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''Desperate Housewives''/'The West Wing"

By RD Heldenfels Published: September 27, 2005

I was thinking a lot about sprawl on Sunday night. "The West Wing'' was dealing with it. So was ''Desperate Housewives.'' Both were struggling.

This kind of sprawl is the kind affecting TV shows with large casts, especially established ones. You know that some viewers may be turned off by one character but drawn in by another -- that they watch ''DH'' for Lynette but pick up their knitting when Susan is center stage, that they love Bartlet stories on ''WW'' but wander when Santos is dominating.

The problem then becomes satisfying all those viewers -- as well as the actors who expect a certain amount of screen time.

On ''DH,'' it was clear once again that the show is best serving Lynette, played by new Emmy winner Felicity Huffman. (And, to be fair, Huffman definitely knows how to run with the ball, so why not hand off to her?) The ''multi-tasking'' scene was the gem of the season premiere.

It's not so sure-handed with Bree (Marcia Cross), whose scene at Rex's funeral probably looked a lot better on paper than it did onscreen, or Susan (Teri Hatcher), who has gotten way too teary -- and too thin -- and especially Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), whose storyline has spun her way out of the orbit of Wisteria Lane.

Add in new neighbor Betty Applewhite (played by Alfre Woodard) and the characters at Lynette's new job, and you have a lot of people to get on the air, let alone give a decent story to. I'll admit once again that I'm lukewarm about ''DH'' generally. I was still disappointed by the season premiere, and saw signs of trouble down the road.

I'm far less neutral about ''West Wing,'' having hung around even during seasons I didn't think were that good, and very enthusiastic about the presidential-campaign story that began last season. But the season premiere, while containing some good moments, also showed trouble with sprawl.

Even within the presidential campaign of Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), you have characters going in different directions -- Josh (Bradley Whitford) running the show, Leo (John Spencer) learning how to campaign for vice president with help from Annabeth (Kristin Chenoweth), and Santos himself with a ton of obligations. Then you have the holdovers at the White House -- Bartlet (Martin Sheen), Toby (Richard Schiff), CJ (Allison Janney) -- with a whole story line of their own.

And that's not even getting into the other side of the presidential campaign, with Vinick (Alan Alda). And I'm a little weary just from writing all those names, let alone from thinking about all the different scenes they are in. It's a lot different from the days when a couple of characters could walk down a hallway and pass just about every other key figure.

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