`West Wing' returns to work

Television: The NBC drama also will have the benefit of two former White House personnel as consultants for its second season.

July 17, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES - Aaron Sorkin's White House drama "West Wing," the most critically acclaimed series on network television, goes back into production here today for its second season, and Sorkin promises that its first order of business will be addressing last year's controversial finale.

In answer to a series of questions from critics about closing the season with an unresolved assassination attempt on President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) after a town hall meeting, Sorkin said, "I know that many of you were troubled by it, thinking that the cliff-hangerness of it all was, perhaps, a step down from what you expected.

"I'll not try to talk you out of your opinion. But I will tell you that I think the season opener, which is a two-parter that picks up just moments after the finale ended, might quite possibly go some ways with helping you with the season finale."

Sorkin declined to share details of story line for the season opener - like whether anyone was hit by the assassin's bullets and, if they were hit, whether the characters will live or die - saying only, "This year's opening will deal with all the events that happen in the moments right after the President is attacked, and all of us are excited by that."

There will be no major on-screen changes this fall, according to Sorkin, except that Moira Kelly will not be back. Kelly played a hard-charging political consultant, who went from working for an opponent of the administration to joining the White House staff this season. Sorkin said that, while he and co-executive-producer Thomas Schlamme were pleased with Kelly's work, "the character just wasn't evolving."

The biggest news behind the cameras at the NBC drama is that Sorkin is bringing former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and former President Bush's press secretary Marlin Fitzwater aboard as political consultants, joining DeeDee Myers, a former press secretary for President Clinton. Sorkin said their hiring is not a reaction to those who see a liberal bias in the series.

"I don't want it to sound like their hiring is a reaction to that, though both do have pretty good Republican credentials," Sorkin said.

"To be honest with you, the show is being attacked for being left a little bit less than I expected it to be. But I know, from time to time, there have been conservatives who have been troubled by the liberalism of the show. And I would say to them only that here is a show with no gratuitous violence, no gratuitous sex. It celebrates our institutions, is a valentine to public service, and has showed the president of the United States kneeling in the Oval Office and praying.

"It seems to me their [conservatives'] major problem with the show is that it is populated with characters who from time to time they disagree with politically. And, if that is the criteria for what is acceptable in terms of artistic expression in this country, I think we need to redo everything," Sorkin concluded.

Sorkin did acknowledge liking the Clinton administration a lot. But he says that's a result of access, not politics.

"This administration has been phenomenally friendly to us. They let us into the White House. They let us shoot backdrops outside the White House, which, by the way, you will see more of that when you look out of our Oval Office this season. For us, we'd like to see this administration last as long as possible," said Sorkin, whose relationship with the White House started before "West Wing" with the on-site research he did in writing the screenplay for the feature film "An American President," starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening.

Sorkin likes Washington. While all the interiors of the series are filmed on soundstages at Warner Brothers here, the cast and crew is regularly in Washington to shoot exteriors, Sorkin said. Much of last season's finale, for instance, was filmed in Washington.

"They really like this cast in Washington," Sorkin said. "In Washington, this cast is the Beatles."

When asked if events connected with this November's presidential election would affect what viewers see on screen this fall, Sorkin reminded critics that his series deals in a "parallel world" to that of the real White House. Since Bartlett's administration is in its second year, it will be dealing only with mid-term elections this fall. But you can count on many of the issues of the larger society being debated and played on the small screen world of "West Wing."

Responding to a consensus in the room during the press conference that the level of debate on national issues in "West Wing" was often higher than that on the campaign trail between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Sorkin said, "It's very flattering that people might think that, though I'm not certain the level of debate in the presidential campaign right now is that tough to beat."

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