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'The West Wing' attempts to return to winning form


Chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) suffers a major heart attack, and press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) takes his job. Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Leo's deputy, goes looking for a new president to love, while the old president, Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), might or might not even make it to the end of the television year.

Oh, and by the way, Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda will be joining the cast in featured roles as presidential candidates. (Alda's a moderate Republican senator from California, with Smits a liberal Democratic congressman from Houston.)

While there is no election this fall for NBC's fictional White House on The West Wing, executive producer John Wells nevertheless will be turning the Bartlet administration upside-down in a dramatic attempt to recapture the political edge and in-the-know cachet that the series enjoyed back in the day - before the departures of creator Aaron Sorkin and executive producer Thomas Schlamme in May of last year. And while Wells insists the sixth season that starts tonight will not be the last for The West Wing, the changes he outlined and the direction suggested in the first three episodes say this is a series desperately trying to reinvent itself.

Here's Wells putting the best face on the tumult during a telephone news conference last week: "One of the things that starts to happen on a long-running television show is that unless you shake things up and sort of change the way that characters relate to each other, inevitably you end up after three or four years to be repeating yourself. And it gets very pronounced by the time you're in your fifth year. So, a lot of the things that we're doing are just to change the dynamics between the characters we've come to know and love, so that they're not doing the same things."

Here's Wells being a bit more candid later in the session when asked if The West Wing will be having an election later in the television year: "The reason I have been a little vague about it is that it would be our preference to do the election next season. But if Martin [Sheen] tells me after the first of the year that he doesn't really want to continue, we may choose to accelerate that [and have an election this spring]. We haven't made that decision. ... We're in full denial."

Wells has a lot to be in denial about, judging from the episodes made available for preview. The main business of tonight's episode: mopping up a not-so-successful attempt to end last season on a cliffhanger. For those who didn't see the last episode, the season ended with Donna (Janel Moloney) fighting for her life in the Middle East after an SUV in which she was riding in Gaza was blown up by a land mine. An American congressman and an admiral in the vehicle with her were killed.

The drama opens with a close-up of a flag-draped coffin, and it is a powerful reminder of the emotionally charged imagery available to this series. A flag-draped coffin and military funeral immediately evoke strong emotions in viewers.

The producers have to be careful how they address such emotions. Tell viewers an elevated story about the importance of the presidency and the capacity for goodness in the American soul and viewers will feel ennobled by watching. No one did this as well as Sorkin.

But touch the mystic chords of national memory and then offer up soap opera story lines and viewers will feel exploited. That is what happens tonight with Donna being rushed back into surgery with a blood clot on her lung and Josh waiting helplessly outside the operating room as doctors warn of possible brain damage and death. The will-she-won't-she-die story line is played past the point of credibility.

As for the presidential narrative, what's missing here is a genuine sense of urgency and global importance - and that takes some doing, considering tonight's episode is about Bartlet seeking peace instead of using the military to retaliate for the explosion in Gaza.

Through a distinctive visual style of several cameras constantly in movement along a series of intersecting corridors, Schlamme had established a frenetic, clock-is-ticking rhythm to the series. Seeing the flattened sense of pacing now in place, one can't help but wonder if even Wells, who was executive producer with Schlamme, understood what gave the series such an urgent heartbeat.

TV tonight

What: The West Wing

When: Tonight at 9 (preceded at 8 by last season's finale)

Where: WBAL, Channel 11

In brief: An ailing drama tries to reinvent itself.

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