<EM>The West Wing</EM> The West Wing

When I first heard about this debate, I was a little skeptical. Between the parade of guest stars and the announcement of a live stunt, I thought this thing had a whiff of Will & Grace desperation stink. And while it didn't reach the level of President Bartlet's debate drubbing of Rob Ritchie a few seasons back, it was still pretty darn exciting to watch Bobby Simone and Hawkeye Pierce get it on without a net.

First off, did we need Ellen DeGeneres playing host? I dig Ellen as much as the next guy (or girl), but she doesn't exactly ooze executive-branch gravitas. I was also kinda surprised they started with a backstage segment. I guess director Alex Graves really wanted to try his hand at a live West Wing walk-and-talk.

Wasn't Alan Alda's long opening pause great? For a minute, I thought he had lost it like Admiral James Stockdale in the 1992 VP debate. Vinick's gambit to dump the debate rules turned out to be a stroke of genius. On this judge's scorecard, Vinick and Alda both scored knockouts. Politically, Vinick came off as sensible and passionate. From his line about putting all of America's oil wells in ANWAR to his passionate dissection of African debt relief, conservative West Wing fans (both of them) can be pleased that the Republican viewpoint got its due. For his part, Santos scored on border control, prescription drugs ("Have you seen the price list lately?") and, most importantly, reclaimed the liberal mantle with pride. Dramatically, I thought Alda was much more comfortable. No wonder this guy gets nominated for everything. Smits fumbled a few lines (at least in the East Coast broadcast) and seemed a little wooden. However, it's a testament to both actors that they created a real sense of tension and animosity. To see such polished politicos jumping on each other's sentences and snipping at each other's heels created a sense of emotion and contention that, unfortunately, real debates so often lack.

I really thought this was going to be a coming-out party for a Santos administration on The West Wing. In the end Smits asks, "Are you ready to give Matt Santos the presidency?" Not quite yet. Maybe the producers are going to keep us guessing, after all.