IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘West Wing’ hopes live debate will boost ratings

But is enticing gimmick too little, too late? By Stuart Levine
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

These aren’t heady days for the president.

His administration is a mess with scandals aplenty. A major security leak has emerged from a high-ranking official at the White House, and with an upcoming election that could easily shift the political power structure in Washington, he’s doing his best to appease his own party while trying to stand firm on choices made from his gut, not based on popular opinion.

Oh, you’re talking about the Bushes? That’s old news. It’s President Bartlet whose legacy hangs in the balance.

And it’s not just how Bartlet will be remembered by fans of “The West Wing,” the whole series — in what might be its final season — is getting a thorough inspection.

With ratings sinking faster than W’s poll numbers, NBC’s “West Wing” will be pulling out the big guns Nov. 6 in nothing less than a fight for its own survival. The show is staging a political debate, broadcast live, between Democratic nominee Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican candidate Arnold Vinick. It’s an enticing gimmick but seemingly too little, too late.

Alda as Nixon, Smits as JFK?In our televised age of style and not so much substance, this showdown has all the makings of another Nixon-Kennedy rout. For 18-34 demos with no sense of history, in 1960, the two candidates for the nation’s top job participated in the first presidential TV debate.

Those who heard the exchange on radio believed Nixon — who was vice-president and had far more political experience — was the clear winner. But while he might’ve had a grasp on foreign affairs, Nixon was clueless about the importance of image. Standing at the podium with a 5 o’clock shadow and sweating profusely, he went directly in the tank.

The reason this is relevant in Sunday’s tussle is that Smits is boyish, good-looking and a natural charmer. Alda is a bit haggard-looking, creasing around the face, and has all the sex appeal of .

It’s not the first live broadcast in recent times, and — with ratings in jeopardy — certainly won’t be the last. Actually, NBC did this just a few weeks ago in the season opener of “Will & Grace,” another series teetering on extinction.

And while more viewers will most likely tune in than on a typical Sunday night, it won’t be enough to derail the runaway ABC locomotive. “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” the 8 p.m. foe of "The West Wing," is too feel-good for regular “EM” watchers to miss. People, it seems, need a good cry before heading back to work Monday morning.

The only non-“Wing” watchers who might check out this episode are the same who watch NASCAR for the possibilities of a crash. Maybe someone will flub a line? Miss a cue? Fat chance. Smits and Alda are pros, too polished for a major miscue.

It’s actually quite sad that “Wing” has to succumb to this kind of cheap stunt. The show won the Emmy for best drama four times in a row. We’re not talking “Cop Rock” or “Manimal” here.

The first few years of “Wing” were brilliant — even on its off days, it was still head and shoulders better than most everything else. It was an HBO-type show not on HBO.

Aaron Sorkin wasn’t above a few soap opera storylines — Rob Lowe’s affair with a D.C. hooker in the first few episodes, Bartlet's daughter’s kidnapping — but the camaraderie between Martin Sheen, Richard Schiff and Brad Whitford was Sorkin at his best, writing that was Mamet-like; better suited for Broadway than TV.

Of course, producing that high level of quality takes time — too much time, it turned out — and, eventually, the wear and tear of personally scripting 22 episodes a year exhausted Sorkin, put him behind deadline and costing producer Warner Bros. a ton of money. Sorkin parted ways with the show and the next chapter of “Wing” was born.

Executive producer John Wells took the reins, and a few scenes after the transition must’ve made hardcore “Wing” fans cringe. The show, it seemed, was seemingly slipping away into mediocrity. If you look closely, during one particular moment when Josh is shoving his closed fist at the Capitol and exclaiming, “You want a piece of me?” you can actually see the shark jumping over the Rotunda.

But, to his credit, Wells bounced back last season. The focus was smartly placed on the political primaries and some of the magic of those early years returned.

Smits a favorite to win?Which brings us back to the upcoming debate and who should be the next leader of the free world.

Logic says Smits will win, as he’s certainly the bigger star these days, and would certainly draw younger, and advertiser-friendly, demos.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

That being said, Wells would be both courageous and smart to put Alda in the Oval, thereby giving the series a right-wing bent it's never had before.

One benefit would be taking all the leading characters out of their element and giving them a fresh spin — maybe positioning them in the private sector. C.J., who for so many years had to spin stories as press secretary, could return as a reporter on the White House beat. Josh runs for and wins a congressional seat, where the machinations of Capitol Hill would be new terrain for dissection and discussion. Charlie could clerk for a Supreme Court justice (though that seems like a fascinating thesis for an entirely different show).

NBC’s decision to move “West Wing” from Wednesday to Sunday has proved disastrous. If it stays in its current Sunday slot, it’s a goner. A move back to Wednesday is a distinct possibility, even though that may not make a difference either.

Whether "West Wing" says goodbye in May, or miraculously reappears in September is yet to be determined, but viewers of smart and sophisticated television will always have a place in their heart for the Bartlet administration. There’s no debating that.

Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Daily Variety in Los Angeles.