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NBC's new "The West Wing" truly is must-see TV.

Go "West"

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"The West Wing"
NBC-TV
Wednesdays at 9 p.m.
Begins Sept. 22.

It doesn't take a genius to predict that NBC-TV's "The West Wing" will be the biggest hit among the new prime-time shows debuting this fall. The buzz about this show is the strongest that's been heard since "ER" hit the airwaves.

It's hard to think of what "The West Wing" — yes, it's about that West Wing, the one with the Oval Office — doesn't have going for it. The creative team behind the show is among the best in the business: Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme (both of "Sports Night") and John Wells ("ER"). The cast is exceptionally strong, with John Spencer ("L.A. Law") as the president's chief of staff, Bradley Whitford ("Secret Lives of Men") as the deputy chef of staff, Richard Schiff ("Relativity") as the communications director, Rob Lowe ("Atomic Train") as the deputy communications director, and Martin Sheen ("Apocalypse Now") as the president. The sets are terrific (they'll look like the real thing to somebody who hasn't actually been inside the genuine West Wing), the dialogue is crisp and decisive, the pacing is so high-speed you can't afford to look away for even a trice, and the storyline has more twists and turns than a Hanover hound has fleas.

Take, for example, the pilot episode. The president has injured himself on vacation by riding his $4,000 bicycle into a tree, a boatload of Cuban refugees are headed for Florida, Christian conservatives are ticked off because of a nasty comment one of the president's men made on a TV talk show, and the deputy communications director has unwittingly spent the night with a high-priced and extraordinarily shapely hooker.

The script is laden with one-liners that appeal not just to a sense of humor, but also to a sense of intelligence. What should the president do about the Cuban refugees: "If one of those guys could throw a split-finger fast ball, we'd send in the USS Eisenhower." What will the deputy communications director say to a pushy reporter about the latest political flap: "Call 1-800-BITE ME." What advice does the communications director have for the deputy chief of staff: "I'm going to make a suggestion that might help you keep your job, but I don't want you to take it as an indication that I like you." And what does the communications director say to the flight attendant who wants him to put away his cell phone: "We're flying in a new Lockheed L1011. Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?"

To complicate matters further, Lowe's character has accidentally walked away from his one-night stand with the hooker's pager, and she has his. That makes for some interesting return calls from the White House.

The pilot episode's best lines, however, belong to Martin Sheen — who doesn't even make an appearance until the last five minutes — but they're too good to give away. Let's just say he skewers the pompous representatives of the Christian Right so effectively that they need a stepladder to climb over the doorsill on the way out.

Very few new shows make it through even their first season, and still fewer make it to the hit list. "The West Wing," however, is one that will zoom to the top and stay there as long as it wants

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