Rejuvenation station

Skeins considered past their prime enjoy creative revivals, critical comebacks

With the Bartlet administration on the way out, there were some industry observers who believed at the beginning of last season that “The West Wing” was nearing its end as well.

The handoff from show creator Aaron Sorkin to John Wells in 2003 made many hardcore viewers nervous. That’s no knock on Wells, who has been a writer and exec producer on such series as “ER” and “China Beach,” but Sorkin’s shoes would be tough to fill.

“We thought we were done after Aaron left,” says two-time Emmy nom Janel Moloney, who plays Donna Moss. “It takes time for a show to deal with a big change like that. We knew the shows would have a different tone.”

Also making the transition difficult was that ratings were dipping and “Wing” is an expensive show to produce. With NBC paying Warner Bros. approximately $6 million per episode (before recent negotiations knocked that number down to about $3 million), the series seemed ripe for cancellation.

Then came the election: no, not Bush-Kerry, but the race between Rep. Matthew Santos (D-Texas) and Sen. Arnold Vinick (R-Calif.). The storyline, which took the action out of the White House and into the frozen fields of Iowa and New Hampshire, revitalized the show.

The Democratic and Republican primaries, at which Santos and Vinick (Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, respectively) won their parties’ nominations, were embraced by longtime viewers. While ratings were still down, the numbers were bright spots for the Peacock, whose viewership tumbled this season.

“For two years the show was in steep decline but this year they told stories you could care about,” says TV Guide critic Matt Roush.

“The campaign episodes took you back to the better times. It’s back on track, though still not what it used to be.”

Says Wells: “People seemed to be really engaged. … In dealing with the primaries, it was one of the areas during the first five years of the show that we hadn’t explored. One of the things you’re constantly doing is look for places in the story you haven’t done sometime before.”

Equally intrigued by the storyline was Smits, who met with Wells about playing Santos. “John’s idea was to give insight about what goes into particular points of the campaign,” the thesp says. “We talked about the power of the media and show how great it would be to have young people aspire to be in politics.”

Wells was quick to realize that it was important in casting Vinick, a likable Republican centrist. “I sat down with Alan before the season and talked about a political campaign,” recalls Wells. “It was clear that, for the Republican candidate, we would need people that had the same stature as Martin (Sheen).”

It wasn’t just “West Wing” that critics say enjoyed a comeback season. Other rebounding skeins include “Gilmore Girls” and “24.”

“Gilmore Girls,” which just wrapped season No. 5, was rejuvenated when it’s two leads — Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory (Alexis Bledel) — parted ways. Lorelai, busy with a new relationship, and Rory, off to college, had new challenges to confront.

And the ratings went up. “Gilmore” improved in most key demos for the young-skewing WB, and the series saw a hefty 30% jump in women 18-49.

” ‘Gilmore Girls’ came back,” opines Roush. “If there was ever a show to break into the comedy category, it would be this. They figured out how to tell stories with Rory at college. This show’s in good shape.”

Series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino says she knows why the show took off this year.

“Apparently America has just been waiting to see Rory whore it up,” she jokes. “I guess that the storylines that we chose this year really clicked with people. It was more of a romantic comedy year than we’ve done before, and people really seem to enjoy that, especially the Luke/Lorelai situation.”

Over on “24,” Kiefer Sutherland is trying to save the world from annihilation … again. After the much-buzzed-about first season, some viewers thought “24” was losing its steam. Those same people believe this season (No. 4) the skein recovered its mojo.

“People felt we had a resurgence since the second half of last season and I have to tell you we’re very surprised,” says exec producer Joel Surnow. “Fans who regularly watch us tell us this is our best season. … We look for different ways to tell suspense stories. What we do now is what we’ve always done: keep fans on the edge of their seats.”

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