LOS ANGELES — Television's long-running political drama, "The West Wing" is undergoing a makeover, courtesy of the US Constitution. President Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, is nearing the end of his second term in office so the show is preparing for a new administration. The current plotline concerns the early part of the election cycle, including party conventions.
"West Wing," a hit when it debuted in 1999, has languished in the ratings in recent years. Some observers suggest the show and its fictional liberal administration are a relic of the Clinton era. Others contend that it still has something to offer.
For their part, the producers are hoping that the spark-filled convention in next week's season finale and the possibility that a Hispanic (played by Jimmy Smits) will be elected president will return the drama to the forefront of popular culture.
Those involved with "West Wing" also hope the suspense over who will be elected will have viewers tuning in, not just for the horse race but to hear topical debates about important issues - something that distinguished the show from the start.
"What we try to do is present the issues which our leaders are having to deal with, and show both sides of them," says producer John Wells. "You try to show both sides so that the arguments are compelling and the points of view are not ridiculed."
This is the sort of high-minded exercise that makes the show unique, says Smits, who plays a Texas congressman vying for the top of the Democratic ticket. If nominated, he will run against the Republican candidate, played by Alan Alda. "It's been a civics lesson for me in a lot of ways," says Smits. "I love the research part of this job."
The actor also enjoys the sense of having an impact on important discussions in society at large. A recent "West Wing" story line, he recalls, dealt with the controversial issue of whether illegal immigrants should receive driver's licenses. He recently talked to a Californian politician who commented on the plotline.
"When you hear that, you feel that besides giving entertainment value, you could affect people in a positive way," he says.
Unabashed earnestness as well as a willingness to think big have been a part of the show's appeal from the start.
" 'West Wing' came up with a way to talk about national politics with vision and vocabulary that allowed sincerity, without any post-Watergate, post-Monica Lewinsky irony," says Robert Thompson, director of the center for the study of popular TV at Syracuse University in New York. Although the show centers around a Democratic administration, its broader appeal originated in creating a fantasy world in which political leaders acted in the noble fashion portrayed on the show, he says.
Some suggest that this idealized view of politics played well to audiences when "The West Wing" debuted in the go-go 1990s, but they argue that the show is no longer relevant in today's greatly changed post-9/11 world.
"In 2005, our tolerance for points of view that represent the enemy is much lower," says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University. "Our culture has deteriorated into conflict and confrontation."
The professor, who has hosted a national political radio show for 16 years, feels acutely the political divide in the nation today. "I almost quit my show two weeks ago, because of the level of acrimony in calls. The effort to belligerently accuse me of being a sympathizer with the enemy [has] reached a level I haven't seen in more than 16 years."
"West Wing" may never return to its former position in the popular culture, says Nancy Snow, a professor of communications.
Her students at California State, Fullerton, aren't interested in watching shows that challenge their point of view, she says. "Here's a show that you'd think could dramatize and highlight all the important issues of our day," she says, but people aren't looking for a dialogue.
"We're in a period in general of not wanting to reach across the aisle," says Professor Snow.
"We're in a very different America now than just six years ago," she says, "and I don't see how it could possibly go back to where it was."