Emmy winner-in-chief returns to resolve chilling cliffhanger

Wednesday, October 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Manuel Mendoza / The Dallas Morning News

Premiering tonight: The West Wing
Two-hour season premiere tonight.

From the pen of Aaron Sorkin, conversations sound like the rapid exchange of gunfire. What fans of his NBC series The West Wing weren't expecting was actual gunplay.

But that's how the celebrated show's freshman year ended last May – with a spasm of violence aimed at the president and his staff. Leaving a town hall meeting in Virginia, they were assembling for the motorcade back to the White House when two gunmen opened fire from a nearby office tower.

"Truthfully, the first time I saw the cut, I went, 'Holy cow!' " Mr. Sorkin says during an interview session with TV critics. "It just doesn't look like our show at all."

On Wednesday night's second-season premiere, the writer-producer spends two hours resolving the attack. Every major character – from President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) to the chief of staff (John Spencer) to the press secretary (Alison Janney) – was imperiled, so it's anybody's guess who went down.

Mr. Sorkin has told TV Guide that "more than one person is hit, but only one is critical." (A tape was not made available for review.)

In the premiere, he also uses the cataclysmic event as a framing device for flashbacks to the time each staffer first met the president.

"It wasn't done to be shocking or to shake up the show," he says of the shootout. "I knew how I wanted to begin this season, and I knew how I had to get there."

Mr. Sorkin is sensitive because, against the odds, he has made an Emmy-winning hit out of political intrigue. Last month, the series took home a record nine Emmys, including best drama, and earlier won three Television Critics Association plaques and a George Foster Peabody award. More important, millions of viewers made a weekly appointment with it.

And this from a show that network executives didn't want anything to do with at first, the conventional wisdom being that nobody wanted to watch politicians at work. Mr. Sorkin broke ground not only by making policy-making fascinating but also by using an idealistic approach that's absent from most TV dramas, which tend to go for the grit.

In fact, he's taken flack from conservatives for his liberal do-gooders.

President Bartlet, a tough-minded New Hampshire Democrat, is honest and folksy, coming across more like Harry Truman than anybody who's been in the White House since. He and his staff are out for the public good and think the federal government has a central role to play.

"Here is a show with no gratuitous violence, no gratuitous sex," Mr. Sorkin argues. "It celebrates our institutions. It's a valentine to public service and has featured the character of the president of the United States kneeling in the Oval Office and praying.

"It seems to me that their difficulty with the show is that it's populated with characters who from time to time disagree with them politically. And if that is to be the criteria now for what is acceptable artistic expression in this country, we've got to redo everything."

Still, for some supposed balance, he has hired former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and President Bush's former press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, as consultants. They join Democratic politicos Patrick Caddell, a pollster, and former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who were on the writing staff last year.

Yet Mr. Sorkin protests too much. If The West Wing leans to the left, he shouldn't apologize for it. The show's specificity is a large part of what makes it so powerful.

In later episodes, he will linger on the consequences of the assassination attempt, which may be linked to hate groups unhappy that the president's daughter (Elisabeth Moss) is dating his personal aide (Dulé Hill), who's black.

"We'll get into all kinds of things," Mr. Sorkin says, "civil liberties for hate groups, the gun debate, the psychological effects of what happened."