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Tube Talk: Is The West Wing Losing Its Sheen?

TUBE TALK With John T. Forde

Is The West Wing Losing Its Sheen?

Praise the Lord and pass the broccoli, "The West Wing" has returned! Grandiose, witty and slightly pretentious, "West Wing" follows the workings of the staff of the Oval Office, home of the American President.

A TV drama about the American presidency? In a country where a real-life president got a 22 year-old intern to give him a blowjob while they were IN the Oval Office, who needs TV? But "West Wing" succeeds, precisely because it distracts us from this grubby political reality.

Thanks to "West Wing", we now know that spin doctors and political aides aren't evil truth-distorting trolls, but are really overworked geniuses who knock off one-liners and believe in making the world a better place.

Borrowing from the "ER" school of TV drama, the cast spend their time rushing down long corridors spouting rapid-fire dialogue without pausing for breath. Everyone has an encyclopaedic knowledge of American politics, which makes for lots of fun, high-speed debates around the water filter about gays in the military or the Fifth Amendment.

Chief power-walker is Rob Lowe - joining fellow Brat Packers Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland as post-detox converts to "serious" TV drama. There's nothing like being a smart politico to banish public memories of your coke-and-hooker-ridden past, right?

Rob's character Sam is passionate about democracy and works too hard, which means he's continually furrowing his brow while delivering perky little speeches about freedom and justice. But he does look adorable in his rolled-up shirtsleeves.

He's joined by grizzled-but-endearing chief of staff Leo McGarry, his quirky-but-endearing deputy Josh Lyman, and the repressed-but-endearing communications director Toby Zeigler.

Leo used to be an alcoholic, and he's tough but fair, despite sounding a little like Fozzie Bear. Josh is the team's wildcard, who can't open his mouth without offending someone, and who can't decide whether he fancies his twig-thin assistant Donna, or Joey (Marlee Matlin), a foxy deaf campaign advisor. Toby never smiles, looks continually in need of a good laxative, and has an ex-wife with great legs who's a Senator.

Then there's CJ, the man-eating press secretary, played by the fabulous (and very tall) Alison Janney. Towering over the men (did I mention that she's really tall?!), she fires one-liners like bullets and threatens to make people wear leiderhosen if they disobey her. She's also got a thing for a chubby red-headed ex-"Thirtysomething" actor who's now playing a senior White House journalist. (In a rare concession to reality, "West Wing" actually shows people who are too busy and hard-working to have sex.)

The show's token black character is 20something honours student Charlie, the President's personal assistant. Like the black servants in "Gone With the Wind", he delivers wise advice while turning down bedsheets or delivering hot milk to the Presidential bedroom. Being so saintly means he's a bit of a tightass - though he does get the fun of dating the Prez's teenage daughter. (The only sex in THIS White House happens legally, thank you very much!)

The leader of the pack is Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet. In a leap of faith possible only on American TV, this Prez is dwarf height, a Democrat, Catholic, a Nobel Prize-winning economist AND he's got multiple sclerosis.

His First Lady is Stockard Channing, who once played Rizzo in "Grease", so we keep waiting for her to stop in the middle of a witty argument with the Prez and belt out, "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee!" Since Josiah has MS, the First Lady has to run a complete medical check before they want to have sex. Kinky!

"West Wing" used to be fast-paced and funny. Since September 11, sadly, it's become earnest, sanctimonious, and - well - lost its sheen.

Magic mushroom-popping writer/producer Aaron Sorkin even wrote a special post-9/11 episode, where President Bartlet lectured a classroom of kids on The Importance of Being Tolerant, and how Judaism and Islam actually descended from two brothers. Whatever.

Maybe if he'd said, "Lemony yellow is the new black" or "Hallucinogens help you write TV dramas better", we might've paid more attention.

But you gotta love a show that loves the American Way so fervently. While the rest of the world thinks America is a greedy, hypocritical and exploitative economic bully with laws more insane than its fast food-addicted redneck population, "West Wing" makes us believe it could all be OK Someday.

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