from NYTimes.com via 3QuarksDaily
Most television dramas play with the question "what if?" NBC's "West Wing" revels in "if only...."
Sunday's live presidential debate was the quintessence of wishful writing. Two intelligent, principled candidates tossed aside debate rules and went at each other full throttle on live television, debating everything from immigration and energy policy to foreign debt relief.
They didn't discuss abortion, however, because in "West Wing" World, even the Republican nominee is pro-choice.
Now in its seventh season, "The West Wing" lost much of its original magic when its creator, Aaron Sorkin, left and took the series' screwball comedy wit and intellectual sophistication with him. The show still has banter and worldly references, but at its height in its first few seasons, even tiny bits of dialogue were three-dimensional, providing a joke, a subplot and a policy point all at once. Mr. Sorkin's successors do not think and talk as fast as he did, and neither do the series' characters. "West Wing" aides retain their idealism, however, a sense of civic purpose and honor that is made palatable with wisecracks and personal pratfalls.
The world hates us, and even Americans deplore the sorry state of political discourse in their country. But only the uninformed or disingenuous complain about the quality of American television. It has a variety and breadth that no other nation can match. For every offensive reality series or inane daytime talk show, there are comedies and dramas that reach far higher in a single episode than most movies or Broadway shows.
Critics complain that the new stage version of "The Odd Couple" is no match for the 1970's television series. Sitcoms, meanwhile, have moved on to "Will & Grace" and "Arrested Development" and "My Name Is Earl." HBO has taken over where Hollywood gave up, taking a chance on everything from Gold Rush prospectors on "Deadwood" to the maximum security convicts of "Oz." HBO took a huge gamble on "Rome" and has stuck with it despite a lackluster start.
Public television may seem demoted and demoralized, but it still burrows deep into important topics commercial television addresses fleetingly, if at all. Tonight on PBS, a "Frontline" report, "The Last Abortion Clinic," gives a lucid picture of how the anti-abortion movement in states like Mississippi has worked so many hurdles into local laws that abortions are almost unattainable for poor women.
When it began in 1999, "The West Wing" proved that audiences could become enthralled by Congressional committee reports and tracking polls. It was a smart bet. Americans may not vote in high numbers, but they know the material, if only through the osmotic power of 24-hour cable news shows, C-Span cameras and Internet saturation.
ABC's copycat version, "Commander in Chief," is just as topical, sometimes maliciously so. (Last week, President Mackenzie Allen was greeted at a hurricane disaster area by grateful victims and a Florida official who said, "Thank you for acting so quickly on the disaster package.") "Commander" is not as clever or convoluted as "The West Wing," but it taps into the same appetite for a cleaned-up realpolitik - the government we wish we deserved.
Even now, "The West Wing" still offers an intriguing tension between ripped-from-the-headlines politics and a dreamy romanticism about leadership. Just as the Bush White House was bracing itself for indictments from a real-life special counsel investigating a national security leak, Josiah Bartlet's staff was awash in subpoenas from a special prosecutor investigating a national security leak. On the NBC version, the leaker turned out to be Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), who broke the law to save lives (astronauts trapped on the International Space Station).
One of the endearing fictions of this television series is that White House officials are not motivated to leak for petty score-settling or political intrigue.
Sunday's debate posited that presidential candidates, once unleashed, can think on their feet and disagree without resorting to cant. To lend verisimilitude, a real journalist, Forrest Sawyer, was tapped to play the moderator; he looked believable but a bit self-conscious, perhaps because he is one in a growing pool of television anchors without news shows. (The episode's sole sponsor, American Express, recruited Ellen DeGeneres to do backstage ads that were far more implausible, but at least in a low-budget, C-Span way.)
Over all, the debate reflected the political planks of Hollywood writers more than Washington politicians: the moderate Republican, Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), made a free-market pitch for the Toyota Prius, a hybrid car favored by moguls and movie stars. His rival, the Democratic nominee Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), took an extraneous jab at the Bush administration; there is no Iraq war on "The West Wing," so it was a bit odd to hear Santos pledge, "I will never go to war for oil."
Religion and culture wars are a common topic on "The West Wing." In one recent episode, the Santos campaign manager, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), refers to the Bible-friendly theory of "intelligent design" as "creationism in a Groucho mask."
Yet even "The West Wing" is careful about the tinderbox issue of abortion, keeping pro-life sentiment at a safe remove. In the writers' imaginary world, a pro-choice Republican could win his party's nomination and privately dismiss evangelical Christian lobby groups as "those people."
A recent episode had Vinick assuring a Christian lobbyist that he would appoint anti-abortion judges if elected, and then assured his staff he was fibbing. That campaign subplot edges close, but not too close, to the current debate in Washington, where the Senate is weighing how the confirmation of Samuel A. Alito Jr., President Bush's nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, would affect Roe v. Wade.
And that is why public television still has a mandate. "The Last Abortion Clinic" is not nearly as entertaining, but it separates fantasy from an issue that hovers beneath many television dramas and will soon be decided by the Supreme Court.