Hey, I know I squinted hard at The West Wing just five months ago, when I lamented how the once-smart drama had been dumbed down, but the situation in the Bartlet White House is even more dire: The series is now the most irrelevant drama on television. Which is both sad and weird, since, as the real-life election approaches, there should be no network drama more stoked to serve up hot politics. It's no wonder the public is doing an entertainment version of impeachment: Go on the Internet now and there's a site called dontsaveourshow.org, mounted by former fans who've posted a petition to NBC Entertainment prez Jeff Zucker that says in part, ''[We] respectfully request that you put the actors and the audience out of our collective misery and cancel it at the end of this season.'' Ouch.
It's not as though the acting has become lazy or mannered; if anything, one feels embarrassment for the cast. When Stockard Channing's First Lady was pushed to do a public-service spot with Sesame Street's Muppets to soften her image, you got the feeling that this was just semi-art imitating tawdry life -- that maybe the producers thought putting Channing with Elmo would attract viewers.
We used to say that Martin Sheen's President Bartlet was the kind of leader we dreamed of -- less cynically slick than Clinton, more intellectually curious than Bush. Now Bartlet is just a blustery guy working on his marriage. C.J. (Allison Janney) is busy giggling into the phone to her new boyfriend, the wincingly dubbed ''Ranger Rick'' (Brian Kerwin), while other staffers such as Bradley Whitford's Josh Lyman can't converse -- they have to deliver information sound bites. Thus in the March 24, Glenn Close-guest-starring episode about picking a new Supreme Court justice, Josh's most typical line was ''Nominees live or die by Roe v. Wade.'' Do you think anyone in or outside the White House doesn't know that bit of received wisdom?
There was always a little of that condescension in creator Aaron Sorkin's ''Wing'': He liked crafting a playwright's version of a PowerPoint presentation. But now the show is so dumbed down, intelligent condescension would almost be welcome. At a time when politics is actually on the public's radar, ''West Wing'' could have morphed into something provocative: a canny satire of our policy makers. Instead, we get more smart cultural critiques from its time-period competition -- ''The O.C.'' If principled people want a third candidate, forget Ralph Nader: Peter Gallagher for President!