The Lowe-down on a changing `West Wing'

Television

March 02, 2003|By Brian Lowry | Brian Lowry,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Rob Lowe's West Wing character became so scarce this season the actor finally distributed a milk carton with his picture on it, instructing anyone who sees Sam Seaborn to contact his manager. Wednesday, Seaborn left Washington for good.

The mini-drama behind Lowe's exit, cobbled together through conversations with those who know the history, is the story of a wild ride on the prime-time roller coaster. Four years in the making, it involves a show with dubious commercial prospects becoming a major hit, a cameo role becoming its centerpiece, and a recognizable star soon to become a memory.

Lowe's departure might partly account for why The West Wing's ratings have lost altitude, to the extent that the show's vulnerability to the crude charms of The Bachelor and its progeny owes something to a lack of sex appeal. As viewers find themselves buffeted by "terror alerts," such trifles - as opposed to weighty issues of morality and governance - can seem a better means of escape.

In the beginning, Lowe was the series' biggest name, the handsome one-time movie star who would help NBC promote a concept that made network executives antsy. Martin Sheen's president, by contrast, was to appear at most in six of the first 13 episodes. Even the show's title underscored the focus on underlings who ran the White House, rather than the president - someone whose shoe you would see through a crack in the door.

Indeed, Sheen had been signed only for the pilot, turning up briefly at the end. Still, when research on that prototype came back, focus groups - likely weary of Clinton administration scandals - said they wanted to see a principled commander in chief as part of the show.

Although series creator Aaron Sorkin envisioned the president's staff as an ensemble, Lowe was easily the best known (and best paid) among them. Perhaps for that reason, Lowe kept waiting for the character to be fleshed out, including a love interest beyond a brief fling with a call girl.

Ratings were respectable the first year, as the show garnered critical acclaim and an armful of Emmys. The supporting cast began to break out, making Lowe something less than first among equals, though that was hardly obvious from the way NBC promoted the series.

With West Wing taking off beyond all ratings expectations, four key cast members - Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff and John Spencer - banded together in July 2001 to negotiate sizable raises up to Lowe's level. Lowe reportedly became frustrated, and sought a sizable pay increase himself a year later. The producers balked.

Sheen's popularity, and that of the other co-stars, ultimately marginalized Lowe, making him expendable enough for the producers to take a hard line. So Lowe opted to leave, with Sorkin agreeing over the summer to write him out by March.

NBC has picked up The West Wing for future seasons under a lucrative deal. True, the ratings have receded to first-year levels, but the show still makes advertisers salivate by attracting TV's most upscale audience in terms of income and education.

As for Lowe, NBC snapped him up for his own series pilot, Lyon's Den, which casts him as an attorney who is the son of a U.S. senator. This fall, at least you won't need a milk carton to find him.

Brian Lowry writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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