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Real Stories Made ‘Wing’ Compelling Television

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

At the 22nd Annual Television Critics Association gathering this month, “The West Wing” was given a Heritage Award, which recognizes a long-running program that has made a lasting cultural or social impact. Accepting for the NBC series, creator Aaron Sorkin said the award was “an incredible compliment” to all those involved in the White House drama, which wrapped up its seven-year run on NBC last season. In anticipation of the Emmy Awards, TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman spoke last week with Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., executive producer and writer for “The West Wing,” about the show’s final season, its long-term legacy and the outlook for Emmy night. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

TelevisionWeek: How do you think “The West Wing” will do in the outstanding drama series Emmy race this year?

Lawrence O’Donnell: Well, I think it’s in a tough position to win because Emmy voters have voted for it so many times before already, and voters like to change things up. I think it definitely deserved the nomination. I think the work this season was as good as the show has ever done. It’s one of those amazing television accomplishments to have a show in the final year be as good as it was in the first year. So I think we’re really happy that the show got nominated. That is more than we could have hoped for given the age of the show, and a win is one of those things that would be an overwhelming cap to the life of the show.

TVWeek: While the show has won outstanding drama series four times, Martin Sheen has been nominated as outstanding actor five times and has never won. Would it be fitting for him to finally get the Emmy this year?

Mr. O’Donnell: I would love to see Martin up there accepting an Emmy for his work on the show, and I think nobody would dispute how deserved that is. I just don’t know whether that’s possible given the age of the show. The voters like to go for the newer, more exciting things. “The West Wing” was a big beneficiary of that in the first couple of years because it was new and exciting. So we can’t complain about newer shows being rewarded in Emmy voting.

TVWeek: What do you think made “The West Wing” such compelling viewing when it started and especially in this last year on the air?

Mr. O’Donnell: There was realism to “The West Wing.” Nobody on the show had super powers; it was the way we think of people working in that environment, and then the characters created by the actors and the writers were just completely compelling all the time, at every level of the cast. You know, Allison Janney’s (C.J. Cregg) work, which has been recognized as among the best in the history of television, was a full and compelling character that she created from the writing that she was given. Those characters and the pull they had on the audience was something natural that the actors created in a way that the writing alone could never have done.

TVWeek: Do you believe that the Bartlet administration was an outgrowth of the Clinton administration?

Mr. O’Donnell: Well, not deliberately. It wasn’t intended to be a reflection of the Clinton administration; it was just what we knew presidencies to be. In the first season, we were writing a practical presidency with occasional bursts of idealism. Mostly, President Bartlet was making choices under extremely difficult circumstances, which is what we had seen presidents do in the real world, whether it had been President Reagan or President Clinton. We didn’t think we were inventing a mode of behavior for presidents, but we certainly weren’t taking from any individual president.

TVWeek: You have a Washington background, having worked in government and operated in the Beltway. How realistic was the politics depicted on “The West Wing”?

Mr. O’Donnell: It was realistic in the sensation it gave you, the feeling that it gave you for working in a place like that. In the same way that certain flight simulators are realistic giving you the sensation of flying, I think “The West Wing” had the same relationship to reality that a flight simulator does, which is really in the most important way nothing like the real White House, just like a flight simulator is nothing like the real airplane in the ways that count.

TVWeek: How did this past season compare with the previous years of the show?

Mr. O’Donnell: It was a very dynamic season for “The West Wing” because we had three different worlds with three different leading characters in them. One was Jimmy Smits’ world as Matt Santos and his campaign for president. Another was Alan Alda’s world as Arnold Vinick and his campaign for president. And the third was the steady center of the show, the Martin Sheen/Jed Bartlet presidency. Those three worlds interacting in a dynamic way moved the show in a way we’d never been able to do before and created dramatic possibilities that the show hadn’t had before. We had a level of complexity and intensity that we hadn’t really had in the show in terms of the plot possibilities. It tripled the scope of our plot lines.

TVWeek: Did the death of John Spencer (Leo) throw the season into a different direction than you had originally intended?

Mr. O’Donnell: It changed what was left of the show completely, and we were changed utterly as a creative team by John’s death. It just wasn’t something we were prepared to deal with at all, obviously, and we couldn’t deal with it for a few weeks. It took weeks for us to even talk about how we would deal with this within the show. It’s something nobody knew how to deal with. We had to figure it out. It was the most difficult thing that ever confronted the writing team on “The West Wing.”

TVWeek: In research about the show, many people believe the show changed dramatically after 9/11. Did 9/11 change “The West Wing” and the stories you were telling?

Mr. O’Donnell: 9/11 was a profound challenge to the relevance of “The West Wing” as a show because the real-world presidency was dealing with something much bigger than anything we could deal with. That really wasn’t the case prior to 9/11. Prior to 9/11, in the real-world presidency the issue was which Medicare prescription drug benefit to try. That is exactly the kind of stuff “The West Wing” could handle. But “The West Wing” couldn’t really process 9/11. It was too big an event for a TV show to process. It just made the writing of the show doubly difficult in trying to keep “The West Wing” relevant.

TVWeek: Looking back now, do you think the attempt by “The West Wing” to deal with terrorism after 9/11 was a failure?

Mr. O’Donnell: I think we made the best choices we could under the circumstances. “The West Wing” couldn’t have the 9/11 incident in it. It would have been absurd. Martin Sheen having some kind of reaction to the World Trade Center coming down wouldn’t have been any different from President Bush’s. Since we couldn’t go down that road, we were left making echo-sounding references to the age of terror we live in. I don’t think there was a better choice of how to deal with 9/11 than the one “The West Wing” made.

TVWeek: Was it difficult to continue after Aaron Sorkin left the show?

Mr. O’Donnell: It was a very smooth transition because John Wells had been an executive producer on the show since the beginning. John simply moved into a more active role in the show and he was the most experienced TV writer among us, so he immediately began writing the show, and many of us had already written scripts for “The West Wing” during Aaron’s years. We were ready to go. I was shocked at how smoothly the transition went from an Aaron Sorkin-run show to a John Wells-run show. And that is entirely to the credit of John Wells, who is absolutely masterful in the delivery of television shows, which is, creatively, I think the most complex exercise you can do. He makes it look easy.

TVWeek: Looking back, do you have any favorite story lines?

Mr. O’Donnell: In this kind of work, it’s always the most recent stuff. I think the way we ran the presidential election over
the last two seasons was the most fun we have had as writers.

TVWeek: Is it true that Arnold Vinick was originally going to win

Mr. O’Donnell: Yes, it is. It went back and forth. There was never a locked-in plan. Everything written in the five episodes up to the Election Day episode was written in anticipation that Arnold Vinick would win. Everything written up to the closing of the polls was written in anticipation that Vinick would win. Matt Santos winning happened only during the writing of the episode in which we had to have a winner. We actually had created a pathway to the Republican winning.

TVWeek: What do you say to the critics who say the show was too liberal?

Mr. O’Donnell: I think what the viewers do with the politics of the show is they make the mistake of associating the actual actor with the politics. Martin Sheen is known to be liberal and so his character in the first season was perceived to be a liberal, even though he didn’t do anything liberal. When people kept telling me he was a liberal in the first two years, I’d ask them why. When the death penalty came up, President Bartlet executed the man. He didn’t have a liberal problem about it. I think during the third and fourth seasons he did become more overtly liberal.

TVWeek: How would you assess the legacy of “The West Wing” as a television show?

Mr. O’Donnell: The Television Critics award that we got this weekend [July 23] is an important statement about “The West Wing’s” position in the history of television. It is going to be remembered as great weekly moviemaking that the actors, the directors, the writers of this show were delivering the best every week that they possibly could.

TVWeek: Will it be remembered years from now?

Mr. O’Donnell: “The West Wing” is always going to be remembered as quality television and as the finest work that can be done in television drama. I think every time that people start complaining about the quality of TV in the future, they’re going to be saying, “Why can’t there be more shows like `The West Wing?”‘

TVWeek: The show seems to have a timeless quality. The episodes don’t seem dated.

Mr. O’Donnell: That’s true. It’s going to have a long life after its broadcast run because of the quality of the filmmaking. “The West Wing” was delivering 22 great one-hour movies a year. It was done at the highest level of filmmaking. It was the cast, the directors, the writing. It all came together in the way the best movies come together. The best movies have a very long shelf life, and they don’t feel dated. “The West Wing” is going to have the same kind of run.