I'm beginning to wonder if NBC is going to torture us all season with live episodes of shows that are pretty much on life support, creating prime-time stunts in hopes of compelling us to watch (although it rarely works out that way).

First came the underwhelming live season opener of Will & Grace, with its tittering and mugging. Now we have The West Wing showing that it can stage a fake debate that looks and sounds pretty much like the real thing, only with a bit more animation as old-school Senator Vinick (Alan Alda) demanded the "stupid rules" be dropped in favor of "a debate Lincoln would have been proud of."

(Which brought to mind, after sitting through the long and tedious hour that followed, the old joke: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?")

There was no assassination, or really even any character assassination, in this hour-long exchange of ideas, issues and political philosophies. Turning the usual complaint about TV on its head, this episode of The West Wing was all substance, no style.

All work and no play made for a very dull show. Imagine sitting through this episode again in syndication. On the other hand, don't.

There were, thankfully, flashes of wit and spirit as the veteran senator and his younger combatant, Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), squared off, ultimately abandoning the podium for face-to-face, nose-to-nose clashes with hand mikes. It was confrontational, at times so chaotic that Forrest Sawyer had to call for silence, and thus a bit more fun than the stodgy presidential matches we've seen (or slept through) in recent years.

But as they talked education, energy, taxes, immigration, pharmaceuticals, I kept feeling that all of this was more good-for-you than actually good TV. All that was missing here, truly, was drama — although I did perk up when Vinick dissed Santos as an "unthinking liberal," and Santos took the bait to make a rousing defense of the liberal moniker ("I will wear that label as a badge of honor") that in recent years has been so demonized by conservatives, arch or otherwise.

What annoyed me most about the episode, besides Ellen DeGeneres' pointless and inappropriately silly ad breaks, was the inexplicable absence of any question or argument involving religion, abortion, future Supreme Court nominees — the meat of so many campaign-related episodes this season that have helped restore a bit of juice to The West Wing, regardless of the puny ratings it musters on Sundays.

It felt as if the show had pulled its punches, which is a shame, given how creatively resurgent The West Wing has been for much of this (hopefully final) season.

Now, if only we can convince NBC not to send Joey out with a live episode. Let's leave the living dead to George A. Romero.