Idealism mixed with pathos is a winning combination for E4's The. West Wing, Ian Darby says.

As the real President of the United States prepares to invade Iraq, events at the start of the third series of The West Wing were rather more domestically focused.

Kicking-off with a double episode on E4 last week, The West Wing narrative centred on President Joshia Barlet's decision to run for a second term despite being diagnosed with MS.

The West Wing has become one of the centrepieces of E4's schedule. Airing there first before being shown on Channel 4, it has been hailed by various critics as the "greatest TV show ever made". Winning awards by the bucketload and bringing in commercial revenues for the US network NBC, the show has also translated into a big hit in the UK.

E4 conducted a clever ad campaign to whet appetites for the show. TV ads interviewing real politicians on issues featured in The West Wing, together with front pages press ads trumpeting Mayor Ken Livingstone's support for Bartlet, definitely stood out.

So with anticipation suitably built I settled down for a night on the hustings. And I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed. The West Wing is undoubtedly a quality package. Great acting from Sheen and his co-star John Spencer, who plays the chief of staff Leo McGarry, built the tension of Bartlet's decision to run again. This plot line ran alongside a story about conflict in Haiti, with Bartlet having to decide whether to invade at the same time as addressing the strain of marital problems.

The production values of the show are fairly strong, if very traditional.

Compared with The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, which admittedly are made by the free-spirited cable company HBO, it feels like an old-style drama with conventional character types at its heart.

Post 11 September it opts for softer tones. Idealism mixed with lashings of pathos. There's nothing wrong with this, and it's clearly what most viewers want - a kind of wish fulfilment that the White House is run by people with the good of the nation at heart.

Advertisers clearly love The West Wing. It attracted some strong brands (Orange, Boots, Garnier to name three), which know they are buying into an audience of ABC1's immersed in events on the box.

My main problem is the occasionally creaking script, which lapses into melodrama and cliche just once too often. "The silence makes me crazy," McGarry mutters as he waits for news from Haiti.

Minor gripes aside, The West Wing is still a strong performer for Channel 4 and beats the majority of rival dramas hands down. But one final point.

Wouldn't it be more exciting if just one person in this idealised world was a little bit corrupt? After all, even JFK had the Mafia behind him.

Station: E4
Frequency: Thursday at 9pm, repeated at 9pm Sunday
Average audience: 206,000 (peak 226,000)
Advertisers include: Orange, Universal Films, Alpen, AMP, Boots, Volvic
and Garnier

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