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TV: Reviewing the New Season : Walking Tall in ‘The West Wing’ : New series features a president with integrity to spare, and gets tonight’s vote over ‘Oh Grow Up.’

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Viewers can choose between two premiering series tonight, with the mildly funny ABC comedy, “Oh Grow Up,” facing the last half hour of NBC’s largely appealing White House drama, “The West Wing.”

In the latter, treacherous waters spell disaster for some rickety boatloads of Cubans fleeing to the U.S., and few of the 1,200 aboard reach Miami.

Cue music and Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet waxing eloquently off the cuff in the Oval Office:

“With the clothes on their back, they came through a storm, and the ones that didn’t die want a better life, and they want it here. Talk about impressive. My point is this. . . .”

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As if the attentive senior aides facing him and hanging on his words are too thick to get it. When he speaks, their hearts thump and eyes light up like a row of $5 slot machines clanging winner. That’s because their boss, a deceptively homespun New Hampshire Democrat, has the aura of a president who can part the Potomac with a single folksy aphorism.

Blowing into the Oval Office late in the premiere on a huge crescendo of strength and conviction, Bartlet finishes the hour at his desk in front of the presidential seal, a scene captured in an overhead shot designed to put a lump in your throat and “Hail to the Chief” on the tip of your tongue.

Enough, already.

“The West Wing” promises to be more fun than the actual White House has been much of this decade, and count on creator Aaron Sorkin (ABC’s “Sports Night”) having Bartlet display a level of honor, loyalty and integrity that many believe the present occupant lacks. You’d hope, though, that his heroism is mingled with some human foibles.

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The premiere’s energy and humor play well until its last few minutes and that oh-too-glib capper from a president who is withheld for the Big Ending, when even limping on a sprained ankle he appears to walk taller than other earthlings.

A bicycle accident has him briefly out of commission, creating space for other characters to be introduced. They include Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) and his deputy Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), whose vividly worded public criticism of religious-right power brokers has jeopardized his job and mandated a tense, pivotal meeting with them that becomes the hour’s highlight.

This plot line coexists tonight with the adventures of Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), the politics-driven deputy communications director who reports to Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), both of them working beside press secretary C.J. Gregg (Allison Janney). Meanwhile, Lyman’s former girlfriend, political operative Madeline Hampton (Moira Kelly), is advising and sleeping with a senator planning to campaign against Bartlet.

So far, so good. So far, so white.

What stands out in this very, very White House, in addition to obvious potential for appealing topical drama, is the absence of characters of color, an omission the producers vow they are remedying. Given their meticulous attention to detail in other areas, how could they have overlooked it in the first place?

At least initially, don’t expect balance in other areas, either, for one of the religious right characters showing up tonight is a ruthless fanatic, the other a toady. That’s politics, in Hollywood as well as Washington, D.C.

*

The question in Brooklyn concerns a playboy, a struggling artist, a gay yuppie (all former roommates who now live together again), the playboy’s teenage daughter, the gay guy’s wife and a dog mascot named Mom whose barks are subtitled (“Back off, sister, he’s mine”).

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Can they coexist wittily?

Not often in the comedy from Alan Ball named “Oh Grow Up,” whose premiere has a weariness that it never quite shakes.

Ford (John Ducey) is separated from Suzanne (Rena Sofer), who is still so resentful and frustrated that he realized he is gay that she spends the last 10 minutes of the episode drinking wine from a bottle.

Norris (David Alan Basche) and Hunter (Stephen Dunham) still communicate in dudespeak. The former is an artist whose work can be defined, generously, as “mixed media,” the latter a slobby sleeparound who is shaken when he answers the doorbell at their brownstone and the bombshell surprise greeting him turns out to be 18-year-old Cloe (Niesha Trout), the daughter he never knew he had.

Hereafter, will things be even more topsy-turvy? Bank on it.

But not on much to laugh about, an exception coming when a guy calling to ask Ford for a date hangs up when Ford mentions he’s “not a big Streisand fan.” Despite this gay angle, and a few other amusing moments, “Oh Grow Up” is true to its title, playing initially like just another comedy about immature adults.

Back off, dude. It’s been done.

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* “The West Wing” airs at 9 tonight on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

* “Oh Grow Up” airs at 9:30 tonight on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).


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