'West Wing' going live with debate

BILL BRIOUX - Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:24 AM ET

Will tomorrow night's live presidential debate on The West Wing be any less phony than the real thing?

There is a chance, in fact, that the political drama could provide more moments of truth and insight than Bush/Kerry, Bush/Gore or any televised presidential debate dating back to Kennedy/Nixon in 1960.

Tomorrow night at 8 p.m., NBC plans to broadcast two live debates -- one for each coast -- between fictional candidates Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits).

The hour will start out looking like the real thing, with ABC newsman Forrest Sawyer acting as moderator. The actors will basically have two 25-minute segments to hammer away at each other. (There will be just two commercial breaks -- another reason Canadian rights holder CTV is not carrying this). Among the issues on the agenda are taxes, health care and U.S. border security.

Missing will be the army of political spin doctors who descend on these things like, as Dan Rather used to say, "a raven on a road kill," twisting every raised eyebrow and throat-clearing into signs of presidential weakness or strength.

The challenge for the actors will be to stifle their own political views and stick to the responses that their candidates would make. This should be especially challenging for Alda, an outspoken Hollywood liberal who plays Republican (but somewhat moderate) California senator Vinick on the series.

At one point, one of the candidates suggests that they depart from the strict rules of order and just let it rip. "It ends up," director Alex Graves says, "with the candidates doing and saying things you would never expect to see in a debate -- never."

That's West Wing, boldly going where we wish real life politicians would go. Episodes this season and last have seen these two candidates defy spin doctors and show conscience on moral issues -- verboten on the real, hard road to the White House.

Smits and Alda have a script for tomorrow's live shows but they have also been prepped in debating tactics and are free to follow the passion of the moment. "It's loose enough that it will be exciting to the audience," says Smits, who told the Associated Press that he's "totally sweating this."

Enlivened by the election storyline, the seven-year-old series is enjoying a creative renaissance. Ratings, however, are trending down with this season's move from Wednesday to Sunday costing more than 30% of its audience. It's not like viewers are suddenly turned off political drama: ABC's Commander In Chief is the season's biggest rookie hit, a Top 10 show in the States.

Live-stunt shows seem to be a growing trend. NBC's Will & Grace launched their season last September with a live show featuring several crack-ups and flubs. ER, The Drew Carey Show and the old Fox comedy Roc have all taken the live challenge in recent years.

Alda is old enough to have performed live back in TV's so-called "Golden Age" of the '50s on shows such as The U.S. Steel Hour. Plus, he played a crusading senator in the 1979 film The Seduction Of Joe Tynan (which he also wrote). Advantage Alda?

He certainly sounds pumped. "I really want to defeat Jimmy -- I mean Jimmy as the character," Alda told AP.

"No, he wants to win," Smits said.

Ten things you won't hear on tomorrow's live episode of The West Wing:

10. Resolved: L.A. Law's Grace Van Owen was a better toss than NYPD Blue's Det. Diane Russell.

9. I have your soft wood right here, Canada.

8. Who looks better in his underwear: Klinger Or Saddam?

7. Proposed: A unification bout vs. Geena Davis.

6. Forget Martin Sheen -- when can we party with Charlie Sheen?

5. Who was the bigger loser: Rob Lowe or McLean Stevenson?

4. My supreme court nominee: Judge Judy.

3. Running mates: Trapper John vs Sipowicz.

2. I knew President Bartlet. You're no president Bartlet.

1. Does that chubby girl still come with the Oval Office?


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