Reports the New York Times:
Like many political campaigns, the presidential election depicted last night on "The West Wing" on NBC would have had a different ending had it been held four months ago.The writer of the article, Jacques Steinberg, agrees with Lawrence O'Donnell that the show offered more serious political discussion than any other show on TV. Apparently an hour devoted to a fictional debate is more worthwhile than all the offerings of the cable news channels.
But the reversal of fortune for Matt Santos — the Democratic nominee, played by Jimmy Smits, who was the victor — had nothing to do with any shift in opinion among voters.
Instead, Lawrence O'Donnell, an executive producer of the show, said he and his fellow writers had declared Santos the winner only after the death, in mid-December, of John Spencer, who portrayed Santos's running mate, Leo McGarry. At the time of Mr. Spencer's death, the plot for last night's episode had been set: the election was to be won by Alan Alda's Arnold Vinick, a maverick Republican (modeled a bit on Senator John McCain), whom many Democrats (including the Democrats who write the show) could learn to love.
But after Mr. Spencer died, Mr. O'Donnell said in a recent interview, he and his colleagues began to confront a creative dilemma: would viewers be saddened to see Mr. Smits's character lose both his running mate and the election? The writers decided that such an outcome would prove too lopsided, in terms of taxing viewers' emotions, so a script with the new, bittersweet ending — including the election-night death of Mr. Spencer's character — was undertaken by John Wells, executive producer of "The West Wing" and "E.R."
Mr. O'Donnell, a onetime adviser to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, said he was especially proud of the show's response to the increasingly shrill political debate in the real world, particularly on cable news. As it became tougher to learn much of any substance from programs like "Crossfire" on CNN, now defunct, "The West Wing" seemed to delve deeper into real issues like health care and education, as exemplified by the raw, one-hour live debate last fall between Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick.Over the last six years, liberals saw the show as a pleasing parallel fantasy to the horrors they witnessed in real life.
"Political talk on TV has degenerated so much," said Mr. O'Donnell, who is also a political analyst on MSNBC. "You can say something complex on 'The West Wing' and you will not suffer a screaming interruption by three other panelists."
As the war in Iraq escalated, Mr. Sheen said he came to liken the show's role to that of good, escapist fiction.Everyone agrees Martin Sheen played the paragon of gravitas and statesmanship, a stark contrast to what liberals saw in the real-life POTUS. But George W. Bush has something Sheen doesn't have: a college degree.
"In order to sometimes get a different perspective on what's going down in the world, to reach back to your humanity, you read novels," Mr. Sheen said. "We're like the reading of a novel."
Which is not to say that President Bartlet escaped making some of the hard decisions that President Bush faced in real life. This year, Bartlet was shown agonizing over whether to commit 10,000 American troops to an escalating, fictional conflict on the border shared by Russia, Kazakhstan and China.
At 65, he has decided to make good on a promise he made to himself long ago: to enroll, for the first time, in college. A graduate, though just barely, of Chaminade High School in Dayton, Ohio, nearly five decades ago, he will began taking classes next fall — in English literature, philosophy and, he hopes, oceanography — at National University of Ireland in Galway, in the country where his mother was born.