A moderately bewildering exercise in exceptional acting and lily-livered irrelevancy, last night's special episode of the NBC drama series "The West Wing" was designed to inject some much-needed zip into what has become a stubbornly buzzless old warhorse. The experiment was a failure, yet not a complete waste of time.
Televised "live," except for some prefatory filmed scenes, "The Debate" pitted Jimmy Smits as Rep. Matt Santos (D-Tex.) against Alan Alda as Sen. Arnold Vinick (R-Calif.) in an imitation of what Dan Rather always insisted on calling "joint appearances" by presidential candidates. They weren't really debates, Rather contended, and shouldn't be called that.
This issue was faced squarely almost as soon as the show began, with Vinick suggesting to his opponent that they "junk the rules" -- which inhibit spontaneity and meaningful exchanges -- and forget all those two-minute limits for this and three-minute limits for that. Santos agreed, saying, "Let's have a real debate."
Thus "West Wing's" faux debate, it could be argued, was more "real" in some ways than the real debates have been.
Unfortunately the show's writers then proceeded to squander the novelty of their attention-getting gimmick by avoiding almost any semblance of controversy, ending up with an hour that lent itself to catnaps. Instead of having the candidates argue about actual and urgent issues of the moment -- terrorism, the Patriot Act, politicization of the Supreme Court nominating process and, of course, the faltering war in Iraq -- Vinick and Santos chatted about generic generalities.
They discussed tax cuts for the rich, public vs. private education, health care, global warming, gun control, job training -- say, when is this election supposedly taking place? 1994? 1984? 1974? At times the participants strayed from the safe and sane and into the arguably cuckoo, as when Vinick tried to make some point about the tax rates in Africa and later, addressing the hired studio audience, directed them to "clap if you've been to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."
When his health plan was criticized by Santos, Vinick said, as no candidate in his right mind would ever say, "To tell you the truth, I'm not crazy about my health care plan, either."
There were no big bombshell moments of unexpected melodrama except for a brief disruption from a disgruntled crank in the crowd. He was hurriedly hustled out. Santos made reference to such relatively hot-button topics as corporate chicanery, but there was no follow-up either by the candidates or from Forrest Sawyer, the real-life journalist who capably played moderator. When the candidates called for hand microphones so they could be freed from their lecterns, Sawyer asked them, "Gentlemen, you're not going out into the audience, are you?" That at least was funny.
The "West Wing" debate was hardly the first experiment in what might be called trompe l'oeil television. It's a trick derived from the infamous and glorious Orson Welles radio prank, "The War of the Worlds," wherein large portions of the public mistook a drama for a newscast because the drama was written in newscast style. Hundreds of people in New Jersey and elsewhere ran from their homes with, Welles later recalled, "towels over their heads," because they thought his fake report about Martians landing on Earth was the real thing.
In March of 1983, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who would later create the series "thirtysomething," invoked the legend of Welles and his broadcast when they produced "Special Bulletin," which looked like an actual breaking-news report on an incident of nuclear terrorism and blackmail in Charleston, S.C. While there were no reports of people running from their homes under cover of towel, journalism professors and media moralists furrowed their brows and worried loudly about the propriety of fooling the public.
One big difference between that telecast and last night's artificial debate: In 1983 the NBC News division stayed as far away as possible from "Special Bulletin" and got network censors to issue an order requiring frequent on-screen disclaimers that told viewers they were watching a drama, not a news program.
Throughout the "debate," however, the logo of NBC News sat prominently superimposed in the lower right hand corner of the screen. This is a small sign of how standards at the news division have deteriorated over the years, and an indication that maintaining the line between news and entertainment is no longer much of a priority -- at NBC or, for that matter, at CBS or ABC.
And the all-news cable networks have hardly raised standards, either. "The Debate" was not a comment on broadcast news, however, or the media in general, or really on anything. It was raised to the level of event not by its style or content but by Alda and Smits's outstanding, hyper-telegenic performances. Alda has become especially impressive in what might indelicately be called his old age, and Smits offered a strikingly earnest, youthful contrast. The men had to stay in character and be TV debaters at the same time.
That effort, at least, could be labeled Mission Accomplished. But the other key components of "The Debate" were Mission Kerfloogled. What sounded bold and gripping in NBC promos proved limp and wimpy on the air -- shilly-shallying in a namby-pamby way.