All the President's Wonks

Photo by Paul Drinkwater
AARON SORKIN'S THE WEST WING, A WASHINGTON fantasy set in reaches of the White House you only read about in depositions, is a show about people who love their work -- an ode to long hours, interrupted sleep and professional single-mindedness. "I have nothing to do!" wails one senior staffer, suddenly taskless and filled with existential dread. (More often the characters are "too busy to talk to you now.") This is precisely the geist of Sorkin's other series, Sports Night, to which The West Wing -- though it comes dressed as an (amusing) "ensemble drama" while the former show suits up in the gear of a (serious) sitcom -- is something of a twin. In each there is a lot of coursing down corridors and rattling away in the stagy hot-potato-speak that creator-scripter Sorkin, who also writes for the theatah, channels from The Front Page, and that bears the same relation to actual human speech as a Globetrotters routine does to professional basketball.

"What's that?"
"It's coffee."
"I thought so."
"I brought you some coffee."
"What's going on, Donna?"
"Nothing's going on."
"I brought you some coffee."

The narrative import of this exchange (speaker one is in trouble and speaker two knows it -- you didn't think it was about coffee, did you?) is no more significant than its rhythm, its speed and its stresses, the close-to-the-net volleying, the repeated words and sounds (the short o of coffee, thought, brought, Donna and on), all meant to embody the speedy, stressful life of national governance. Just so is the political matter of the show -- what to do about the Cubans rafting to Miami, the fundamentalist Christians waiting in the Oval Office, the Syrians who brought down an American plane -- less significant than the vibrant air of backstage crisis it generates, the opportunity it creates for characters to blow their cool ("Paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista!" "Elitist Harvard fascist missed-the-dean's-list-two-semesters-in-a-row Yankee jackass!") and then apologize. Which feels somehow right in the midst of a real-life administration as well known for palace intrigue and, lord knows, for apologies as for its social vision, the particulars of which I cannot for the life of me recall.

Given the potential for wonkiness in a show that, for all the rushing around, nevertheless consists mostly of meetings, its pleasures are oddly sensual: the way the camera reels through the many-chambered, mazelike set, flying backward in the players' path; the musical dialogue; the look (burnished is the imprecise adjective that comes to mind) of a cast made up largely of character actors, whose faces are familiar if not always their names, and who are, on balance, refreshingly not young -- not even Rob Lowe, in major career recovery as the deputy director of communications (with attitude), though he is aging handsomely and looking less like a mote of trivia and more like a real actor. John Spencer (L.A. Law) is the wise-owl chief of staff; Richard Schiff (Relativity) the moody-prickly director of communications. Allison Janney, who barely got to bat an eyelid as the mother-next-door in American Beauty, is all muscle and bustle as the president's press secretary -- 6 feet tall in her stocking feet, and always wearing heels, with nice pictorial use made of her long, long legs -- while Moira Kelly, by contrast small and kewpie-doll cute (you will remember her if you remember anything at all from last year's To Have and To Hold), plays a media consultant formerly involved with deputy chief of staff Bradley Whitford. As on Sports Night, all of them are superbly good at, not to say fanatical about, what they do, but this being a Hollywood Washington, they are also, by necessity, not a little unconventional. And not a little sexy. Then there's Dulé Hill (Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk), who is young (and gifted and black), and who in episode three, having applied for a messenger job, becomes instead the president's personal assistant -- his belated casting a direct result, and a good one, of what Sorkin has described as a "tap on the shoulder" from the NAACP in this famously, overwhelmingly Caucasian new season. Said tap might also have had something to do with hiring Good Times dad John Amos as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not that he isn't every inch an admiral.

The great thing about inventing your own White House, of course, is that you can elect and appoint whomever you like, and like Sorkin's screenplay for The American President, The West Wing is an exercise in wish fulfillment. This is nowhere more evident than in the person of the chief executive, played by Martin Sheen (possibly the shortest man ever to occupy the office), who was JFK in a 1983 miniseries and here plays essentially the same stern but caring boss as does Robert Guillaume on Sports Night; he is, if anything, a little too high-minded for the job (his grasp on realpolitik is sometimes tenuous). Nevertheless, despite a somewhat quick temper and a tendency to carry on as if there's a speechwriter on call inside his head ("Let the word ring forth from this time and this place, gentlemen," that sort of improbable stuff), he's a pre-neocon Democrat's dream: a liberal hard-ass. (Conservatives may be less pleased.) And it is, to be sure, a dream, a fiction, a beguiling construct -- not as strange as the truth, perhaps, but not as disgusting either. While the proceedings are tricked out in the inside-the-Beltway jargon of The New Republic, The American Standard and The McLaughlin Group, the show works because it's also fun in a common way. Not unlike Upstairs Downstairs, the mother of all multiple-storyline series (i.e., soap operas) that aspire to quality and might incidentally have "something to say" -- not unlike Dickens, for that matter -- it delivers cheap thrills well dressed. Something for everyone would be the tag line.

THIRD WATCH, ANOTHER INTERWEAVING MULTIthread soap from NBC -- and co-created by ER producer John Wells, who co-produces The West Wing as well -- is also about people who love their (in this case dark-blue-collar) jobs. "Hot damn," exults lean, keen NYFD paramedic Kim Raver as she and a truckload of hunky firemen head off to another big-city disaster, "I love this job." Could that be any plainer? Elsewhere on the not yet completely safe streets of Manhattan, hothead cop Jason Wiles puts pedal to the metal and lifts his voice in praise of his gun, his siren and his tank full of city-bought gas. As in The West Wing, everyone rubs someone the wrong way; there are staglike rivalries, disagreements about choices in love and approaches to work, arguments over parking spaces and who gets the free meat from a grateful butcher, and some extremely immature pranks, some of which I plan to try or I would repeat them here. Unlike The West Wing, its dramatis personae -- comprising four (4) police officers, one (1) of them a woman, four (4) paramedics, one (1) of them a woman, and one (1) fireman -- was conceived as a rainbow coalition from the start. And with a lot of good-looking bodies onscreen and techno music pulsing beneath the action, it seems to want to say: Young people, come on! This show is hot!

The title refers to the shift that lasts from 3 to 11 p.m., a chronometric detail that, while possibly exotic to viewers who have only ever worked from 9 to 5, has no dramatic import whatsoever on this program. The salient high concept is the competitive intertwining of municipal services -- the police station and firehouse are across the street from each other -- necessary to keep Gothamites safe from themselves and each other. In a honey-roasted nutshell, it applies the gloss of ER and the grit of New York locations -- most of the show takes place outdoors -- to a melding of Jack Webb's Adam 12 and Emergency!, whose Randolph Mantooth has been paid homage in the naming of the firehouse Dalmatian. There is some disagreeable low comedy involving vomit, and "stepping in dead guy," and a dismaying "oops" when a ledge jumper slips out of a policeman's grasp -- an incident put out of mind in the space of a commercial; I'm not sure even New York cops are that hard. And you will have seen much, oh very much, of this before, since there are only so many ways to chase down a suspect, deliver a premature baby or put out a fire, and the shot-partner-in-the-hospital and eager-rookie/irregular-vet routines reprised here have long since been worn down to nothing. But an attractive, believable cast, and good use of the less manicured reaches of the city that never sleeps -- and how can it with those damn sirens blowing? -- make it convincing enough. Imperfect, like a president, but better than passable.

THE WEST WING | NBC | Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

THIRD WATCH | NBC | Sundays at 8 p.m.


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