I don't know if tonight's ''West Wing'' is meant to demonstrate the failure of politics, or just the failure of a television drama. Either way, it was disappointing.
I did get a rush of excitement just before it began, thinking this could be exciting TV. But it started so awkwardly, with a contrived throwing-out of debate rules which regular viewers should have presumed was part of the Vinick-Santos handshake in last week's episode. (If they spent the necessary time to hammer out those complicated rules, there wouldn't have been any time left for debate prep.) For a moment there, I thought I would rather vote for Ellen DeGeneres.
And not long into the debate itself, I was hoping someone at FactCheck.org has enough of a sense of humor to issue a factual analysis of these fictional candidates' policy stands. Because as they wallowed in talk about CAFTA, it felt like one of something left over from an Al Gore position paper -- the sort of talk where you spent so much time proving you were the smarter guy, that you also came off as the most boring (or annoying guy).
Of course, that's where I thought the show was saying that politicians just can't help themselves, that they can be just as unenlightening in a no-holds-barred situation as they are in the formally structured ''debates'' that real-life politicians negotiate.
The complexities of the two candidates all but disappeared, with Vinick in particular reduced to Republican talking points when along the episodic trail he had seemed much more complicated. (The debate left Alan Alda sounding a lot like the presidential contender played by James Brolin earlier in the ''West Wing's'' run.) And I felt the same frustration I have felt at real debates when it seems that the guys aren't getting to the important stuff -- that a big issue like the economy isn't really being addressed (I guess things are better in Westwingworld), and that some things have just been dropped. A week ago, both sides were on a collision course over abortion and attack ads; what happened to that topic?
There was also the frustration with the moderator, real-life newsman Forrest Sawyer, who seemed to let these guys off the hook -- as real-life debate moderators have sometimes done. I would have cheered if only he had listened to Santos's bullet-regulating proposal and said, ''Gee, it sounds as if you're making policy based on a Chris Rock monologue.''
But I ended up feeling that this show was ''The West Wing's'' failure, not politics. Let politics take the rap for its own failings. Here we had a show that was once famous for taking big, complicated issues and turning them into human drama; in its big, November-sweeps dramatic gesture, it threw out humanity in favor of big, complicated noise.
Moreover, because it was live, it reminded us that in some ways politicians are better actors than people who get paid to act without holding elective office. No two presidential contenders, face to face on live TV, would hesitate and stumble as often as these guys did. Top pols are trained almost from birth that you always charge ahead. We see that all the time in the chatter on cable news; forget what point is being made, forget the challenge from the interviewer (if said challenge does occur), just keep charging. When I watched ''West Wing,'' I didn't see much of that kind of charge, and so wasn't very charged up.
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