Monday, November 14, 2005

Comments on and Recaps of "West Wing" Live Debate (Part 4)

Comment on the Mercury News Blog.

From South West Herald:
" On Sunday night, “The West Wing” gave the American people something they have always wanted, a debate between two presidential candidates.

Although it is fantasy TV, the program put the two actors who play presidential candidates on a stage “live” where they actually debated the real issues.

It was the liveliest, best damn presidential debate I have ever witnessed in 30 years covering politics, and probably almost as significant as the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960.

A no-holds-barred debate between two fictional characters that got to the real issues faster and more efficiently in a fantasy setting than the real life presidential candidates couldn’t ever hope to achieve in their wildest dreams.

Of course, the candidates were actors. And I am sure the topics were pre-scripted. But I got the sense that the two actors, both veterans, were speaking about the issues from their heart.

A debate where, for the first time, candidates spoke honestly as if they had nothing to loose. Of course, they had nothing to loose because they were actors.
The Santos-Vinick debate began like all standard, real-life debates. Veteran newscaster Forrest Sawyer played himself as the debate moderator. He laid out the rules and then, as TV always does, the “candidates” quickly moved to throw them out, something every viewer of a real debate has always wanted to see.

Real life political candidates are so afraid of making a mistake. Maybe worse, in our society today, the public and the media will ignore all the good things and focus on the one mistake a candidate makes to rip them apart and destroy their drive.

Instead of speaking to fill set time periods of two minutes to talk, one minute to respond and 30 seconds to rebut the rebut. They just started talking. The reporters didn’t get in the way with their often cleverly crafted questions that never get to the real issues the public wants to hear.

And the big goal of “not making a mistake” is replaced by the real need of speaking to the issues honestly, fully and from the heart.

What would you really do if you were in office? The good. The bad. And the ugly."
Vinick made a great point when he argued we should go after oil reserves in Alaska, asking how many people (in the audience) have ever been to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Only one person.

The big question at the end of the debate? Who won? I asked my wife, and she thought Santos did a better job. So did I, although he seemed to stumble a few times on issues and it was Vinick who really showed passion to get at the real issues – it was his idea to scrap the rules and give the public a real debate for a change, or, so the script offered.

According to, Santos received 70 percent of the online after debate polling.

But the real winner was clearly NBC TV’s “The West Wing.”"

Philadelphia Daily News
"Last night, freed of some of the restraints of the show's writing staff, he showed Arnie Vinick's true colors - and did it so convincingly that even the real party's right wing might sit up and take notice.

Before anyone comes calling, though - I believe they call this acting.

Alda, who describes himself as an "independent," admits to a competitive streak, telling reporters, "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.' "

Alda didn't destroy Smits - who introduced the live event's only real moments of spontaneity by occasionally stumbling over a word or two - but he did appear to out-talk him, something Smits (as Santos) had worried about at the beginning, when Vinick interrupted his own opening statement to suggest that they throw out the agreed-upon rules.

From that moment on, it was a fantasy evening for those who miss the wonky old "West Wing" of the Aaron Sorkin era, as Vinick and Santos served up serious facts about everything from Medicare (which according to Santos, is the most efficiently run health-care system in the country) to African economies (which Vinick argued were crippled by high taxes imposed as a direct result of our own country's supposed generosity).

I could have used one of those post-debate "truth squads" from time to time, but assuming the actors and the writers did their homework better than some of our real-life candidates have, there was much to be learned.

Too bad the real politicians spend even more time learning how to walk and talk like actors than these actors did learning their lessons."

From the Star Telegram:
"American Express underwrote the episode, preventing the chance of inappropriate commercials destroying the more serious vibe (although making Ellen DeGeneres a commercial-break spokeswoman was odd and a little annoying). The sponsorship also enabled Wells to go forth in something close to real time.

Written by Lawrence O'Donnell and directed by Alex Graves, the entire episode showed Santos and Vinick debating at the podium but not as we normally watch real candidates in real debates. This is, after all, television. Seconds into the first question by NBC newsman Forrest Sawyer (his fine performance gave fuel to my long-held belief that there's no line separating TV newspeople and actors), Vinick shrugged and called for a real debate without the rules that turn candidates into stiff poles and boring television.

The West Wing couldn't have staged a debate in which each candidate had three minutes for speechifying and two for rebuttal, or whatever the rules are. That sort of thing sends viewers in search of life on cable.

Instead, Santos and Vinick gave us a schoolyard fight, complete with name-calling ("You're a liar," Santos yelled at Vinick), anger and a fiery debate over the meaning of the word liberal. It was the sort of thing we would never get to see in a real debate.

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

Vinick: "A Republican president ended slavery."

Santos: "Yes, a liberal Republican, Senator. What happened to them?"

The West Wing pulled off what it does so well: present a highly idealized view of the workings of government and have viewers say that, while it may not be realistic, it certainly feels real and right, and if this isn't what a debate is like, it's what it should be like."

Journal Sentinel
"But those who tuned in to last night's debate hoping to see a clear winner were probably disappointed.

The mock debate - scripted by longtime "West Wing" writer-producer Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., a former Democratic Senate staffer - began conventionally enough, with moderator Forrest Sawyer, playing himself, laying out the rules.

Soon, though, in what seemed at first to be a stumble but turned out to be a plot twist, Alda's Vinick, played as a moderate Republican famous for his political savvy and silver tongue, departed from his prepared opening statement to challenge Smits' Santos to "junk the rules" and engage in what he called a "real debate," with the candidates able to question each other.

In real life, it's hard to imagine such a proposal being made before a TV audience of millions, and even harder to imagine an opponent accepting the challenge. Santos, however, quickly agreed, and soon the gloves were off.

The topics wouldn't have surprised any follower of 21st-century presidential politics: U.S.-Mexico border patrols, education, jobs, health care, tax cuts, global warming.

Television imitated life as Vinick and Santos sparred over federally funded vouchers for private schools.

The rhetoric got heated when the subject turned to health care. When Vinick lashed out at Santos for what the Republican called a bad idea for health care reform, the Democrat came back with another one of those lines that it was hard to imagine coming out of the mouth of a flesh-and-blood candidate.

"I'm not crazy about my health care plan either," Santos said with stunning candor. "It's what I think could get through the Congress."

Ideally, the Democrat went on to say, he would prefer to extend Medicare to Americans of all ages, an idea that Vinick greeted with: "That's crazy."

Surprisingly, O'Donnell's script stayed away from abortion rights, a topic that has been much discussed on the show in recent weeks. "

From the Mobile Register:
"The subject matter -- the debate -- was perfectly suited for a live episode. It helped these characters and their campaigns seem all the more real to viewers who have followed the show to Sunday, as well as those who sampled the live episode just because of the novelty of the stunt. Airing scripted shows live is a rarity these days, although it was the norm in TV's earliest days and NBC tried the attention-getting device earlier this season with the season premiere of comedy "Will & Grace."

Sunday's "West Wing" seemed real, but it was the kind of real debate on real issues that doesn't really happen anymore. At the start of the episode, Vinick startled his rival, his handlers and the debate moderator (newsman Forrest Sawyer, playing himself) by suggesting their carefully negotiated rules be thrown out. He saw them as a substance-squeezing straitjacket, as they have proven to be in real-life debates.
Through seven seasons on "The West Wing," Sheen's President Bartlet has been a card-carrying liberal, but a tough one that most of the country could get behind if he wasn't merely fiction. This season and particularly in Sunday's episode, Santos and Vinick have shown they, too, are both men and leaders of conviction.

Either one would make a fine television president -- or a real one.

I wish we could all feel as good about our real elected leaders and the challengers who aspire to their offices.

In the meantime, I'm feeling good about "The West Wing" again. Once more, it's a series worth watching."
"For what it's worth, I think Vinick beat Rep. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) -- Vinick lost his cool, but overall he came across as more experienced, more determined and more confident. Santos has better education and healthcare plans, but he didn't stay on message. It's sad when even left-leaning television scripts -- especially ones that are aware of the mommy problem -- can't present a clear, progressive vision that would be compelling to centrist voters."

New York Post
" The event demonstrated, again, that televised bebates — even fictional ones — are dull, no matter how good for you they are supposed to be.

The debate between the "West Wing" presidential candidates — Texas Democrat Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and California Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) — was telecast live on NBC. It was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime event in which anything could happen.

Well, not much of anything happened. The two agreed early on to toss moderator Forrest Sawyer's list of ground rules in favor of a free-flowing exchange of ideas without time limits.

This was supposed to usher in a debate that would be as electrifying as NBC's pre-telecast hype promised it would be. Instead, the exchanges on issues such as immigration, prescription drugs, gun laws and energy had little wattage.

And aspects of the telecast itself were poorly thought out. One gaffe was the use of the NBC News logo under the word "Live" on screen throughout the hour.

NBC does its news division a disservice by slapping a news label on a piece of prime-time entertainment. It is irresponsible, too, because it confuses some viewers"

From Newsday:
"In fact, there were few surprises last night, as both Vinick and Santos proved eloquent and often passionate advocates for their respective party positions; when Santos talked about the great liberal tradition of the Democratic party or Vinick about the role of limited government while expounding on individual rights, you almost wanted to cheer, even if you didn't know what in tarnation they were talking about. One big surprise: Not a single question from moderator Forrest Sawyer about abortion.

"Wing" producers made the calculation that hard-core fans would listen to an hour of fairly thoughtful and at times routine disquisition on (ready for this abbreviated list?) education, border protection, school vouchers, Headstart, health care, oil companies and gun control. But after throwing out the standard debate rules at the very beginning, both Alda and Smits managed to prove, above all, just what superb actors both are. They were the winners, too."

From Reuters/Hollywood Reporter:
"Regardless of the spin, it was clearly a victory for NBC, which enjoyed a ratings bump during the sweep-inspired contest. In other respects, the victor was less clear cut. The live episode, performed for the East and Central zones and then again for the West, represented a milepost in a revival season but also a speed bump. Although the scripted debate was filled with issues and substance, it sacrificed the drama and storytelling of traditional episodes. It tried to simulate reality and succeeded, which resulted in a show that begged the indulgence of viewers and asked them to think rationally and intelligently about things that transcend television. That's risky business for TV any time, and especially primetime. In terms of which candidate did better, my vote is with Santos the Democrat. His positions seemed more thoughtful and his solutions more promising. Vinick, on the other hand, was more inclined to provide fast and easy answers, though his comments on the failures of the Head Start educational program indicated that the character could also marshal his facts.
The Harvard Independent:
"I watched this week's episode - the gimmick to end all gimmicks, a live debate between two fictional presidential candidates - with some trepidation. My fears were completely unfounded, though. It seems that the show has discovered its voice again. I had sold The West Wing short. I had assumed that if it gave more credence to the other side, it would lose the wonderful, ideal-world quality that I loved so much about it. The show has managed to create a new kind of utopia, though. In this world, candidates are smart and fair and actually listen to each other (though somewhat cantankerously), and questions are actually answered. There's something cathartic about all this. As nerdy as it is, I literally got chills while watching the two candidates. I still want to live in Bartlett's world."
"The West Wing: Sunday night’s live debate was absolutely riveting. My hat is off to everybody associated with the show for putting this together. For the record, I had Senator Vinick winning. I like it when debaters get a little salty."
From the Cincinnati Enquirer:
"During the debate portrayed on a recent episode of "The West Wing," the fictitious nominees - Democrat Matt Santos and Republican Arnold Vinick - traded mostly predictable partisan arguments for and against the issues. No topic debated, however, is more salient to the future of America than Head Start, the comprehensive child development program for low- to moderate-income children and families. The assertion that "Head Start doesn't work," as leveled by Vinick's character and by many real legislators on Capitol Hill, is an unfortunate demonstration of looking the other way in the face of decades of success as Head Start celebrates its 40th anniversary this year."

East Coast and West Coast Version
Looking for East Version
Also looking for East Coast Version
Liberalism Quote (East Coast)
Liberalism Quote (West Coast)

You are welcome to use the comments if you are also looking for specific Versions of the debate. You are also welcome to comment on differences either here or Television Without Pity, or write a longer comparison for the comments, to be posted here or the Episode forum linked above.

Part 5

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