Picks and Pans Review: The West Wing

UPDATED 12/20/2004 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/20/2004 at 01:00 AM EST

NBC (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

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How long has The West Wing's Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) been President? In the Oct. 20 season premiere it was five years; it was up to seven in the Nov. 17 episode. No wonder NBC is calling this a "season of change" for the series, which depicts a fictional Democratic administration that's notably out of sync with the country's real-life Republican regime.

Hoping to boost the show creatively and in the ratings, executive producer John Wells is cranking up another presidential campaign in this sixth season—even though Bartlet was reelected in fall 2002. Since the incumbent is constitutionally barred from a third term, potential Democratic successors are lining up: Bob Russell (Gary Cole), the lightweight Vice President; slick ex-VP John Hoynes (Tim Matheson), who resigned in a sex scandal but is pushing a book à la Bill Clinton; Matthew Santos (new regular Jimmy Smits), an unpredictable Texas congressman; and Pennsylvania governor Eric Baker (Ed O'Neill), considered the frontrunner. On the GOP side, Sen. Arnold Vinick of California (Alan Alda) has just thrown his hat in the ring.

Smits and Alda clearly increase the show's charisma quotient, and it's good to see Matheson's character stirring the pot once more. The scripts still stoutly refuse to oversimplify thorny issues like health care, tax cuts and the Middle East conflict. But the writers seem almost shameless in their resort to medical crises. First Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) has a heart attack, allowing Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) to replace him. Then the President's multiple sclerosis flares up again. Congress might consider a statutory limit on melodrama.

DRAMA

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