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‘Wing’ eyes GOP successor for Bartlet

Smits, Alda play men competing for presidency
/ Source: The Associated Press

The prospect of a change in the White House tends to draw a strong reaction, pro or con.

Not from “The West Wing” executive producer John Wells, though. He seems unfazed by the coming end of Democratic President Josiah “Jeb” Bartlet’s tenure — and maybe even a Republican successor.

“We were a year and a half into the administration when we started the show,” Wells said of the NBC drama entering its sixth season. “We have term limits in this country and so, on our electoral schedule, Bartlet’s second term would end a year from this coming January.”

That fact foreshadows a hybrid season when “The West Wing” returns Wednesday (Oct. 20, 9 p.m. ET). Bartlet (Martin Sheen) grapples with his legacy while others fight for the chance to replace him.

Among them are contenders played by two familiar actors: Jimmy Smits (“NYPD Blue”), who’s a potential Democratic candidate, and Alan Alda (“M*A*S*H”) vying for the GOP nomination.

Also in the running is Vice President Russell (Gary Cole), with talented staff member Will Bailey (Josh Malina) at his side.

‘The Left Wing’Could Wells envision “The West Wing,” if re-elected by NBC to a seventh season, with a Republican president?

“I really could,” he told The Associated Press. “What we’ve tried to put forward in the Bartlet administration is a Democratic presidency that was a bit of wish-fulfillment of what you’d really want your Democratic president to be.

“I don’t think there’s any reason you wouldn’t want to see that show with a Republican.”

Is he concerned that the show, called “The Left Wing” by those who find Bartlet’s politics grating, might be seen as making the move to pander to conservatives?

“I think it depends on who the Republican candidate is and how you feel about the candidate by the time he or she is elected,” he said.

Series creator Aaron Sorkin cast Bartlet in the same liberal mold as the leader in his 1995 film “The American President.” Sorkin, who left the series in 2003, could not be reached for comment, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Change could reinvigorate the series’ ratings, which dropped from a season-high average of 17.2 million viewers in 2001-02 to 11.8 million viewers last season.

But Wells, whose relationship with NBC is bolstered by the other shows he provides, including longtime linchpin drama “ER,” said “The West Wing” ensures an affluent viewership for sponsors and that he’s confident of renewal.

A new commander-in-chief, from either party, would mean wholesale changes in the White House staff and the cast. But Wells told a phone news conference Wednesday that he hopes current stars would be able to remain — although that’s less likely with a Republican administration.

He’s also hoping that Sheen, whose contract is up this year, decides to come back for another season and maybe for post-presidency appearances.

Shakeup on the wayBefore the NBC show wades into the heat of primary contests and before Bartlet gives up power, there are lingering issues to resolve.

At the end of last season, growing violence in the Middle East led to the death of prominent U.S. officials and left an angry Bartlet weighing military action — and now trying to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The Gaza Strip attack also critically injured Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), who was part of the traveling White House contingent along with her boss, deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford).

Whether Donna survives (and whether she and Josh finally become an item) are obvious cliffhangers. Wells promises other immediate upheaval in “The West Wing.”

“There are substantial changes in the White House at the beginning of the season, within the first two episodes,” Wells said.

Involving the White House staff that viewers know and love? “In the staff that we know and love, things are happening,” Wells says, with vague discretion that would make a bureaucrat proud.

After the dust settles, the latter part of the season will focus on the campaign trail with Smits’ and Alda’s characters and on how Bartlet delivers his swan — or lame-duck — song.

“How does the Bartlet administration deal with the remaining time they have in trying to be effective?” Wells said. “What does he really want to accomplish in his remaining year in office?”

Writers for the series, which makes a point of drawing on real-world Washington expertise, asked former Reagan and Clinton administration figures to reminisce about their second-term experiences.

Politicos returning as advisers for the season include former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers and Laurence O’Donnell, who worked for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Two newcomers are former Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling and Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein.

They’re all crucial to the series, Wells said.

A fantasy White House“The most important thing about writing the show, as far as political issues go, is having arguments. We have to have people in the room to argue both points — and they do,” he said. “It’s a load of fun. It’s actually my favorite part (of creating the show): You get to sit there and listen to these people harangue each other.”

Will the series be affected by the outcome of November’s President Bush-Sen. Kerry election?

“I would say a lot of that depends on how the election itself goes,” Wells said. “If its as close or contested as the last election, that may have an impact.”

For some viewers, he speculated, the desired goal is fantasy rather than reality.

“I think we have a number of viewers who showed up after (the 2000) election because they felt that who they wanted in office wasn’t there, so they came to see what Bartlet did.”

This is the first season “The West Wing” has returned without a best-drama Emmy in hand. After four consecutive wins, the award went to HBO’s “The Sopranos.”

Wells said he was pleased with the outcome. The mob drama was overdue for a win, he said, and “The West Wing” can proceed without the question of whether it or any show is worthy of so many laurels.

Some critics argue the political drama fell short of the dramatic heights reached when Sorkin was on board, through the end of the 2002-03 season.

Wells largely disagrees but acknowledges the challenge of shifting from a show written by the prolific Sorkin to one relying on a new staff of writers.

“We had the experience of changing drivers in a race car in the middle of the track doing 200 mph. ... It was as difficult a thing as I have ever been involved in creatively,” he said, adding: “A lot of the shows we were very proud of.”