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''West Wing'': The Big Cheat

By RD Heldenfels Published: April 2, 2006

Tonight's ''West Wing'' was supposed to be about election day, and about Leo dying. (We knew that from the show's promos.) I had wondered if there would be a storyline where Leo died before all the polls were closed, and the Santos campaign had to decide whether to keep his death secret until the West Coast closed. I don't know how it would have worked dramatically, but it probably would have been better than what we got tonight.

Which was basically an hour-long trailer for next week's episode, and not even a particularly good trailer. The election's end puts a lot of people in bed -- literally, though only two to a bed. The exit polls seem to favor Santos, but there's a lot of weird data in them, which shouldn't surprise all these professional politicians in ''West Wing'' world.

Sure, they live in a parallel universe so they didn't have the hard lessons about exit polling from the Kerry/Bush race. But they live in a more or less real political world, and that should be one where people ever more commonly lie to exit pollers.

As annoying as that was, it was the double cliffhanging of the episode that most irked. It ended without a clear winner in the election. It ended with Leo being found, probably dead, with his death definite ... in next week's episode.

I should know that the makers of television can get very cynical when it comes to getting you to tune in for one more week. But here's a show coming to the end of a run that was often distinguished. That is dealing with the death not only of a character, but of a beloved member of its ensemble. That is playing to an audience that, however small, cares deeply about what will happen.

And in the middle of that, ''West Wing'' pulled a rotten stunt.

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