Monday, November 14, 2005

Comments on and Recaps of "West Wing" Live Debate (Part 1)

orgYou 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.

Recap from West Wing Continuity Guide

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.

Commentary from the Guardian.

Part 2

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