Analysis: 'West Wing's' fresh start

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Sept. 23, 2003 at 6:23 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- "The West Wing" enters its fifth season on NBC in a curious position, trying to bounce back from a disappointing 2002-03 season even as it shoots to become the first show ever to win five straight prime-time Emmys for best drama series.

The White House drama lost favor with critics and viewers during its fourth season, which ended with creator-executive producer Aaron Sorkin announcing that he was leaving the show and turning the Oval Office keys over to executive producer John Wells.

But on Sunday, "The West Wing" got a vote of confidence from entertainment industry peers when it became one of just six shows in Emmy history to win the top prize four times. "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "All in the Family," "L.A. Law" and "Cheers" were all four-time winners, and "Frasier" -- a "Cheers" spinoff now beginning its 11th and final season on NBC -- won the top comedy Emmy in each of its first five seasons, beginning in 1993.

In a conference call with entertainment reporters a few days before "The West Wing" won its latest Emmy, Wells conceded there has been pressure from NBC to make adjustments to the show. But he said the pressure was no greater than normal, and he assured viewers that the show will continue to follow Sorkin's original vision.

Wells said there is always tension between network executives and producers centered on short-term commercial interests versus long-term viability.

"Every network is always interested in what's going to happen tomorrow night," said Wells. "I see my job as being responsible for making sure that we don't do anything that in some way keeps us from being able to continue doing the show longer."

The fifth season of "The West Wing" picks up where last year's cliffhanger season finale left off -- with President Josiah Bartlet having given up his office so he can concentrate on retrieving his daughter Zoey, who has been kidnapped by terrorists. He has been replaced as president by the Speaker of the House of Representatives -- a "true believer" type of conservative, played as something of an aggressive bully by John Goodman.

Wells is aware that the show has been accused of favoring the liberal side of America's ongoing political argument, but he said the current storyline will provide more room in the show for conservative and Republican viewpoints.

"You will see the new Speaker of the House and the majority leadership -- which is Republican -- and those views much more represented on the show," said Wells.

Goodman will remain "in office" for the first few episodes, before Martin Sheen's Jed Bartlet takes back the reigns.

"He'll be around for a little while," said Wells, "but you know Martin Sheen's pretty good as president, so not too long."

Wells said he hoped Goodman would come back to the series later. While he is there, Bartlet will be stepping back and re-evaluating his performance in office -- which has featured socially liberal policies but aggression and violence in international affairs.

"He's questioning how did he end up making some of the decisions he has made, and how does he get himself back to leading in the way that he originally envisioned himself leading the country," said Wells. "And I think that's a question that we all have as a nation."

Wells said the United States, though perhaps with little choice in the matter, has had to make tough choices in its recent history that have made it "much more difficult to take the moral high ground." He said the fifth season of "The West Wing" will examine that notion.

"We want to have conversations about international intervention," said Wells. "Not to make comments or to take potshots in any way at what the Bush administration has been doing but quite the opposite -- to discuss how complex the issues are, and how there aren't easy choices and what are we going to do and how are we going to proceed?"

Some critics have already noted a change in the show's political tone. Wells said that was largely a reaction to the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"The world changed substantially just over two years ago," he said. "Because we're an entertainment program, we need to address the fact that in our audience's minds, something really has changed in the way that we look at the world and political problems and what we need from our political leaders."

Wells said he wants "The West Wing" to remain relevent to its audience "without making the show too ponderous or too earnest" -- and he sort of joked that the diversity of political viewpoints among the show's writers and consultants helps a lot to make that happen. The consulting staff including former Democratic White House staffers such as Dee Dee Myers, Gene Sperling, and Lawrence and Kenneth Duberstein, who served as Chief of Staff to former Republican president Ronald Reagan.

"We get to have hours of angry denunciation -- back and forth conversations -- which we're hoping to be able to infuse the show with," said Wells. "My own sense of it is that the country is more divided than it has been in my lifetime -- and I don't mean over sort of specific moral issues of the Clinton years, but over the direction that we should be taking. And the more that we can reflect that division, the more interesting I think the show is for our audience."

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