The West Wing

Series pilots simply don't come much slicker -- or whiter -- than this droll and edgy hour from "Sports Night" exec producer Aaron Sorkin and "ER" guru John Wells; it may wind up as Hollywood's revenge on Washington.

Series pilots simply don’t come much slicker — or whiter — than this droll and edgy hour from “Sports Night” exec producer Aaron Sorkin and “ER” guru John Wells; it may wind up as Hollywood’s revenge on Washington. It would surely be ironic if a darkly comic political drama like “The West Wing” — which takes us behind the scenes at the White House — carves out its niche as the show that keeps those congressional rascals at bay. Hassle us any more over our content and we’ll portray you unflatteringly next week, Mr. Senator.

As one of the trio of exec producers (Wells and Thomas Schlamme are the others) and writer of the brilliantly crafted opening teleplay, Sorkin has traveled this general Beltway corridor before, having penned the Rob Reiner hit “The American President.” But as Sorkin will tell you, “West Wing” has more in common with the superb documentary “The War Room,” because it concerns the U.S. president’s angst-ridden staff.

“West Wing” is an original from the outset, blending artful dialogue and sharp performances with Schlamme’s sure directorial hand to construct an hour of sublime soapiness.

The premiere adroitly introduces its colorful ensemble of characters without ditching entertainment value. There’s the Prez (Martin Sheen, whose unrelenting intensity proves an asset here), the frazzled/pretty-boy deputy communications director (Rob Lowe, playing it perfectly), the crusty chief of staff (flawless work from John Spencer), a loose cannon deputy chief (Brad Whitford) and a smooth-as-silk press secretary (Allison Janney).

Richard Schiff co-stars as a battle-toughened spin control artist, while the captivating Moira Kelly plays a slick assistant. Tim Matheson joins the fray the following week as — drum roll, please — the Veep. It took Matheson a mere 21 years to move from “Animal House” to the White House. Not too shabby, all things considered.

As events unfold in the fast-paced pilot, Lowe’s character unwittingly sleeps with a call girl and complicates matters by accidentally swapping pagers with her. Threats are made about someone’s head rolling roughly every three minutes or so. What’s most noteworthy, however, is that we find ourselves caring about these workaholic administration gophers almost instantly.

Oh sure, it might help if Sorkin and company could manage to cut out some of their characters’ painfully wordy declarations, and it would be nice if the “West Wing” braintrust were able to integrate this presidential staff with a few actors of color. Even so, there is a lot to love about this show, and plenty of reason to expect regular improvement, given Sorkin’s and Wells’ recent track records (“Sports Night” has exploded into one of primetime’s cleverest and most intriguing shows).

Competish from “The Drew Carey Show” and CBS’ Wednesday night movie franchise, as well as the heavily buzzed WB high school/alien drama “Roswell,” won’t make re-election a certainty, but “West Wing” also represents a smart adult counterprogramming alternative leading in to “Law & Order.”

Tech credits are first-rate across the board.

The West Wing

NBC; Wed. Sept. 22, 9 p.m.

  • Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by John Wells Prods. in association with Warner Bros. TV. Executive producers, John Wells, Aaron Sorkin, Thomas Schlamme; producers, Llewellyn Wells, Kristin Harms; director, Schlamme; writer, Sorkin
  • Crew: Camera, Tom Del Ruth; production designer, Ken Hardy; editor, Christopher Nelson; music, W.G. "Snuffy" Waldenl; sound, Kenneth Ross; casting, Barbara Miller, John Levey, Kevin Scott, Jeff Block. Running time: 60 MIN.
  • Cast: President Josiah Bartlet - Martin Sheen Sam Seaborn - Rob Lowe Leo McGarry - John Spencer Madeline Hampton - Moira Kelly Vice President John Hoyle - Tim Matheson Toby Ziegler - Richard Schiff Josh Lyman - Brad Whitford C.J. Gregg - Allison Janney
  • Music By: