The TV Column

'West Wing' Candidates To Face Off in Live Debate

By Lisa De Moraes
Saturday, October 15, 2005

This time around, the Republican will win the presidential debate, but the Democrat will win the election.

NBC will air a live debate during the November ratings race between faux candidates Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda on its struggling political drama series "The West Wing," which since moving to Sunday this season has seen its audience plunge from more than 11 million viewers to fewer than 8 million.

Alda plays Republican Sen. Arnold Vinick; Smits plays Democratic Rep. Matt Santos.

Executive Producer John Wells says that they'll have a "general sense of where they're going," are "definitely rehearsing a script" and are giving the two actors "substantial briefing materials" for the episode, noting that these days real presidential candidates are usually well rehearsed and almost never surprised by a question.

But there will be improvisation and spontaneity -- more than in the real thing, Wells said -- and they plan to solicit some questions over the Internet from viewers.

"To even call our current presidential debates 'debates' is stretching the term," he said, noting that virtually all elements, including the types of questions and the format, are "so pre-negotiated."

"In many ways what they've done is created a world for real presidential debates in which the candidates have an opportunity, to a larger audience, not to engage each other, but to give another version of their stump speech," Wells said.

"The whole idea about doing a [live 'West Wing'] debate was to try to do a debate in which the characters actually debated. . . . We will try to set up a world in which the candidates can have a real exchange," he said, adding that his goal is to get viewers to question why they don't get that in real life.

If yesterday's unscripted, spontaneous phone news conference is any indication, Alda will win the debate hands down -- though it's widely presumed that NBC has Smits in mind to play the next president of the United States if "West Wing" goes to another season -- if only because, at 69, Alda has nearly 20 years on Smits and is even further out of the 18-49 age bracket NBC chases than current "West Wing" faux president Martin Sheen, who's 65.

Alda is a very good public speaker. His early training, he notes, was in improv, whereas, Smits explained, "Jimmy is not a good talker," and his character is "much more verbal than Jimmy is or could ever be." Yes, it appears Smits sometimes talks about himself in the third person. Why is that so creepy?

Consider their answers to a simple question: "Is it important to you guys . . . that your character wins the debate or . . . the election?"

"What's important to me," Smits replied, "is that we do good storytelling. I think we've been doing that and keep the audience on their toes, keep it topical. And, just to reinforce what Alan said before, is that both points of view are strong and I think since last season we've been doing that and will continue doing that."

Alda also began with the same evasive blah, blah, blah, but then recovered with a great save: "But specifically, to answer your question . . . I have to tell you that it's hard to play any character and not want that character to get what he wants. I wanted to destroy Howard Hughes when I was in 'The Aviator' and I saw every good reason to do it, so that I could be the guy convincingly.

"Of course I want to win the debate, some part of me does, anyway, but . . . you do have to go along with what the story is. If the story doesn't actually have Richard III winning the battle, no matter how much he wants to win, he doesn't win. But you still have to want it. In a debate like this, where . . . you're the one live on camera, if you don't win, it's like something's wrong with you. So it gets even more personal. Some part of me of course wants to win. Even in our imagination I would love to rule the world."

To which Smits added: "Alan wants to cream me out there."

See what we mean?

Even Smits acknowledged he's no Alan Alda when one critic asked if he was worried about the live debate, given that "Alda is slick of tongue" and has been "talking for decades" -- which somehow sounded like it was meant to be an insult.

"Jimmy is not a good talker," Smits said, adding bravely that will force him to "prepare doubly hard."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company