." That sums up the governing philosophy of nine-tenths of America's chief executives in the 20th century. If one thing rings true about The West Wing, that's it.


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