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Mitchell Haddad, NBC Universal
President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) closes out his second term on Sunday night.

PASADENA, Calif. — When "The West Wing" was elected to NBC's schedule 1999, not much of anybody expected it to be re-elected for six more seasons.

"Well, I think that we all felt going in that we had something very special," said Martin Sheen, who played President Josiah Bartlet in this series about a sitting president of the United States and his staff. "The only real doubt we had was whether or not it would work on network television.

"It was a political show. There were no car chases or fires or special effects. The action was in the word, and we were public servants. Would an audience that had a choice support us?"

Executive producer Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. didn't expect anyone to tune in because, "as far as I (could) tell, in TV terms, nothing happened. . . . I just didn't think we had a chance."

But it was an instant hit. In its first season, it was TV's most honored show, winning nine Emmys (the most ever by a show in a single season) on 18 nominations. That number has grown to 24 wins (including a record-tying four as best drama) on 89 nominations.

Bartlet has served longer than seven of the nine real presidents since 1961.

"When I knew that (creator and former executive producer) Aaron Sorkin was writing it and I knew the pedigree of the people involved, I thought — if anything is going to make it and be an important series, this is," said Allison Janney (C.J. Cregg). "But I don't think any of us thought for a minute that it was going to do what it did."

But fans began to express "the passion they had for the show. . . . That was exciting for me to realize what an impact the show was making."

Tens of millions of viewers were passionate about the Bartlet administration. More passionate, it seemed, than about the Clinton or Bush administrations.

"One of the weirdest things about the show — and, honestly, the last thing anybody expected — was that it would be taken seriously," said Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman). "I think a lot of people misinterpreted that Aaron must be this incredibly civic-minded guy who wanted to serve Americans their civic vegetables, so he wrote a show about the White House to show how great politicians are. Actually, it's a very impatient, entertainer-storyteller hitting this material that kind of made it work."

With Sorkin penning nearly every episode, "The West Wing" quickly became known for its quick (and quick-witted) dialogue and story lines about genuine issues that were usually seen on TV only when partisans were shouting at each other.

"Ironically, fictionally you can see people actually not know what they think about an issue, and you can carry an issue as boring as the decennial census for an hour and 15 million people actually watch it," Whitford said.

There was conflict between political opponents, but even though "The West Wing" is about a Democratic president, Republicans were not villainized. Some of the more partisan Democratic characters were brought up short by members of the GOP.

Sheen said "the most rewarding part" of the show was its positive portrayal of public servants. "We can be very cynical about the people that lead us. . . . No matter what administration is in, the government continues because of the people who care for the country."

If the cast and crew were surprised that America embraced the show, they were shocked when Washington insiders did. O'Donnell, a former aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and chief of staff to two U.S. Senate committees, said that when he worked in Washington, "nobody watched any TV shows at all," so he was "very surprised" that capital insiders "latched onto this thing as quickly as they did."

"I actually would get lobbied by lobbyists," Whitford said. "I thought they wanted my autograph, and they were giving me their card because they wanted to get their issue mentioned on the show."

In the reality of "The West Wing," the characters rarely forgot they were public servants.

"We were a fantasy, there's no question," Sheen said.

And there was definitely a wish-fulfillment element — these were the kind of leaders we hope for and the kind a lot of real-life leaders could learn a few things from.

"I hope they were taking some behavior or lessons from it," O'Donnell said. "It was very peculiar for me the first time I had to type 'interior Oval Office, day' because in our show, this was inhabited by a good and decent person. And that had not been my experience."

The Bartlet years were not all smooth sailing. There was criticism of some plot lines — an apparent assassination attempt that wounded Bartlet; Bartlet concealing his multiple sclerosis (and then overcoming the scandal); and a ridiculous twist when Bartlet's daughter was kidnapped and he turned the government over to the Republican Speaker of the House.

About the only way to keep watching after that was to forget it had happened.

Sorkin became infamous for delivering scripts late. Episodes were being filmed before the script was completed. He was ousted at the end of season four, leaving executive producer John Wells to pick up the pieces.

The show suffered under the new regime in Season 5 but reignited in Season 6 when the writers launched the race to succeed Bartlet between Democratic Congressman Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and an attractive GOP candidate, Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).

The show's fate was sealed last fall when NBC moved it from Wednesdays to Sundays and its already weakening ratings plummeted. A lot of longtime viewers missed a spectacular season that resolved the election, covered the transition and culminates in Sunday's finale when Santos is inaugurated.

But knowing the show would be ending gave the writers the opportunity to craft a satisfying sendoff at a "really beautiful place to end the series," Wells said.

"The series has celebrated from the beginning, in Aaron's conception, the remarkable strength of American democracy. One of the things that's most dramatic about American democracy is the peaceful passing of power from one leader to another. And we thought that was a really wonderful way to sort of end the series . . . at its natural place," Wells said. "It's so infrequent in a series' life that you actually have a chance to decide when it's going to end. That's usually decided for you, and oftentimes you've already finished shooting and everybody is gone and then you just don't come back.

"So we had the great luxury of actually asking, 'What's the best story to tell? What's the most compelling story that we think will serve the series and its viewers best?' "

Neither the show nor its loyal fans deserve less.

If you watch

What: The series finale of "The West Wing"

When: Sunday, 7 p.m.

Channel: NBC/Ch. 5

Also: NBC will repeat the show's first episode

(6 p.m., Ch. 5), which originally aired Sept. 22, 1999.

E-mail: [email protected]