"The West Wing": Sorry -- wrong pollster!

Josh asks the wrong question, and C.J. tries to work on her tan. Plus: The latest dispatch from Stuckeyville, and "Ed."

By Max Renn

Published December 7, 2000 5:55PM (EST)

Wednesday, Dec. 6
"Ed" (NBC, 8 p.m.)

Dear Diary:

The big question about "Ed" is whether the title character and his high school sweetheart will ever get together. The back story -- all limned, brilliantly, in about 30 seconds of the first episode -- has Ed, a New York lawyer, misplacing a comma in a legal document and costing his firm $1.5 million. He gets fired, goes home -- and finds his wife sleeping with the mailman. He goes back to the womb: his tiny home town of Stuckeyville. He tracks down a woman he panted after in high school, Carol. They go bowling and kiss. He buys the darn bowling alley and moves back to town.

That's the setup: Can you go home again? Since then, Carol, now a high school teacher, has kept him hanging. (She's in a crumbling, seven-year relationship with --ugh -- another teacher.) Ed's put up his attorney shingle.

Each show spins out four or five dense and intertwined threads, packing them in like they're not going to see the spring sweeps: There's some crisis between him and Carol, a new development with his crazy staff at the bowling alley, a legal case, and then side antics involving his friend Mike, a doctor, who's trapped in a weird medical practice with Dr. Jerome, a crotchety old guy whose practice Mike will eventually take over. He doesn't like it that Mike's always late for work and doesn't have the most chirpy manner with patients.

Here's how the plots play out tonight: Ed's finally getting kicked out of Mike and Nancy's place. He's got to buy a house; Carol comes along as his surrogate wife. Meanwhile, Carol's best pal, Molly, asks Ed to write the will for her dying grandfather. (Molly has a heroic crush on Ed but can't bring herself to say so.) The grandfather confides to Ed that he's gay -- and he wants to tell his family before he dies! Ed's staff at the bowling alley plan an open-mike night. And over in the doctor's office, Dr. Jerome has brought in a chirpy young guy who gets to work on time to put some pressure on Mike.

The pair have some of the best dialogue. When Mike asks Dr. Jerome, "What's going on?" the crochety old guy answers:

"Many things, many things. The universe is expanding; the art of cinema is dying; and my daughter Melissa is marrying a Moroccan. The man wears a fez."

Mike is kind of a slacker. One of the points of the show, I think, is the way the children are father to the men. (And, uh, mother to the women, I guess, if you take my point.) Everyone has reverted to his or her high school identity.

"The West Wing" (NBC, 9 p.m.)

This is a repeat. The President, C.J., Sam and Josh, the press in tow, are on a 3 a.m. flight to L.A. That night, there's a big-ticket fundraiser at the house of a David Geffenlike figure -- shadowy and powerful and, the show makes clear, gay. The Geffen figure tries to blackmail the White House -- he tells Josh he won't hold the party unless the president speaks out in favor of gays in the military.

That morning, Bartlet has to listen to a bunch of flag-wavers arguing for a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning. ("Is there an epidemic of flag-burning I haven't heard about?" Bartlet asks.) The not-so-subtle subtext here is that there are a lot of rubes in America.

Indeed, over lunch a pollster tells the president that a flag-burning constitutional amendment is going to pass no matter what he does. Given this fact, he should get on the right side of the issue and lead the drive for it. The West Wing denizens blanch at this.

"Do you think I'm Satan?" the pollster asks.

"No," says sober Toby: "You're the guy who goes in to the 7-Eleven to get Satan a pack of cigarettes."

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Senate is deadlocking 50-50 on an ethanol tax-credit bill. The vice president has to break the deadlock -- or "fulfill one of [his] two constitutional duties," as Chief of Staff Leo puts it. The trouble is that the veep fought against the tax credits during his years in the Senate.

The president wants to fire the vice president.

After last week, in which C.J. went around telling everyone how good she was in bed, this rerun underlines the way the show sometimes trivializes its female characters: C.J. and Donna are all a-twitter about going to Cali to work on their tans. (And back in D.C., Leo's secretary is mad at him cause she didn't get to go, for the same reason. Women!)

Also, at the Geffen figure's party, when a movie-studio guy asks C.J. to consider coming to work for him and develop movies, she's forced to act like she doesn't understand what he's talking about.

Marlee Matlin plays a California pollster whom Josh is apparently in love with. She gives the group more precise polling info on the flag-burning issue, showing that the president isn't that vulnerable on it.

Polling can undermine the Constitution, true, but it can also save it!

Josh, at the urging of Donna, makes a late-night visit to Matlin's hotel room. (Important plot point -- the woman's deaf, so he can't call her.) He finds her sharing a room -- with the original pollster, Satan's apprentice!

Bartlet closets himself -- oops, wrong word -- with the Geffen character, and tells him to have more respect for White House officials. He also tells him that he'll lose the goodwill of the Democratic Party if he cancels the dinner. "Whatever will I do?" the mogul replies mildly. "Particularly with my $3 billion."

The group decides to punt on the ethanol issue and save the vice president's conscience. Besides, they agree, he's right on the merits.

(Max Renn)

Max Renn

Max Renn is a contributor to Salon's "TV Diary."


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