The West Wing

Season 7 Episode 7

The Debate (East Coast)

Aired Wednesday 9:00 PM Nov 06, 2005 on NBC

Episode Fan Reviews (11)

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out of 10
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  • Less an episode of television than a two-act play, this is still strong drama, with two characters (in character, damn it!) that are perfect for the material

    Live episodes are always a gamble, because they can be seen as little more than a ratings stunt. And there’s the strong possibility of a disaster should the planning be incomplete; consider what happened with the West Coast version of that “ER” episode several years back. The key, it seems, is in the execution and preparation. You need to get the right people into the right plot structure within a logical context.

    For me, the debate worked on two levels. First, I liked the fact that the writers didn’t try to overdo it. They could have tossed all kinds of back-stage scenes into the mix in some attempt to break up the format, but that wouldn’t have been as satisfying or risky. Far better to let it play out like the “dream debate”, where the candidates actually say something meaningful and clearly present their philosophical differences.

    A lot of people are already saying that this was supposed to mark a Santos turnaround, a victory for the Democratic candidate when he really needed one to close the gap. I’m impressed that it wasn’t so clear cut. I actually came out of the debate with a newfound respect for Vinick. I appreciate Santos’ idealism, which is different yet obviously related to Bartlet’s progressive roots, but there’s something to Vinick’s experience.

    Did Vinick come across as less polished and more petulant than one might have otherwise expected? Sure. This was a classic example of being careful what to wish for, because the open format came back to bite Vinick on more than one occasion. That said, Santos often looked tentative and unsure of how to answer. Both were entirely in character, which was aided by the format and the fact that both men had plenty of time to get comfortable in their characters’ shoes prior to this event.

    The second level of quality, for me, was the debate itself. I love a good debate, and I always get frustrated when the candidates in the “real debates” never stray from their rehashed stump speeches. The current governor’s race in New Jersey is a perfect example; the debates did little to inform the public beyond their cemented first impressions. Did we learn anything new about Santos and Vinick? Not much, perhaps, but enough to raise some interesting questions.

    Of course, the constant political battling may have been a little dry for some. I only wish it could have gone on for another hour, though that might have killed Smits and Alda! Talk about a tough script, though…all those figures and recitations had to be hard to memorize. But I really liked the fact that neither candidate was perfect, and neither candidate came across as a caricature. That was one of the weaknesses of the fourth season under Sorkin; that was less about presenting a credible contest and more about bashing a Bush-esque GOP candidate.

    Was it a ratings stunt? Perhaps, but it worked within the context of the season, and if this does mark the beginning of a turnaround for Santos, then it fits perfectly within a traditional season arc structure. Logically, the next 6-7 episodes will escalate and complicate the issues already raised in the first third of the season, leading into (presumably) an election during February sweeps. I, for one, like what they are doing this season and this risky experiment was a great example.

    Who else hopes they put both versions on the DVD?