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Television drama, Oval-style

October 20, 2005|ANDRES MARTINEZ

ESCAPIST TELEVISION is back, in a big way, fueled by last season's success of "Lost," probably the best TV drama ever. Now prime time is populated by aliens, ghosts and even a female president.

Remarkably, there are two White House dramas on the air these days, and both of them -- NBC's "The West Wing" and ABC's "Commander in Chief" -- were launched as flights of fancy. In its early days (it debuted in late 1999) "The West Wing" was liberal Hollywood's alternative universe to the Clinton presidency. President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, was a brilliant liberal president who didn't engage in cynical triangulations at the expense of principle to position himself as a centrist.

But "The West Wing" has come a long way, and in the George Bush era, President Bartlet/Sheen became far more willing to make compromises. Just having a Democratic president was fantasy enough for Hollywood; he needn't be a saintly one anymore.

Most TV shows have a hard time realistically depicting workplaces, but "The West Wing" captures the crushing pressure, frenzied pace and intensity of a stressful office. The president's supporting cast constantly juggles five crises simultaneously. Their smart, clipped dialogue is the legacy of "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, and the show deserves credit for the wonkish perplexity of issues it takes on. (My mother once called me to teasingly ask if I had had anything to do with one episode that took up farm subsidies and media ownership rules, subjects I'd often editorialized about.)

"The West Wing" also captures the fatigue of a second-term presidency, and not every character has been comfortable with the compromises President Bartlet has made. Toby Ziegler, Richard Schiff's character, has been in a deep funk, and it now turns out he was responsible for a leak that has led to an investigation and to the jailing of a New York Times reporter. Did I mention the show can be timely?

Over on ABC, "Commander in Chief" is all about the fantasy of a female president, played by Geena Davis. Her character is as independent-minded (in fact she is formally an independent, belonging to neither party) and principled as Bartlet was at the outset of his presidency. But the show's episodes seem languid and uncluttered compared with "The West Wing" -- as if the White House has the luxury of taking up only one weighty issue at a time. Also, to appeal to the folks who don't dig farm subsidy debates, President Mackenzie Allen's teenage kids seem to be acting out an episode of Fox's "The O.C." in the White House.

"Commander in Chief" stresses the domestic quandaries facing a president some characters call "mom." Rebellious daughter would rather make out with boyfriend than attend mom's first state dinner for the Russian leader? "Follow your conscience," President Allen counsels. And as she steps out to greet the Russian head of state, her husband, the first gentleman of the White House, cheesily tells her: "Right now, you become this country. You are the United States of America."

The relative success of these dramas is not fueled by a widespread craving for political programming. It has more to do with our fascination with the trappings of power and the human-interest story inherent in investing so much fleeting power in one individual.

Rod Lurie, the creator of "Commander in Chief" (who has since left the show), directed the 2000 political thriller "The Contender." The movie's best scene had the president, played by Jeff Bridges, calling the White House kitchen to order kung pao chicken, "but with walnuts instead of peanuts" to show off to a visitor that he could get anything he wanted. Those are the kinds of tidbits that will make people want to watch a show about the White House.

In their politics, however, both dramas depict Hollywood's slanted take on the American landscape. Anyone tuning in who knew nothing about the real world would assume the United States is a one-party state because Republicans are too evil to be taken seriously. Donald Sutherland's House speaker on "Commander in Chief" makes Tom DeLay seem cuddly.

"The West Wing," for its part, is in the midst of an engaging election campaign pitting Jimmy Smits against Alan Alda, and the two will face each other in an unscripted live debate in an upcoming episode. The Alda character is an appealing John McCain-like independent Republican. He is the only kind of Republican Hollywood seems to be able to treat positively -- one at odds with most of the party's core positions. If Alda wins this TV election, it will be indicative of how much Hollywood has compromised its fantasies -- from liberal Democrat to centrist Democrat to liberal Republican. But don't count on him winning; that would require the show to hire a whole new cast of Republican staffers.


Note: In my new capacity overseeing The Times' opinion pages as editorial page editor, I will no longer be able to write as a regular columnist. It's been great fun; thanks for reading.

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