Wasted Opportunity May Be Final Nail for Extreme White House Makeover
On paper, the notion of a live debate between two presidential candidates, albeit fictional, was intriguing. Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits are veteran stage actors in addition to their fame on screens large and small, and they seemed poised to make the most of this opportunity.
They were game. Their material wasn't.
The conceit was Alda's Republican Arnold Vinick proposed dumping the usual debate format for a freewheeling discussion, one his hero Lincoln was more accustomed to. Democrat Matt Santos, played by Smits, went along.
The "proceedings" were moderated by Forrest ("Whatever Happened To") Sawyer, either playing himself or a journalist named Forrest Sawyer, it wasn't clear.
It was a chance to let the fur fly, but writer Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. could not break free of his political past to author what could have been a dialogue for the ages. Instead, he refused to trust his candidates, and fell back into the protective cocoon that was so familiar to him, back when he worked for Sen. Daniel Moynihan.
Santos and Vinick sounded like slightly livelier versions of Bush and Kerry, which isn't saying much.
At the first commercial break, my wife turned to me and asked "Are you fading?" I was, and so was she.
Throughout "West Wing's" run, we have been thrust inside a White House anchored by a president many of us would love to have in charge right about now. With Santos and Vinick, the show offered up a liberal, though not an annoyingly strident one, and a moderate Republican even Democrats could grudgingly acknowledge. The nation would be in good hands. But first we'd have to sit through a ponderous debate.
One benefit of last night's episode is that it did burnish Vinick's GOP credentials. If you thought he was a reluctant Republican, out came the tax cuts, ANWR drilling, support for the death penalty and doubling the Border Patrol.
It was nothing we haven't heard before from real candidates, which is part of the problem. No one needs those kinds of bromides and bombast on "The West Wing," especially when we could otherwise be watching someone sobbing uncontrollably on "Extreme Home Makeover" or catch the latest Treehouse of Horror classic on "The Simpsons."
In the past, "The West Wing" has gotten away with being a civics lesson when it was also entertaining and even funny. But when you have the former without the latter, it's merely a chore. And Sunday nights at eight, you don't want to do any more chores.