TV Watch: The West Wing

Yes, it’s fall again on “The West Wing,” and you know what that means—election time! With yet another campaign heating up, everything old is new again. But, as Sunday’s episode, “The Al Smith Dinner,” made clear, we’re not dealing with politics as usual this time around.

Unlike the last campaign, in which President Bartlet squared off against obviously reprehensible Republican rival Ritchie, this campaign’s a bit more ambiguous.

Don’t get me wrong, Democratic candidate Santos (Jimmy Smits) is great (you’ve gotta love those sweet close ups of hunky Jimmy spouting liberal ideology as the music crescendos in the background). The problem is those damn Republicans! Opposition candidate Vinick (Alan Alda), batting for the red team, is just too appealing to hate!

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. This is, after all, the Left Wing…err, I mean the West Wing, so not only is Vinick a man of integrity and principle, but he also comes across as the most Democrat-like Republican the show’s creative forces could imagine (as proved by this week’s episode, which centers around the sticky subject of abortion).

All this ambivalence troubles me, because for the first time in seven seasons, the future of “The West Wing” seems genuinely uncertain. Gone are the old music and lighting cues that would tell you to go ahead and root for Bartlet because, not only is he the better man, but he’s going to win, too.

As each new episode brings us closer to “election day,” we’re seeing a more complex, more mature West Wing, but one with no clear narrative resolution in sight. Whether or not “The West Wing” returns for an eighth season, the show’s loyal viewers have invested too much in the political future of the faux-United States for it to be left dangling like a proverbial hanging chad.

That said, I still rejoice in the restoration of narrative tension, and this fact alone makes Season 7 worth watching. On the cusp of a mud-slinging free-for-all, Santos and Vinick have finally agreed to duke it out, mano-a-mano. Stay tuned next week for “The Debate,” which, in proper network gimmicky fashion, will be broadcast as a live episode.

And you thought they jumped the shark way back in Season 2 with that whole hurricane-strikes-Washington thing...