When NBC's The West Wing presents its first-ever live broadcast on Sunday at 8 pm/ET, it will be an experiment not to see who might flub a line amid giggles and titters, but to shed light on the predictable pablum-dispensing exercises that presidential debates have become over the years, as candidates Congressman Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) and Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) make their strongest bids for the United States' highest office.
"It's very unusual in a [real] debate that a candidate is surprised by a question," notes West Wing executive producer John Wells. "They're usually very rehearsed. So we're planning to solicit questions via the Internet from people who are interested.
"We had a wonderful tradition in this country in which we had debates where [politicians] actually spoke," Wells adds. "[We hope that] people will watch it and [wonder] why we don't have that [candidness] in our government today."
Alan Alda, seldom shy about his own strong political views, says, "I hope the arguments get a chance to be as good as they can be, so that it's a genuine debate that cuts through some of the 'fog' of keeping your bases covered that you see [in real life]. One of the things I don't like about debates is that people act as if they know exactly what the answer is. Sometimes you don't."
Adds Jimmy Smits, "We're going to go out there with a little bit of a net, but riff a little bit, too."
But will the two actors actually believe in what they're saying? As Vinick, Alda — long a champion of liberal causes — is playing a Republican senator for the second time in his career (after The Aviator's Ralph Owen Brewster). "If I were playing the Democratic candidate, there would be things I would not totally agree with; playing the Republican, the same is true," he notes. "I do feel strongly that I want to be convinced by the arguments I'm making." Smits concurs, saying, "You always want your character to have a strong point of view. If it's a position [you don't personally] agree with, but it's a strong one, that's fun to play as an actor."
Now let's get to the heart of the matter: Do West Wing's contenders know which candidate will come out of the live debate as the apparent winner? "No, we don't," says Alda. "And no one [on the production staff] is talking as if they know."
The fictional election's ultimate outcome — the November contest will be settled in a March 2006 episode — is an even greater mystery. So until the final lot is cast, Alda and Smits will make the best cases for their alter egos.
"It's hard to play any character and not want that character to get what he wants," says Alda, explaining his motivation. "I wanted to destroy Howard Hughes when I was in The Aviator, and I saw every good reason to do it, so I could play the guy convincingly. You have to go along with whatever the story is, but of course I want to win. Even in [my] imagination, I'd love to rule the world."
That last statement prompts a concerned Smits to quip, "Alan wants to cream me out there!"