The stand-up V.P. puts the series back on track | EW.com

TV

The stand-up V.P. puts the series back on track

The stand-up V.P. puts the series back on track. After several weak episodes, Tim Matheson's surprisingly strong presence powers the best hour of the season, says Bruce Fretts

Tim Matheson, The West Wing

(The West Wing: Warner Bros.)

The stand-up V.P. puts the series back on track

Like AA members Leo McGarry and John Hoynes, ”The West Wing” seemed to be on the road to recovery with April 3’s ”Stirred,” its strongest dramatic episode this year. Bringing back the too-long-absent Tim Matheson as Vice President Hoynes certainly helped. In fact, we may be in the midst of a Matheson renaissance, as he could be seen simultaneously on ”West Wing” and as the sheriff on ”Wolf Lake,” the short-lived CBS series now airing on UPN. Plus, he plays the title character’s father in ”National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” a film opening Friday that attempts to resurrect the spirit of ”Animal House,” which cast Matheson in his breakthrough role as Otter.

Previously a less-than-sympathetic character, Hoynes was shown in a fresh light. He stood up for Leo (John Spencer) when a fellow attendee of their top-secret AA chapter suggested expelling him because the public disclosure of his addiction threatened their anonymity. He selflessly agreed to take his name off a bill to provide Internet access for poor Americans in order to ensure its passage. He admitted his own alcoholism to the President and agreed that the reelection campaign should consider replacing him on the ticket to bolster its chances of victory. In the end, Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) asked him to stay on board, explaining his rationale in four words: ”Because I could die.” It was a surprisingly frank vote of confidence.

The episode’s other subplots were slightly less compelling. A crisis involving the crash of a truck carrying uranium fuel rods in Idaho never developed much tension, since all the action took place off-camera. Donna (Janel Moloney) pestered boss Josh (Bradley Whitford) about getting a presidential proclamation honoring her beloved 12th grade English teacher upon her retirement, ultimately settling for a somewhat anticlimactic speaker-phone call from the Prez in the Oval Office. The spectacle of the leader of the free world helping his $35,000-a-year employee Charlie (Dule Hill) do his taxes provided a richer source of comic relief. Another vignette, about Toby (Richard Schiff) dressing down the HUD secretary for hogging the political spotlight to boost his future candidacy for Governor of New Jersey, didn’t get enough screen time to make a serious impact.

But it was Matheson’s week to shine. Without any other name guest stars (or even seldom-seen cast member Stockard Channing) to battle for attention, he finally came into his own as an individual, which is more than real-life veep Al Gore ever managed to achieve. Creator Aaron Sorkin and his staff would be well-advised to make Hoynes a major player for the remainder of the campaign.

Do you think President Bartlet?and ”The West Wing”?were wise to keep Vice President Hoynes on the ticket?