By a Landslide

Fall television: Smart, Cynical 'West Wing,' an inside-the-Beltway drama, soars on the strength of its writing and acting. It deserves your vote.

September 22, 1999|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It is late at night, and a top White House aide and a Washington reporter are sitting at a bar having drinks. The reporter is desperately trying to pump the aide for information, but the aide is looking past him, trying to make eye contact with a woman across the room.

The woman is a prostitute, and the aide winds up making far more than eye contact with her. But she seems like an absolute class act and moral beacon compared with the reporter, who looks and sounds as if he's willing to do absolutely anything to get the morsel of information he wants.

This is the opening of "The West Wing," a dazzling new series from Aaron Sorkin ("Sports Night"), making its premiere tonight on NBC. The ensemble drama about life backstage at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. manages to say more about us and our nation in its first five minutes than any other five network dramas you can think of will say in their best five episodes this year.

"The West Wing" is the one new series you do not want to miss. In fact, you don't even want to show up late for its start at 9 tonight. Walk the dog early, shut off the telephone at 8: 55, bribe the kids if necessary to get them in bed, just be there for the one new series that will remind you how exciting the fall network TV season used to be before the networks lost their way in bottom-line thinking and mega-corp greed.

The writing is Sorkin at the top of his game, which is to say it's as good or better than anything on television, including "ER," "NYPD Blue" or David E. Kelley's "The Practice." In fact, for a more apt comparison, you have to go beyond TV to Sorkin's feature-film writing in "The American President" and "A Few Good Men." Or maybe you even have to go all the way back to the films of Frank Capra. It's that fine, focused and ultimately moving.

Sorkin is working the same White House turf he covered so winningly in "The American President," a romance starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. He scores tonight's dramatic knockout punch with an uplifting, old-fashioned, perfectly crafted, Capra-esque moment.

Like the opening described above, most of the pilot is cynical, savvy, in-the-know Washington at its worst.

During it, we meet the series' family of White House staffers in the administration of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), as well as the lobbyists, politicos and media members with whom they eat, sleep, work and scheme. You wonder how this world of deal-making is going to be redeemed or, for that matter, if any of the souls are worth saving.

Then, near the end of the hour, with a playwright's perfect timing, Sorkin has Bartlet arrive on-screen to make a speech about helping a flotilla of refugees from Cuba that is headed toward Miami. Until then, the refugees had been discussed by the aides only as a political time bomb, not human beings.

But Bartlet is speaking to their better angels as he talks about the higher calling of what they are supposed to be doing in their White House jobs. And, while his words are as old and familiar as those inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, the way Sorkin strings them together makes you believe in this White House and the fundamental decency of the American character to the point where you almost want to stand up and salute.

In the end, it is not just great writing that makes "The West Wing" a delight. There's Rob Lowe's performance as Sam Seaborn, deputy communications director. He's the aide at the bar in the opening. Lowe is terrific, and his character has two great scenes tonight -- one with the prostitute, and the other, a splendid comic moment with the daughter of his boss, Leo McGarry (John Spencer).

Spencer ("L.A. Law") is mesmerizing as Bartlet's long-time friend and chief of staff. From the second he appears on screen, you're drawn into his energy field with a force that's impossible to resist.

With the slippage in talent at "ER," this is the best cast in prime time.

There are too many fine performances to list them all. But several must be mentioned: Allison Janney ("Primary Colors") as tightly wrapped press secretary C. J. Gregg, Moira Kelly as hard-nosed super-strategist Madeline Hampton, and Richard Schiff ("Deep Impact") as communications director Toby Ziegler.

And let's not overlook the direction by Thomas Schlamme, who won an Emmy last week for his work on "Sports Night." Schlamme provides a swirling, in-the-eye-of-the-action visual style that perfectly captures the energy and muscle of Sorkin's writing. Sorkin and Schlamme marry word and image as well as anyone has ever done in series television.

Given the demands of also writing and producing "Sports Night," it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to hold "The West Wing" to this high a standard week after week. In fact, I suspect they won't.

So, carpe diem. Let's just revel in tonight's bounty and worry later about the rest of the season backstage at the Bartlet White House.

Other series starting their new seasons tonight:

`Oh Grow Up'

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