After months and months in which Americans were all but forced to hear about what was going on inside the real White House, how eager should they be to hear about what's going on inside a fake one?
Based on a first look, NBC's new drama series "The West Wing" isn't going to tell fictional tales that are as amazing, appalling or sordid as news stories that emerged from the Clinton White House. The series, premiering tonight at 9 on Channel 4, looks to be conscientiously made, well crafted and serious-minded. But a big fat cloud of "so what?" still hangs over it.
It may eventually belong in the same breath with such esteemed shows as "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law" and "Lou Grant." The creator of the series and author of the pilot is Aaron Sorkin, who gave network TV a big boost last year with the arrival of his "Sports Night" series on ABC. That show's a lot better than this one, though, perhaps because the setting for it, an all-sports cable network, is mercifully less ominous and significant than the White House is.
Of course, this is backstage at the White House and not the adventures of Mr. and Mrs. President. And yet the show really comes to life tonight only when the president, played by Martin Sheen, makes his entrance (roughly halfway through), bellowing biblically, "I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no other gods before me."
With Sheen's arrival, it's like the audience is being told, "Cheer up, folks, there's a real actor on the premises." Everything that precedes this already seemed rather inconsequential and now seems more so. Sorkin may not want his show to be about the president, but at least on the premiere, it is by default.
By contrast, wondering whether the White House deputy communications director will retrieve the pager he accidentally swapped with a hooker who he didn't know was a hooker (she gave him a freebie, it seems) comes off as very small potatoes. The role of the deputy, though, is very appealingly played by Rob Lowe, who makes him a kind of quintessential bright young man whose ideals and ambition battle perpetually for control of his soul.
Allison Janney shines, too, as the press secretary, another member of the staff trying to strike a balance between integrity and practical necessity. But the rest of the staff is rather bland (and alarmingly short on minority representation) or outright dislikable, especially tiresome John Spencer, an "L.A. Law" alumnus, who goes around growling and barking more like the White House dog than the chief of staff, which he's supposed to be.
Could the people who work at the White House really be such a bunch of nasty, crabby grouches?
In one of its opening scenes, the program looks like "Corridors of Power--Literally." A hand-held camera captures Spencer as he barges through hallway after hallway on a supposedly typical busy morning. He walks and walks and walks, and this begins to look more like the Pentagon than the White House. Spencer knee-jerkily overacts, gnawing the scenery down to its very nubs.
Naturally a swirl of crises looms at the office, one of them immigrational: dozens of Cubans understandably trying to flee their island on rafts and getting snagged in an unseemly international limbo. Meanwhile deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is in hot water for a smart-alecky remark he made on "Capitol Beat," a Sunday morning talk show, though the remark seems less inflammatory than any number of those made by James Carville.
As his first order of business, Sheen gives the heave-ho to some easy targets, a group of leaders purporting to stand for "Christian family values" but really just another gaggle of lobbyists. With glee and gusto, he tells them, "Get your fat asses out of my White House," which is hardly realistic but proves entertainingly explosive.
Why a series about the White House now? One has to wonder. During the Clinton years, there seemed to be more movies and TV shows made in which the president was a character than during any other administration. One explanation may be that Hollywood has always loved Bill Clinton and probably still does. There weren't lots of movies about contemporary presidents when Ronald Reagan was in office. America loved Reagan, but Hollywood hated him.
At any rate, "West Wing" is not a dramatic powerhouse as it gets off the ground tonight but, indeed, it does get off the ground. There are good performances, crispy-crunchy lines of dialogue and a few sizzly sparks. Subsequent episodes will have to improve on the premiere, however, if there's really going to be anything must-see-ish about the show.
'Oh Grow Up'
"Oh Grow Up" is a cute title but really, why do they have to bother thinking up cute titles for such standard, cookie-cutter shows? Why not just give them numbers? Like "Sitcom No. 6475ABC99-B." The titles don't matter, the shows don't matter. This one especially.
It's the story of three garrulous goofballs sharing a Brooklyn brownstone and muddling their ways into each other's business. As it opens--tonight at 9:30 on ABC (Channel 7)--one of the first sounds we hear is a woman having an orgasm. Two of the guys are downstairs trying not to listen while the third guy, upstairs, makes with the whoompa-whoompa.
A dog named Mom, yes really, says "Make it stop" in a subtitle, the show's big inspiration. This big inspiration harks all the way back to the dawn of TV and a cheerful little '50s sitcom called "The People's Choice," with a funny basset hound named Cleo whose thoughts were spoken on the soundtrack by an anonymous woman's voice.
So that "Oh Grow Up" will have that "edge" that all shows want these days, one of the three men is gay, though perhaps the least gay gay man that ever existed. He's supposed to have discovered his homosexuality after marriage, which means his ex-wife comes around now and then to needle him and complain. How she does go on. How they all do go on. And how unfunnily.
The cast includes John Ducey, David Alan Basche and Stephen Dunham, with Rena Sofer and Niesha Trout representing womanhood. Remember those names, for any or all of them may find themselves in a really good TV show someday. By then, or maybe by November, "Oh Grow Up" will have been mercifully forgotten.
CAPTION: Cast members of "The West Wing," from left: Richard Schiff, Allison Janney, Brad Whitford, Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Moira Kelly and John Spencer.