WHEN “THE WEST WING” premiered in 1999, the series resonated as the perfect chaser to seven years of Bill Clinton — providing a wonky civics lesson anchored by a resolute president who didn’t experience, shall we say, “zipper malfunctions.”
Five years into the Bush administration, ABC’s “Commander in Chief” has caused its own splash, offering a simplified image of the Oval Office equally well calibrated to its current occupant.
So exit an intellectual White House that waxed poetic about and agonized over policy matters, even at the risk of being a trifle dry. Enter an emotional one, where the suspense includes whether the president can make it to the residence for family dinner.
There’s a peculiar juxtaposition, in fact, watching “West Wing” go mostly ignored as it continues to do delicately crafted work in its new Sunday timeslot while ABC’s Geena-on-the-block drama swings a sledgehammer and garners ample attention and strong initial tune-in.
Much has been made of the gender politics surrounding “Commander,” a herring that’s redder than star Geena Davis’ lipstick. Although it was an understandable marketing hook, the notion of women holding power positions isn’t that exotic.
“Commander in Chief’s” most salient aspect thus far, rather, is that it deals in melodrama by the dollop but with politics only in the most perfunctory, black-and-white way. In this week’s episode, for example, much of the hour hinges on fictional president Mackenzie Allen’s teenage kids adjusting to their rock-star status in school. Hell, there are even onscreen flash cards identifying characters; God forbid that we should have to remember who’s who.
IN THAT RESPECT, the new series eschews treacherous political terrain, instead using the White House as a backdrop for a family soap — infused with the “accessible” stuff that NBC wanted and “Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin initially resisted.
Say goodbye, then, to substantive policy matters. After a half-decade with a president who speaks in Texas homilies and boils the world down to absolutes, let’s wave the flag and see if we can find that teenager’s diary before the tabloids do.
“The West Wing,” by contrast, is actually staging a serialized campaign between a Texas liberal (played by Jimmy Smits) and moderate conservative from California (Alan Alda) exhibiting the kind of dignity that sadly eludes most modern politics. Indeed, in a real-life race someone would have surely been Swiftboat-ed, Willie Horton-ed or Bork-ed by now.
It’s a throwback to the NBC show at its aspirational best, with two candidates who appear competent, principled and qualified. On Sunday’s episode, Alda’s character plotted strategy with aides, saying, “I want to knock him off message without ever mentioning his name.” In evolutionary terms, the relative level of discourse here would be like comparing modern Homo sapiens to “Hannity & Colmes'” feces-flinging chimp.
Contrast that with the third “Commander in Chief,” where a vice presidential nominee with military credentials is told, “You may know how to take a hill, but you don’t know how to take Capitol Hill.”
IN NOVEMBER, “The West Wing” plans to stage a live election debate, a smarter-than-usual sweeps stunt that almost surely comes as too little, too late, to jumpstart a program that has been largely abandoned.
Some have argued that as the country’s mood shifted, “Wing’s” liberal politics alienated an increasingly conservative public.
That was at best a minor factor, however, given that the show reached roughly 20 million viewers a week at its apex and three times that many people voted for John Kerry. The more serious culprit was a creative fallow patch combined with competitive forces. Always stronger with older viewers, “Wing’s” younger cohort moved on to another exercise in simple-minded populism, “American Idol.”
The question now is whether “Commander in Chief,” with creator Rod Lurie stepping aside and Steven Bochco taking the tiller, can maintain its apolitical allure as a Washington drama that, barring the decor, could be set in Dallas or on Melrose Place.
“The West Wing,” meanwhile, deserves kudos for mounting a finishing kick worth savoring. Yet its departure will be felt more acutely if primetime’s political baton passes to a program that has taken a page from the Bush presidency, mastering the purposeful strut across the White House lawn without sounding especially articulate upon reaching the podium.
Then again, in television as in politics, we usually get the presidents we deserve. And as an old senator once said, President Allen, you’re no Jed Bartlet.