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Just how airworthy will a no-Sorkin 'West Wing' be?

May 21, 2003|BRIAN LOWRY

Nothing offers a better microcosm of the TV season that officially concludes tonight than the madcap farce played out at 9 p.m. Wednesdays -- a how-the-mighty-have-fallen tale subtitled " 'The Bachelor' and the Bartlet-knockers."

At center stage stood ABC's dating show, which helped systematically siphon younger viewers away from NBC's "The West Wing," a three-time Emmy winner for best drama that dared eschew sexual politics in favor of arcane questions of governance.

Because many were eager to see the latter show get its comeuppance, the cause of its dwindling ratings was pored over in minute detail. Truth be told, various factors contributed to "Wing's" ratings decline as well as series creator Aaron Sorkin's decision to depart at season's end, leaving oversight of the Bartlet administration to fellow executive producer and "ER" patriarch John Wells.

As always in television, the impact of ratings can't be overlooked. It's hard to imagine Sorkin being badgered about late script delivery and related budget overruns had viewership stayed aloft; that it didn't doubtless played a part in this changing of the guard. After all, such excesses are more easily excused as the cost of dealing with an auteur when the payoff is unbridled success.

Sorkin has rejected all my interview requests since those days when every "West Wing" story was a paean of praise, which is ironic because the show itself exhibits such a keen grasp of the press' role in the political world. For what it's worth, my sense is he established a strong enough foundation for the series to carry on without him, even if a writing staff under Wells' capable guidance won't always match his operatic highs.

Still, what do I know? So a few weeks ago -- before this season's cliffhanging finale -- I asked readers whether "West Wing" would benefit or suffer from the absence of its creative center and what might be done to rekindle interest. The thoughtful responses underscored why NBC remains enthusiastic about a series that remains, as NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker told media buyers last week, "by a long shot, not even close, the most upscale program on television" in terms of median viewer income and education levels.

The letters also highlight the program's potential to engage both intellectually and emotionally. In that respect, those blinded by their desire to view it politically -- first through the prism of the Clinton years, now the Bush presidency -- underestimate the fascination in glancing behind the curtain of a White House occupied by intelligent and dedicated personnel grappling with maddeningly difficult issues.

" 'West Wing' can never be the same without the writing skills of Aaron Sorkin," wrote Dom Caristi, an associate professor of telecommunications at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., who fears the show will descend into burlesque. "After succeeding with a Matthew Perry guest role, they will 'up the ante' by having political figure guest stars including Bill Clinton (since the '60 Minutes' gig didn't work), Monica Lewinsky (since the 'Mr. Personality' gig didn't work) and Cher (she has nothing else to do now)."

"The problem with 'The West Wing' as we know it is not too much politics but too much Sorkin," said Norm Levine of Santa Monica. "Every character is a version of Sorkin himself. The program begs for a wider range of sensibilities and nuances in confronting the issues of the day."

"The series will get better with Sorkin gone," agreed Terry A. Bass of Torrance.

"It will dive quickly," said Craig A. Meyer of Pasadena. "The show was the mouthpiece of Aaron Sorkin and without him might not have much to say. Secondly, if they'd really been thinking, they would have let the Republican win in last year's election and started a whole new show. Same concept, a totally different cast. It's worked for 'Law & Order.' But I'm just a viewer."

So is Pat DePetrillo of Corvalis, Ore., who reached a different conclusion. "Whatever direction the show takes, it has to be better than the last two seasons. The show has become a bit pompous, as Sorkin put more emphasis on the president rather than on his staff, and repetitious as he recycled the 'witty' dialogue of episodes past. My recommendations for improvements include returning to the show's original premise, with more time devoted to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the White House staff."

DePetrillo also advocated bringing back Rob Lowe, "but that will never happen." As "ER's" Sherry Stringfield can attest, never say never, but for now Lowe has a job on a new NBC drama, "The Lyon's Den."

One missive suggested spicing things up by adding an "American Idol" twist.

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