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A White House shakeup

Meet the new boss. Definitely not the same as the old boss. House Speaker Walken (John Goodman), who's running The West Wing's parallel USA while President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) sweats out his daughter's abduction, couldn't be much more different. Walken is bellicose where Bartlet is reasonable, impulsive where Bartlet is deliberative, uncouth where Bartlet is genteel, earthy where Bartlet is academic. Some may see him as a stand-in - and parody of - George W. Bush. But his hard-right leanings notwithstanding, the president whom Walken most recalls is the notoriously loud and vulgar Lyndon B. Johnson.

Just how many episodes Walken will be around The West Wing, longtime co-executive producer and now primary show-runner John Wells hasn't said. But Walken is a compelling character, and his presence is shaking up NBC's most prestigious dramatic series, which starts its fifth season at 9 tonight.

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Bartlet is doing his best not to covet powers he willingly gave away under provisions of the 25th Amendment, meanwhile wrestling with the knowledge that a political assassination he grudgingly OK'd may have resulted in daughter Zoey's kidnapping. And Bartlet's top advisers, particularly Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), are starting to worry that his stepping aside was a huge political blunder. The Republicans have an inch and are looking hungrily at the mile, and the Democratic leadership is angry.

And Walken? He's hot to do two things: name a vice president and blow some terrorist-harboring third-world country to kingdom come.

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The plot of The West Wing - which on Sunday won its fourth consecutive Emmy Award for best dramatic series - has never been thicker. The dialogue, meanwhile, has never been clearer. West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, who left the series at the end of the last season, excelled at rapid-fire repartee of the sort associated with Howard Hawks classics such as His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby. The West Wing was TV's first screwball drama. Now, with Wells fully in charge of scripts, the conversations aren't mile-a-minute. They're still smart, but they're slo-o-o-wer.

The show feels less claustrophobic this year, as well. The lighting of this famously dark - Godfather dark - show seems several lumens brighter, and the rooms and halls seem more airy.

Will these changes - and I don't think I'm simply imagining them - bring back viewers who drifted away during the past two seasons? Will Goodman's character bring in conservative viewers who would no more have watched The West Wing in past years than write checks to Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign fund?

Maybe, but I'd be real surprised.

West Wing 's biggest problem has been that its alternative universe was overwhelmed by reality after Sept. 11, 2001. The harder Sorkin tried to mirror what was happening in the real world, the more the artifice called attention to itself. It was as if the approval ratings of The West Wing and the Bush administration moved in an inverse relationship. But now, even though Bush's popularity appears to be edging down toward pre-9/11 levels, I wouldn't bet on The West Wing rescinding. Comebacks occasionally happen in politics, almost never in television.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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