Sunday, November 06, 2005

Tonight on NBC: Paint Dries, Grass Grows
After nearly losing me as a viewer earlier this season, The West Wing got back on track about a month ago. They figured out the right balance of old characters and new, of campaign stuff and government stuff, and they even brought back some of the old snap and humor. Tonight's live debate episode, however, hacked up the biggest hairball in the history of the series.

When the episode began, I wondered if the producers might have something up their sleeves beyond simply showing the debate--and when the audience member stood and called Vinick a liar, I thought it was even more likely. But I'd look at the clock every few minutes, and nothing would happen. (Executive producer John Wells likes to crash an ambulance into his other series, ER, every couple of months--we could have used an ambulance tonight.)

When The West Wing first premiered, NBC promoted it as what comes before and after what we see on CNN. This wasn't that. It also wasn't CNN--it was duller. It was C-SPAN. No, wait--it was the text channel that shows public service announcements and scrolls the weather forecast. It was as if the producers had forgotten the presidential election they're staging is fictional, and that people would actually care where these two guys stand on the issues so they could vote for one or the other. I'd be interested in seeing the ratings curve--I am guessing that by the last quarter-hour, the audience was a fraction of what it may have been at the start of the show.

Plus, the logical inconsistencies were legion. While I think all of us would enjoy seeing the kind of free exchange that Santos and Vinick engaged in (nobody more than President Gore or President Kerry), if it ever came to pass, it wouldn't be whipped up on the spur of the moment, or by secret agreement between the candidates. Indeed, the most unrealistic part of the episode was its failure to show the candidates' managers having apoplexy backstage--as they most certainly would have done in a remotely real world. And after having spent last week's episode calibrating positions versus one another on the abortion issue, it defies logic that the subject would never have come up in this debate--even if the candidates didn't mention it, the moderator would have. Of course, the whole idea that the Republican Party would nominate Vinick, a pro-choice candidate (one who is not publicly pious at that), may be the biggest logical inconsistency of all. The show also dealt with our world far more than The West Wing ever has before--mentioning dates (1970s, 1990s, etc) and real-life issues (drilling in Alaska and wars for oil) that have never been part of The West Wing's universe.

Another problem: If this had been a real debate, Vinick would have pretty much killed Santos, coming off as more presidential and more pragmatic, albeit a bit of a pompous ass. Santos, meanwhile, came off as earnest and photogenic, but not entirely ready for prime time. Given that the producers have already revealed (inadvertently, perhaps, but clearly, nevertheless) that Santos will win the election, and that he's trailing Vinick badly in the polls at the moment, it's hard to imagine how they're going to close the gap without resorting to wild improbability.

And how much did American Express pay for that trivial and meandering Ellen DeGeneres monologue at the beginning?

As somebody put it at Television Without Pity, all things considered, the live-debate West Wing was "must-flee TV."

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