Wednesday, May 7, 2003

'West Wing' under new administration



Presidential speech writers have come and gone through history, but none may be missed more than Aaron Sorkin.

He wrote for the acting president, Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), and everyone else on NBC's The West Wing.

Sorkin, 42, creator and executive producer, will leave the White House drama after four years with the two-part season finale beginning today. Director and executive producer Thomas Schlamme also will depart.

With Sorkin goes the vision and voice of the three-time Emmy-winning drama, the mad genius that elevated dry political debate into theatrical art. John Wells, executive producer of The West Wing, ER and Third Watch, will take over day-to-day duties next year.

What: The West Wing
When: 9 p.m. today
Where: Channel 5, 22
Plot: In the beginning of the two-part season finale, President Bartlet's daughter Zoey (Elisabeth Moss) gets a new Secret Service officer (Taye Diggs, Chicago) as she graduates from Georgetown; the president (Martin Sheen) puts the nation on high alert after suspected terrorists disappear; and someone close to the president is kidnapped.
How will the new administration change the Bartlet White House? That's what everybody wants to know.

All I can say is that the style of each man couldn't be more different. How that translates on the screen is anyone's guess.

It's been clear to TV critics that Sorkin, the free-spirit, and Wells, a by-the-book producer, have been on a collision course since the start. Wire reports indicated the resignation came after Sorkin was warned about production delays and budget problems (not the ratings decline from competition with ABC's The Bachelor).

Sorkin was notorious for delivering scripts just hours before table readings. And rather than plotting out an entire 22-show season, Sorkin worked by the seat of his pants, impulsively adding new twists to characters, such as Bartlet's multiple sclerosis or first lady Abby Bartlet (Stockard Channing) being a physician.

"When the script comes out, it's usually warm - like bread from the oven," actor John Spencer, who plays Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, once told me.

Sometime long after midnight, Brad Whitford's home fax machine will start spitting out new pages for later that day, said Jane Kaczmarek, wife of the actor who plays Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, when I profiled the couple three years ago.

Janel Moloney, who plays Lyman assistant Donna Moss, once said Sorkin would "stroll around the set like a crazy man" in his pajamas. Whitford described him as looking "like a plasma donor" soliciting suggestions from actors on the set for his next script.

When TV critics toured The West Wing set in January that first year, Sorkin offered this insight into his creative process:

"Before I came over here this (Thursday) morning, I finished the second act of the script we start shooting on Monday. I have a certain degree of confidence of what's going to happen in the third act, and less about what's going to happen in the fourth act. And no idea what's going to happen in the next episode after this."

Cast members said they didn't mind the late scripts because Sorkin's work was brilliant. They have been as stunned as viewers by their characters' surprise twists and personal revelations.

"The way he writes, we sort of never know what's coming," Spencer said. "He doesn't set up an arc, so you know what happens five episodes down (the line). So it's always an intense surprise for us, too."

Making it up as he went along has been Sorkin's style since his first meeting with Wells, before the pilot was shot. When they sat down to lunch, Sorkin realized that Wells was expecting the screenwriter (The American President, A Few Good Men) to pitch a TV idea. Having been fascinated by his research inside the Clinton White House for The American President, Sorkin asked Wells: "What about the White House?"

From their first session with TV critics in 1999, Sorkin and Wells have joked about their contrasting work habits.

"John Wells Productions is a very, very tight organization and they issue a lot of pieces of paper. One of which gave me a schedule for outlines and first drafts, then second drafts (and) polished second drafts," said Sorkin, while everyone in the room - including Wells and Sorkin - laughed at the notion.

When asked how they could work together, Wells said that day: "Well, I try to get him to be more like me, and he tries to get me to be more like him."

At that initial press briefing, Sorkin also explained why he preferred to add character traits and details only as needed:

"When I do it the way I do it, it comes up naturally... and all of the sudden, in episode 11, you have learned something about one of these people that you didn't know before. And the dramatic effect for the audience is that... you sit forward in your seat a little bit."

Now The West Wing fans will be on the edge of their chairs all summer.

Replacing a show's original executive producer hasn't necessarily been a bad thing. Wells' ER, The Simpsons, Wonder Years and Roseanne thrived with new "show runners." On the other hand, L.A. Law, Northern Exposure, Murphy Brown and Dallas lost their way.

Loyal West Wing and Sports Night fans also will admit they knew when a show wasn't written by Sorkin. Conversations lacked the clipped cadence or dense content. (I call it pseudo-Sorkin.) Nobody has been able to replicate Sorkin's "chatty, glib and talky" style, as he calls it. But Wells will try.

"Sadly, we always knew this day would come and have been assembling a talented group of writers, directors and producers to assist in this transition, " Wells said.

But can all the president's men replace one Aaron Sorkin?


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