Corbis Sygma
Ken Tucker
June 15, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Many returning tv series are gearing up to begin filming fresh batches of fall episodes, and there’ll be the usual tinkering, patching, and repair work done to spruce up shows in need of shiny story lines and new supporting characters to keep us interested. I recently noticed an item about ”The West Wing” looking to up its quota of appealing Republican characters, seeing as how the current number of people who fulfill that criteria is exactly zero.

Firm in my belief that most TV watchers would rather see familiar faces in new roles than take the time to suss out the personality of a new actor, I have a casting suggestion for ”Wing” commander Aaron Sorkin: Hire Ben Stein. Stein is, of course, the familiar dour face and dolorous voice happily monopolizing Comedy Central with his quiz show ”Win Ben Stein’s Money” and his talk show ”Turn Ben Stein On.” Perhaps less known is the fact that Stein is also a longtime conservative pundit who currently plies that trade in a frequently hilarious column in the conservative journal the American Spectator.

Here’s my notion: Get Stein to play what I’ve long thought he looked like anyway — a trim, slim Henry Kissinger. On ”The West Wing,” Stein could be a phlegmatic former secretary of state who starts popping up all over the media, criticizing Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet and the liberal free-for-all campaign he started late last season, dubbed ”Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” With his somber yet impish demeanor, Stein would make a fine foe for Bartlet and his cool Cabinet Rat Pack.

Emboldened by this brainstorm, I got to thinking about ways of juicing up other shows with some already familiar faces; all that’s necessary is a little canny cast cross-pollination.

* HIT THE ROAD, JACK Some said (not me) that toward the end of ”Once and Again”’s debut season, the show had become too quiet, too pokey, too hemmed in by its closed-circuit set of broken/ extended-family characters. If this is true, clearly what ”O&A” needs is… a wacky next-door neighbor! You know — someone to pop in unannounced for a cup o’ java while Rick (Billy Campbell) rubs the sand out of his crinkly eyes, or while Sela Ward as Lily is busy doing her swivel-hipped phone-commercial aerobics first thing in the morning. Isn’t it obvious? The show clearly needs ”Will & Grace”’s Jack (Sean Hayes) to waft in through the backdoor making catty yuks about Rick’s choice of rumpled denim work shirt or the moody teenage funk of Lily’s daughter Grace. (Omigod — is that great or what? THIS show has a Grace, too!)

* CLOSING ARGUMENTS Did you watch the season finale of Fox’s unbearably cutesy ”Ally McBeal”? With guest musician Randy Newman changing his fine song ”Davy the Fat Boy” to ”Johnny the Fat Boy” so writer David E. Kelley could make some banal point about Cage’s unhappy youth? Really, this show must go. My first thought was to have Peter MacNicol’s character return next season and announce that he’s actually John Cage the composer, the late experimentalist who sometimes wrote silent music and arranged notes by throwing the I Ching. That seemed sufficiently alienating to drop the ratings.

Then I thought, why not have James Garner join the show? Now, Garner is one of the all-time great TV stars, one of the rare few, in shows ranging from ”Maverick” to ”The Rockford Files,” who has been unfailingly compelling week after week. That said, Garner has lately become a useful bad-luck charm. He supplied the voice of the deity in the lousy, short-lived cartoon ”God, the Devil and Bob,” and was brought in to save Kelley’s ”Chicago Hope,” to no avail and through no fault of Garner’s impeccable performance.

But why not use Garner’s current ability to jinx a show by casting him in ”Ally McBeal”? He could come in as a client with a dull, endless case the firm loses, bankrupting them. Fox can cancel while taking comfort in the fact that Kelley will have that much more time to make a good show out of his new creation for the network, ”Boston Public.”

* LIKE, NEWS YOU CAN USE ”60 Minutes” — c’mon, man, these mostly senior citizens are bringin’ down the Tiffany network’s new ”Survivor”-era youth demographics. CBS should use ”Survivor”’s most ingenious tactic and vote one ”60” member off the show every week, to be replaced by… an MTV personality! Mike Wallace? Arrivederci, baby, even Kurt Loder is a quarter-century younger than you! Christiane Amanpour? Buh-bye! New opening credit: (”tick-tick-tick…”) ”Hi! I’m Christina Aguilera, reporting from Chechnya!” Week two: Andy Rooney replaced by MTV VJ Brian McFayden: ”Didja ever notice Busta Rhymes is always ruffling my hair and messing my ‘do? Like, why’s he DO that?”

Oh, and while CBS is at it, here’s a no-brainer: ”The Tiffany network”? Shouldn’t it be the ”Britney network,” guys?

MORE CHRISTINA Check out’s new searchable archive to read everything Entertainment Weekly has ever published about Christina Aguilera

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