Monday, November 14, 2005

Comments on and Recaps of "West Wing" Live Debate

You can watch two highlights of the debate at This will probably require Internet Explorer and Windows Media.

You can watch a pre-debate interview with Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda on Los Angeles' NBC 4 here. This requires Windows Media and may require Internet Explorer.

First Article from the Wisconsin State Journal:
"Earlier this month, just before a national Election Day, they met in a primetime televised debate, where they scrapped the rules and argued their points and spoke eloquently about the issues facing America and their plans to fix what's wrong with the country.

They spoke like politicians and sounded like real people, invoking many topics that we might be hearing about in the real news - drilling for oil in Alaska, shaky energy policies, immigration laws, fixing public schools - sparring with each other, talking over one another and interrupting to make a point.

It was a lively and relevant debate by two people who were very convincing as real candidates.

Only ... they aren't real.
This fictional presidential race is regenerating interest in the once-hotter-than-a-desperate-housewife show. After a slow year and an ill-advised move to Sunday nights, the drama is regaining some of its glossy sheen. And though viewers, according to Nielsen, seem to prefer Madame President Allen on ABC's "Commander in Chief," the faithful are following this campaign.

One national online poll predicts a landslide victory for Santos. (And why not? Madison native Bradley Whitford is his campaign manager.)

Could it be that TV writers have finally created a Democrat that Americans can support? Or is it just that most of "The West Wing's" viewers are all lefties who adore the benevolent President Jed Bartlet, known offscreen as Martin Sheen?

Doesn't matter. The great thing about TV politicians is that those Hollywood writers can make them as sanctimonious, as superficial, as sarcastic or as sympathetic as they want. And in blurring the lines between what makes a Republican and what makes a Democrat, "West Wing" writers have made politics palatable for the masses."

Second Article from Wisconsin State Journal:
"Television viewers may have enjoyed the "debate" on NBC's "The West Wing" because it presented an idealized version of politics, a UW-Madison professor suggests.

"I think this reflects a longing for idealized, high-level, principled politics that may never have existed in fact," said Stephen Lucas, a professor of communication arts.

He didn't see the program, but notes that shows and movies about the presidency often present strong leaders.

"They always seem to reflect a longing for a president who has real character and gumption," Lucas said.

Ratings climbed for "The West Wing" as people tuned in for the live "debate" between actors portraying Republican and Democratic candidates for president.
The show was scripted, but performed live, and early in the joint appearance the make-believe Republican proposed dropping the rules. The make-believe Democrat readily agreed.

We can only wish for the same in real life, said Kathy Cramer Walsh, an assistant professor of political science at UW-Madison.

"I can't imagine a candidate ever agreeing to that because it is so risky," she said.

Walsh, who watched the program, has a theory about why the Republican might have gained momentum.

"West Wing" viewers are likely to be liberals and Democrats, since it's a story about the administration of Democratic President Josiah Bartlet, she said, and they would naturally favor the Democratic character.

But then they hear a Republican position being articulated by the popular Alda, listen more carefully and find some merit in it, she suggested.

"So often, we tune out the message because of the people saying it," she said. "It's a commentary on the lack of energy we put into listening in our politics these days."

One young Democrat, Brian Shactman, a junior political science major at UW-Madison, liked the Democrat in the first place and thought he was "the clear winner" of the debate.

A young Republican, perhaps surprisingly, agreed that the Democrat "won" the debate. But that's because the script was written that way, said Robert Thelen, a senior in business management at UW-Madison.

"It's very liberal and it's definitely slanted toward the liberals," he said. "They portray the Republicans as heartless and the Democrats as having the good ideas."

Anyway, "it is just a show. To take it as more than that is to take it out of context," Thelen said."

From the Sun Sentinel:
"If Alan Alda has ever given a less than stellar performance, it has gone unnoticed. But his turn as Republican presidential candidate Arnold Vinick in The West Wing's live debate show ranks among his finest. He articulated GOP positions, especially on tax cuts, with more clarity than any politician ever has. The amazing thing is Alda, a liberal, could be so convincing espousing positions with which he passionately disagrees. Unfortunately for West Wing fans, the live debate didn't do much in the ratings, sealing the show's demise at the end of this season. ">

From the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle:
"Sometimes I wish life would imitate art — or at least TV. I'd be a lot more interested in politics if real candidate debates went like the West Wing live debate episode two weeks ago on NBC.

The debate looked like a real presidential debate; it was acted live, with the candidates in dark suits against a blue backdrop, questioned by a real reporter, Forrest Sawyer.

The Democrat, Matt Santos, a Texas congressman (played by Jimmy Smits), and the Republican, Arnold Vinick, a senator from California (played by Alan Alda), immediately scrapped the formalities and rules. They took questions from Sawyer but went after each other, pressing and prodding and challenging without the tyranny of a stopwatch.

It was pretty good. The kind of interaction you never see in real life, where the purpose of a debate is to avoid debate and pretend to answer questions by reciting bromides that have been audience-tested in focus groups.

From Zap2It:
"I'll stipulate to the fact that the live debate of "The West Wing" was an excellent political exercise that should be shown in all high school history classes. Both Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda were on top of their game and were so smooth I often forgot I was watching a live episode. But was it enough to keep me enthralled for an entire hour? Not so much. This Sunday, instead of President Bartlet and the gang, NBC is airing "Shrek" at 7 p.m."

From New York Magazine:
"Smits on the November 6 episode of The West Wing was not that the fictitious presidential candidates differed in gritty detail about tax cuts, medical care, gun control, school vouchers, energy policy, illegal immigration, capital punishment, and Africa. (Actually, I take that back. The fact that Africa, and debt relief and drug companies’ profiteering on AIDS, would get ten minutes of prime-time network television for anything other than genocide photo ops is, frankly, astounding.) But you know that when I say “startled,” I’m not talking about substance. The West Wing has talked about substance for years. That’s how we’ve always known it’s fiction. Oddly enough, its ratings and its creative juices both perked up last season for the first time in the post-Sorkin era, when the action moved out of Jed Bartlet’s lame-duck policy-wonk White House onto the presidential primary campaign. Motormouth operatives like Janeane Garofalo and Ron Silver turned away from substance-mongering and into horse-race mode. Even so, in the October run-up to their November 6 mano a mano, as if hoping all the theocons would be bunkered down in a plot to smart-bomb Tehran, Alda and Smits allowed themselves to express nuanced opinions about abortion and intelligent design. But that wasn’t startling; it was merely honorable.
No, what startled most was the absence of spin. How was I supposed to know who “won” when 9 p.m. arrived without an anchorface, a focus group, a party hack, and/or the usual pollsters, liars, and ideologues blowing the usual smoke in my face? Not even in the Monday-morning papers did a single high-dudgeon editorialist or low-concept pundit tell me I hadn’t seen what I thought I saw. Must I then trust my own gut feeling that Aaron Sorkin would have written a more stinging defense of the word liberal than O’Donnell did, and that Smits got the hour’s best line when he proposed to universalize health insurance by removing “over 65” from the list of requirements for Medicare? Surely they can’t be suggesting that I watch television and think for myself?"

TV Squad blogged the debate live.

TV Guide

Discuss the episode at Television Without Pity.

Lengthy commentary by LTG at Television Without Pity.

You can watch Ellen Degeneres's commentaries at and choose which candidate did better.

CBS and Lost Remote debate the appropriateness of the NBC News logo.

Harvard Crimson
"What we may be seeing here is a new evolution of the Reality TV genre at work, one which, rather than relying on hyperbolizations of pseudo-reality, aspires to some seamless fusion of the real and the really-well-written instead. Every topic addressed in last Sunday’s debate between candidates Vinick (Alan Alda) and Santos (Jimmy Smits) seemed unnervingly contemporary in its relevance, from war and oil to health care.
NBC’s entirely dedicated to this phony election. Boasting fully interactive campaign sites for each candidate, the network is also conducting some primitive polling to determine which candidate viewers prefer, with some internet sites even breaking the numbers down by demographics too.

It’s all a bit over-the-top, and it’s unclear what purpose all this attention to detail serves, other than to confuse poor viewers like me. But I’ll tell you one thing, Santos would make a swell President, which is why I’ve decided to vote for him come Election Day.

Wait, did Election Day already happen? Dammit, NBC!"

From Ventura County Star:
"The real winner, however, just might be "West Wing's" rabid-to-the-max fans. Faithful since 1999, these viewers prove that you don't have to be a policy wonk, a C-SPAN junkie or even a high school civics instructor to relish a television character waxing poetic about congressional committee reports or tracking polls. For the hard-core aficionados, the Nov. 6 episode proved orgiastic -- at least political fantasy-wise.

"Let's make this a real debate," insisted Executive Producer Laurence O'Donnell Jr. -- "real" being the operative word. So instead of what Dan Rather used to call "joint appearances by presidential candidates," the fictional debaters were freed from handlers and truth-suppressing format restrictions. The result showed the American public that not only could Oval Office aspirants think for themselves but could also clash without resorting to cant.

Instead of condensed versions of stump speeches, "West Wing" viewers were treated to a lively exchange of ideas, frequently punctuated by fiery confrontation, as the contenders responded to Forrest Sawyer's probes (illegal immigration, tax cuts, education reform, prescription drugs and oil drilling) -- and each other.

Did I actually hear one politico admit, "To tell you the truth, I'm not crazy about my healthcare plan, either"?

In a bon mot "home run" reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's "I will not, for political purposes, exploit my opponent's (Walter Mondale) youth and inexperience," Vinick delivered the line, "Clap if you've ever been to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge" to rip-roaring guffaws.

If ratings-winner "Commander in Chief" allows audiences to imagine women in the Oval Office, then the "West Wing" debate likewise allows audiences to imagine a campaign moment without mudslinging, media spinning or megamoney spending."

Daily Record:
" The fact that they used veteran newsman Forrest Sawyer, playing himself, as moderator, added to the real feel of the show, but it also concerned me.

I don't believe in news people crossing this line into fiction. I think it hurts their credibility and blurs the line between reality and entertainment. I'm sure that was the point here -- making it seem as real as possible. At one juncture, an NBC News live logo even went up in the right-hand corner of the screen.

I don't think that added to the show's value at all, and in fact, made me feel less comfortable watching it."

Wayland Town Crier:
"Anytime I become frustrated with politics and current events, all I have to do to forget about it for awhile is watch "The West Wing." I've been hooked for a few years now. I guess what got me into it is my fascination with the issues presented, but also the simplicity. It is people who decide what will happen, not some abstract concept of government.
I was pleased last year with the new plot line of the election for the next president. The real U.S. election had just ended, and it left me hungry for more. The candidates in "The West Wing" show weren't anything like ours. They were idealistic versions of candidates, the politicians you wish you could have.
The democratic candidate, Matt Santos, is a barely known congressman from Texas who speaks so perfectly in crucial situations, gathering support and passion. The republican candidate, Arnold Vinick, is an equally passionate politician, but he is a famous senator from California. He is older and experienced. They both showed themselves well in the previous season.
Last week, the episode featured a debate between the two candidates that was not only live, but also partially unscripted. Aside from being a great acting moment, it was also a powerful statement made about debates and politics in general.
This debate was much more interesting than a regular political debate. You could see that the candidates really cared about the issues they supported and weren't just trying to win the support of everyone in the nation.
What made the debate interesting was the fact that the opponents talked to each other and tried to convince each other that they were right. There were times when they saw that their arguments may have been flawed and they had to subtly back down. At other times, a candidate might make such a significant point that there was no reason to continue on the topic. The candidates even raised their voices to each other and moved out from their podiums when they got the need.
This show is helping to answer a puzzling question. How can politicians represent an entire population when some of their views might be different? Can politicians become elected even if their opinions are not the popular ones?
"The West Wing" is trying to send us a message that politicians cannot represent the views of all people. They must be clear in what they believe. Only then can people vote for them. If they can't represent everyone, then maybe they can convince others through their own views.
"The West Wing"'s views are so idealistic that it might appear that nothing can be learned from it, but there is a message there. It is simply trying to show us the true potential of democracy in America. Its message is that the system is not at fault, only the candidates presented.
But the question is, could candidates as perfect as Santos and Vinick ever make it this far in an election? I would like to go with the television writers and say the answer is yes, but for now, we'll have to wait for awhile to see who the next president will be. On the show that is."

Pittsburgh Tribune Review:
"Vinick's character, smart dialogue and economically sound arguments spring from one source -- the brain of Lawrence O'Donnell, "West Wing's" executive producer. O'Donnell, a highly partisan MSNBC political analyst who used to work for Sen. Patrick Moynihan, wrote the script for the debate episode.

O'Donnell is a self-described "practical European socialist." Yet, as the Harvard economics major told me from deepest Hollywood last week, Sen. Vinick's "freedom to choose" speech at the end of the debate was no accident. It was an homage to Jude Winniski, the recently departed co-godfather of supply-side economics who O'Donnell says taught him many important lessons about the magical and beneficent social powers of free markets.

Crazy as it seems, O'Donnell is consciously trying to teach some of those same politically incorrect economic truths to the Hollywood community and the liberal-Democrat-skewed audience of "West Wing": The "creative destruction of capitalism" is a good thing, for instance. And underdeveloped countries are lucky to have a Nike factory arrive and "exploit" their cheap labor.

O'Donnell thinks it's "juvenile" for liberals to be knee-jerk opponents of Big Pharma or Big Oil. "Modern liberalism in American politics need not be fundamentally anti-corporate. We have a lot of great and responsible American corporations who are delivering great things to the world ... ."

O'Donnell admits it's not easy to get his economically challenged fellow travelers to understand that markets -- free people acting freely in peaceful ways -- really have the power to change things for the better. Or that they can do what no totalitarian regime has ever done -- change the way we think. Or that only they -- and not government -- have the power to make the Prius the hottest car in L.A."

Spokesman Review:
"Imagine my surprise.

By the end of "The West Wing's" live debate episode last Sunday, I felt tempted to vote for Arnold Vinick for president.

If you're not a "West Wing" fan, here's what you need to know, though it's hard to imagine how NBC missed you. This fall the show's been featuring a fictional presidential campaign between a Democrat named Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, and a Republican named Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda.
Nonetheless, some might say I have a soft spot in my heart for Republican men — and for Alan Alda. They could be right.

And here's where reality and fiction start to entangle. "The West Wing's" Republican candidate is played by a well-known liberal actor who looks a lot like my Republican dad. And Alda's been quoted as saying he finds this character particularly interesting to play because he's smart, experienced and a genuinely good guy. Vinick thinks he can make a positive contribution to the country, and that — not a desire for power or prestige — motives him to run.

During the debate, Alda's strengths quickly became evident. He displayed poise and assurance, intelligence and eloquence, couching these attributes in a 70-year-old's cranky impatience, which made him all the more fun.
Alda's character brings other assets, both political and artistic, to this show with lagging ratings. Many of us know what its writers will do with a liberal administration — we've been watching Martin Sheen's presidency for years. But imagine the freshness and energy, the sheer creative tension, of a group of stereotypically liberal Hollywood writers crafting the storyline for a smart, well-intended moderate Republican."

The Sentinel
"Presidential candidates Arnold Vinick and Matthew Santos threw out rules manufactured by their campaign committees and verbally slugged it out Sunday night during the much-publicized “West Wing” debate in front of a live television audience.

Oh, if only this happened in real life.

The issues highlighted were current, such as tax cuts, war, public education and health care. Some apparently came from “West Wing” viewers who had been asked for input on the NBC website.

It was easy to forget that Democrat Santos is Jimmy Smits and Republican Vinick is Alan Alda — both actors who obviously know how to get into a role.

The beauty of the whole plot — to build ratings for a show that is lagging in popularity — is the interactivity with which it still is being carried out."

The Saginaw News:
"The debate had a real look to it but quickly revealed itself as fiction when the two candidates agreed to eliminate the rules and participate in a real debate -- another refreshing change if only it would happen in real life.

What then transpired was a fantasy for political wonks as the two squared off on almost all of today's hot real-world topics -- energy policy, tax cuts, immigration reform, health-care reform and even Abraham Lincoln.

The candidates traded some barbs, but they also admitted to some of their own shortcomings and secret thoughts -- something you'd never see in real life.

My 11-year-old, who I hope is getting an education in current events, watched every moment and never lost interest."

Celebrity Café:
"Cleverly done was the “West Wing” live-presidential debate, which joined forces with NBC and turned the episode into something that a foreigner probably thought was real! Given the OK by Jeff Zucker, the Universal exec who runs NBC’s entertainment division, during the debate between Alda’s Arnold Vinick and Smits’ Matt Santos, an NBC News “bug” remained on the screen, making the actors appear to be real politicians.

Although the fun little stunt was opposed by some die-hard business folk who want to keep business all to themselves, if you think about it, this really was not that far fetched. Just look at who is the California governor? Need I say more….. "

The Orion:
"I was really inspired after watching Sunday night's live debate episode of "The West Wing."

It didn't last.

After watching the fictionalized account of a presidential debate, I looked at our own democratic process and saw that real life came up far short.

The two candidates in "The West Wing," Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), started out within the standard debate rules but soon agreed to dispense with time limits. They agreed to have a free and open debate without either candidate being allowed to hide behind the rules.

Why is this idea so far-fetched that it could only happen in TV land? Is it such a dream that there could be an actual debate where voters can understand what the candidates think rather than the political games they play?"

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."

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."

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Comments on Last Week's Episode


Gort said...

NewsJ, What a great resource for us Wing fans.Thanks for the links to all the blogs that covered the debate, I have been reading through them all day.

Anonymous said...

Love the West Wing debates. Kudos for the actors for doing it live. Doesn't happen much in TV.
Nice healthcare points. I always wondered why the Medicare efficiency isn't mentioned more often - except of course that network news gets so much money from healthcare advertisers.

Great wist ot have the candidates opposite their regular party stance on Abortion. Free up the discussion for other things in a way which never usually get talked about and probably matter more to the majority of non pregnant people.

George becuase the warming is over