November 8, 2005

‘West Wing’ debate a victory for NBC

The West Wing , 8-9 p.m., NBC)

By Barry Garron

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - So who really won the
live debate on Sunday night's "The West Wing," the one between
fictional candidates Matt Santos, the Democrat played by Jimmy
Smits, and Arnold Vinick, the Republican played by Alan Alda?

Regardless of the spin, it was clearly a victory for NBC,
which enjoyed a ratings bump during the sweep-inspired contest.
In other respects, the victor was less clear cut.

The live episode, performed for the East and Central zones
and then again for the West, represented a milepost in a
revival season but also a speed bump. Although the scripted
debate was filled with issues and substance, it sacrificed the
drama and storytelling of traditional episodes. It tried to
simulate reality and succeeded, which resulted in a show that
begged the indulgence of viewers and asked them to think
rationally and intelligently about things that transcend
television. That's risky business for TV any time, and
especially primetime.

In terms of which candidate did better, my vote is with
Santos the Democrat. His positions seemed more thoughtful and
his solutions more promising. Vinick, on the other hand, was
more inclined to provide fast and easy answers, though his
comments on the failures of the Head Start educational program
indicated that the character could also marshal his facts.

In some ways, though, the biggest winner was the viewer,
particularly those who have seen real presidential debates
where rules are negotiated and statements are carefully crafted
to stay on point, get out the message and drive home emotions
through words that have been carefully tested in focus groups.
This episode, though scripted, seemed more real than the actual
debates. It showed what a real debate might be if candidates
ever decided to risk being themselves and confronting the
issues and each other. Odd as it may seem, it gives viewers a
basis for comparing actual presidential debates and what is

The episode, with its use of the NBC News logo and the
appearance of real-life newsman Forrest Sawyer as moderator,
also raised the question of the propriety of blending elements
of network news with entertainment. In general, it's not a good
idea to blur the two. The lines already are far more blurred
than they should be, and this sort of arrangement only makes
the two divisions look more interchangeable. Julie Chen's
long-standing role as host on "Big Brother" has done nothing to
enhance her stature with CBS News, and Sawyer's appearance here
is similarly out of place. The episode would have been every
bit as convincing with an actor cast in the role of moderator
and a make-believe news logo or, at the very least, a
redesigned NBC News logo.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter