Presidential campaign makes ‘West Wing’ worth tuning in again

  • By Victor Balta / Herald Writer
  • Sunday, April 3, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

For those of you who have been gone for a while – and there are quite a few of you – “The West Wing” is getting good again.

For six seasons, the show has followed the presidency of Martin Sheen’s Democratic President Josiah Bartlet, and it was recently renewed for a seventh year on NBC.

The announcement triggered the rolling of many eyes, and shaking of many heads in bewilderment over the peacock’s insistence on wringing the last drip of life out of every one of its series.

Two of those eyes and one of those heads were right here.

But checking back in on the one-time powerhouse that won four consecutive Emmys for outstanding drama from 2000 to 2003 – plus 20 others in various categories – it has managed to recapture some of the excitement that made it a can’t-miss in the first place.

The reason is very simple: Elections are exciting. Lame-duck presidents are not.

Audiences seem to think so, anyway. The show is getting just two-thirds of the viewers it pulled in at its peak – 17.1 million to 11.3 million.

As the sixth season winds down, the race that will determine who replaces Bartlet is taking shape.

The season finale airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on KING-TV, Channel 5. That’s when we will find out who the Democratic candidate will be.

The top contenders are Congressman Matt Santos of Texas, played by Jimmy Smits, and Vice President Bob Russell, played by Gary Cole. Former VP John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) is also in the running but shouldn’t be much of a factor after a past sex scandal.

After a tumultuous campaign and a surprise comeback by Santos, none of the three candidates has the 2,162 votes needed for the nomination. The drama will unfold at the convention Wednesday night.

The winner will face the Republican nominee, California Sen. Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda.

So, the guy from the red state is a Democrat? The guy from the blue state is a Republican? And the convention isn’t a supremely rehearsed and prepackaged production?

Everything really is backward on this show.

Next they’re going to tell me the new president could be a minority.

OK, I already knew that.

Smits’ Santos came into the race as a three-term congressman looking to be a role model for the nation’s Hispanics.

He’s an up-and-comer in the party, attractive and well spoken. Think North Carolina Sen. John Edwards but less pasty.

During the course of the campaign his convictions have taken a beating.

“You get into this thinking to yourself that you’re going to play by your own rules,” Santos said recently. “Then, bit by bit, you chip away at them until you can’t even name the game.”

Russell, meanwhile, is as smarmy a politician as they come, and Hoynes is Hoynes.

On the other side, the Republicans have it together as Vinick won the nomination with ease.

Interesting that his name is Arnold, he’s from California, and he’s a moderate Republican who is for abortion rights. For some reason, Alda doesn’t quite match the frame of the person I’m thinking of.

While the Dems were battling it out, Vinick last week delivered a moving nomination speech about uniting the country that triggered one of those familiar if-only-it-was-really-like-that moments that were once the hallmark of the show.

Executive producer John Wells has said very recently that he still doesn’t know who will be the next president.

A Zogby poll last month found that 44 percent of “West Wing” viewers want to see Smits carry the torch, while just 28 percent prefer Alda.

See, the show is so exciting it’s even giving pollsters something to do. Tune in Wednesday and watch the horserace begin.

Columnist Victor Balta: 425-339-3455 or

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