It’s shaping up as the biggest political battle ever portrayed on a U.S. television series, but the executive producer of “The West Wing” swears he has no idea whether a Democrat or Republican will be elected the show’s next president.
John Wells insists that real-life politics has little bearing on the outcome of the fictional White House race now unfolding on the Emmy-winning NBC series between candidates played by former “M*A*S*H” star Alan Alda (the Republican) and “NYPD Blue” veteran Jimmy Smits (the Democrat).
Instead, Wells says the show’s next occupant of the Oval Office, succeeding current star Martin Sheen, will be determined by which character the writers ultimately feel is the “most compelling” to the audience.
“I don’t know yet,” Wells told a recent gathering of TV critics. “We actually watch what’s happening between the cast members, the issues that are being presented … and try and follow what makes the most story sense, what’s giving you the greatest amount of drama.”
The show, now in its sixth year as President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Sheen) nears the end of his second term, is building to a season-ending climax with back-to-back episodes depicting the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
Producers plan to return in the fall with the election, followed by the inauguration of a new president — Smits or Alda — next winter. Sheen will stay on into next season, but his profile will diminish as Bartlet returns to private life.
We’re hoping that by the time we get into the fall, that there will be a real question in the viewer’s mind as to who would make the better president,” Wells said. “They both have their strengths and weaknesses.”
Indeed, neither Smits’ nor Alda’s character is a party ideologue. Both depict candidates who are politically moderate and disarmingly likable — far more nuanced than the Republican challenger played by James Brolin, who was defeated by Bartlet’s re-election in the show’s fourth season.
Smits portrays a young congressman from Houston, Matthew Santos, who is reluctantly recruited to run by Bartlet loyalist Josh Lyman. Alda plays veteran California Sen. Arnold Vinick, who throws his hat into the ring after his wife dies.
Both characters are endowed with a manifest integrity and thoughtfulness widely seen as rare inside the Beltway — on either side of the aisle — in keeping with “The West Wing’s” enduring appeal as a show about wish fulfillment.
The show hit the peak of its popularity in its third season, ranking No. 9 among all prime-time series with 17 million viewers a week. It currently averages 11.8 million viewers, dropping to 33rd. But it remains a marquee element on NBC’s lineup, having won the Emmy as best drama four years in a row and boasting the highest concentration of upscale viewers in all of TV, a key selling point with advertisers.
Wells said viewers should not assume that the Democratic affiliation of the show’s current administration — and all of its central characters — has preordained a victory for Smits. Nor should they think that the current conservative climate in Washington necessarily spells a TV mandate for Alda.
He noted that while Republicans now control the White House and both houses of Congress, public opinion polls show Americans “are mostly in the middle” on key issues that divide the two major parties.
Likewise, Wells dismissed what he called misconception about the show — that its audience is overwhelmingly Democratic and agrees with Bartlet’s politics.
“That’s actually not true, and I can prove it by our mail bag ever week,” he said. “We have a very, very large Republican audience that loves to watch the show and throw things at the screen.”