Monday, November 14, 2005

Comments on and Recaps of "West Wing" Live Debate (Part 3)

Globe and Mail:
"The live episode admittedly was more interesting than most presidential debates. Both characters came out from behind their podiums and presented ideas that wouldn't fly in a real televised contest. But in the end, the debate, moderated by real-life journalist Forrest Sawyer, was essentially what you would expect from the show that lives out policies and strategies that are the antipode to the real-life White House.

And, aside from a couple of stumbles, the episode, pitting Democratic hopeful Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) against conservative counterpart Vinick, went off seamlessly on both coasts.
But even with the series threatened by dismal ratings, The West Wing's producers deny the live episode was about driving audiences back to the show. "We chose to do this live episode back in June, before we even knew we were going to have a new timeslot and before we knew what the ratings for this season would be," O'Donnell says, adding that the success of Commander in Chief was not a factor in the decision. "If [Commander in Chief] were on Sundays at 8, we'd think about it," he says. "There's a lot of copycat television out there. I'm sure the people at Perry Mason felt a little bit funny when the second lawyer show came along. But they shouldn't have -- successful shows always provoke imitation. "I've worked on The West Wing since the first show of the first season . . .," he adds. "It didn't do anything to specifically become a top-10 show; it didn't do anything to try to stay high in the ratings. It has never done a single script that was done to pump up the ratings."" Salt Lake Tribune:
" Something similar was simmering later that night as we watched "The West Wing." If you missed it, the premise of the episode was for candidates Santos and Vinick to throw out the typical rules and to really try getting at issues of substance. It was meant to be the stuff of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates from a century-and-a-half before. And it worked.
(Especially that moment when Smits/Santos blazingly describes his pride in being a liberal. I should have written it down.)
It took two fine actors to pull this off. Sure, the show was scripted and dutifully rehearsed, a perfect placement in November prime time ratings sweeps.
But like the film we had seen earlier, this hour of television crackled with hope and possibility."

Philadelphia Daily News
"A friend who hated Sunday's "West Wing" debate episode complained yesterday morning that after all the talk about abortion in last week's episode, "candidates" Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) never got around to debating the issue. To which I say: Thank goodness for small favors. The last thing the abortion controversy needs is more shouting, scripted or otherwise."
Hartford Courant:
"Alda, who plays the more experienced senator, is the more experienced actor - especially when it comes to playing politicians. But his approach too easily slid from sincere to glib.

Smits' character has been carefully crafted the past year as the perfect candidate - a man for the people who was reluctant to take on the race for the Oval Office. Every episode he's in hinges on his giving an inspiring speech that makes the hardened insiders around him gasp in awe. That wasn't the case Sunday (and Josh Lyman wasn't present to bemoan his uncharacteristically shaky delivery).

A Zogby poll (really, Zogby was involved in this fakery, too!) released Monday says Vinick picked up 8 percentage points after the debate but still trails Santos, 58 to 34 percent ). And viewers are also directed to a website: "Log on and vote - and see Ellen again!" as if sensing she had been the entertainment highlight in a show that came in third in its time slot, drawing an audience of 9.64 million.
It could have been worse. It could have been shot in 3D."
The State:
"Beyond the ratings, the results are not yet in on the overall critical and political response to the show. “The West Wing” proved it has the sharp writing and bravado acting talent to produce compelling, live television drama. The episode had the details right, from the set to the characters’ demeanor — although, unlike in real presidential debates, its real drama lay in forgoing spin and posturing for an issue-oriented debate. The one main missing element was the post-show weigh-in of political pundits, providing highlights and who they thought won or lost.
But Sunday’s debate episode had no such constraints and proved a lively hour.
But “The West Wing” acquitted itself well with a dramatic show that offered a level of awareness and insight rarely evident in real life. “The West Wing” may have no political sway in the real world, but dramatically the debate episode was a high mark for a television series."Tufts Daily:
"Anyone listening to the debate between Santos and Vinick, however, would note that these were some of the only similarities between a real presidential debate and this scripted one. This was due to the frankness with which of each of the candidates discussed important national issues. Both characters reflected on health care, reliance on foreign oil, and the death penalty with a candor that nearly every real political debate lacks. From the get go it was clear that this would be a debate heavy on the drama and light on the realism. Citing fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln as inspiration, Vinick starts the episode by requesting to have "real debate" as opposed to a time-monitored one in which candidates cannot directly address one another. The freedom such a debate allows just makes it far too likely that candidates will make campaign-damning blunders. But one must remember that this is a drama; it would have been a rather dull one had writers decided to stick with the standard debate format. Indeed, at times Vinick and Santos seemed almost ready to pounce on one another. Their rivalry was palpable and their discussion heated, making for darn good debate drama." Virginia Pilot:
"Sunday night’s sweeps stunt — which is what it was — brought an energy to network television that has been long gone. Strangely, though, in showing once again the purity of live TV, with its mayhem and mistakes and truth, “The West Wing” also showed the poverty of the modern presidential process, which is supposed to have all those things, and never does."
St Petersburg Times:
"The logo was a topic of discussion on television news-related Internet sites. complained the logo "smacked of cheap promotion and journalistic integrity gone south." But a poster on's forum noted, "I don't think the viewers at home cared about that nearly as much as we do. I'm sure some pointy heads will get their panties in a wad over it, but really - what difference does it make?"
The West Wing "debate" did achieve one, unintended, level of realism. It was about as dull as a real presidential debate. It also didn't sit well with viewers. Industry insider Broadcasting & Cable magazine reported Monday West Wing was a weak fourth among the networks in the advertising-crucial 18-49 demographic, behind ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition , Fox's The Simpsons , and CBS's Cold Case . The Associated Press reported 9.6-million viewers tuned in. Airing the last real presidential debate, in October 2004, NBC led the evening, drawing 12.3-million viewers." Star Ledger:
"These same miscalculations played out again Sunday as "The West Wing" staged a presidential debate between Republican Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits). The drama was performed twice, for the East and West coasts. I hope the West Coast feed was brilliant, because the one we saw was the worst kind of squirm-inducing TV -- clumsily written and directed, stiffly acted and unconvincing in just about every way."
New York Daily News:
"As stunts go, Sunday's live edition of "The West Wing" helped the show earn its largest audience this season, but it was in no way a landslide. The telecast, which pitted presidential candidates played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits in a faux prime-time debate, averaged 9.6 million viewers. That's about 2 million more than the show's average this season Sunday at 8 p.m.
The producers also used the NBC News logo on the screen, making it look like a real telecast, much to the chagrin of news purists who left angry messages on TV Web sites. To that end, the NBC News logo created an odd situation early on when WNBC/Ch. 4 ran a thunderstorm warning crawl, which left some viewers wondering if it was real or not."

Canton Repository:
"The news insignia was requested by “The West Wing” episode’s producer, former real-life Washington insider Lawrence O’Donnell, to help make the presidential debate seem more realistic. Jeff Zucker, the NBC Universal executive who has run NBC’s entertainment division and produced “Today” for NBC News, gave the OK. NBC News programming like “Hardball” has been depicted on “The West Wing” in the past, news division spokeswoman Allison Gollust said. Even with all the trappings — including real-life TV newsman Forrest Sawyer as the debate’s moderator — no one at NBC believed that viewers would mistake Alda’s Arnold Vinick or Smits’ Matt Santos for real-life politicians"

Washington Post
"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.
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.
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."

Chiacago Sun Times:
"Sunday's event may have seemed like a good idea to someone at the network, because NBC moved "The West Wing" to Sundays this season and lost confused viewers. Unfortunately, "The Debate" was an artistic shot to both feet of a fairly intriguing **1/2 season.

The actors looked like anything but well-rehearsed candidates. They moved awkwardly. They stumbled over dialogue. Camera operators were seen walking around. And a camera view from behind the studio audience made it look as though this were a set and not a town hall.

Even the strongest thing about "The West Wing" normally -- its fanciful version of politics -- seemed unbelievable. This season, Alda has done a great job of selling a fairy tale, that his Republican Vinick is an abortion-rights supporter who privately refers to anti-abortion-rights forces as "religious nuts" that want to "enact their version of Leviticus into law."

From the Associated Press:
"To add to the realistic feel, real-life TV news veteran Forrest Sawyer was on hand to moderate.

His first question went to Vinick: "What would you do to seal the Mexican border (to illegal immigration)?"

"Enforcement first, that's my policy," said the California senator. "I would double the border patrol."

"I don't know how you're going to find room in the budget to double the border patrol with the tax cut you're proposing," fired back Santos, a Texas congressman.

A bit later, Santos promised a million jobs would be created in his first term.

"How many jobs will you create?" Sawyer asked Vinick.

"None," he replied. "Entrepreneurs create jobs. Business creates jobs. The president's job is to get out of the way."

Inevitably, the term "liberal" was contested, as well.

"Republicans have tried to turn `liberal' into a bad word," said Santos. "Well, liberals ended slavery in this country."

"A Republican president ended slavery," Vinick retorted.

"Yes, a LIBERAL Republican, Senator. What happened to THEM?"

But there was much more to their give-and-take, which fell into a pattern of lively exchange, even heated confrontation - the sort of telling clash that actual presidential debates never permit. It was substantial, at times downright wonkish, and a remarkable contrast to the choreographed, antiseptic real thing.

The performance - a blend of scripted dialogue and improvisation - was repeated three hours later in another live airing for West Coast viewers. The actors and Sawyer pulled off the latter half of the double-header smoothly and without major glitches."

Part 4

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