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NBC's 'West Wing' is in the running

First things first. NBC's new White House drama "The West Wing" is not meant as docudrama. It's about a fictional president and his fictional staff, and any similarities between them and the real thing are pretty much coincidental.

So insists creator/executive producer Aaron Sorkin, whose credits range from the movies "The American President" and "A Few Good Men" to TV's "Sports Night."And, frankly, while there are moments when some of Sorkin's many "West Wing" characters do bear some resemblance to real people, this fiction isn't as unbelievable as reality. There aren't any interns lurking about the Oval Office, thank goodness.

OK, so Rob Lowe's character, deputy communications director Sam Seaborn, seems more than a bit like former Clinton aide George Stephanapoulos. (But less like Stephanapoulos than the character Michael J. Fox played in "The American President.") But that's about as far as it goes.

Seaborn works for President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen), a New Hampshire Democrat who's sort of an odd mix of liberal and conservative. In Wednesday's premiere, he confronts members of the religious right, but in future episodes he displays a tendency toward militarism.

(Sorkin assures us the show won't lean to either the right or the left, but the politics in the pilot episode are going to be a bit too liberal for some viewers.)

In the opener, deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) gets himself in trouble when he speaks a bit too frankly on one of those political-discussion TV shows. While communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) advises the president to fire Lyman, his future is very much up in the air.

Oh, and Seaborn sort of accidentally sleeps with a prostitute. Really.

The cast includes John Spencer ("L.A. Law") as chief of staff Leo McGarry; Allison Janney as press secretary C.J. Gregg; and (beginning with Episode 2) Tim Matheson as the rather unlikable vice president.

And Moira Kelly plays a high-powered political consultant who is Lyman's ex-girlfriend and is currently involved with the U.S. senator whose presidential campaign she's managing.

There has been some rush to proclaim "The West Wing" this season's new great show, but that's a bit premature. It certainly looks good, and it appears to have plenty of potential.

But the pilot is far from perfect. There's an extended opener that's played out as some sort of surprise/secret, but you'd have to be pretty dumb not to know exactly what's going on. And, while things may settle down, the large cast and frenetic pace make the first episode more than a bit confusing -- it's hard just to keep all the characters straight.

But, again, this is a show with possibilities. It's one worth keeping an eye on.

OH GROW UP (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. Ch. 4) doesn't stack up badly when compared to the other new comedies on the broadcast networks this fall. That's the good news.

The bad news is that this is a horrible year for sitcoms on the networks.

"Oh Grow Up" plays out a lot like "Friends." Only not nearly so funny. It's about three guys in their 30s who share a house in New York City. Hunter (Stephen Dunham) is a lothario who brings home so many women to spend the night that he can't even remember their names.

(And the amount of noise he makes during his one-night stands is a matter of humor for his roommates.)

Norris (David Alan Basche) has recently quit his secure job to try to make a go of it as a painter.

And Ford (John Ducey) has just quit his marriage because he has just figured out that he's gay. We're told that Ford and his ex-wife, Suzanne (Rena Sofer), are still friends -- but she's noticeably (and, certainly, understandably) bitter in Wednesday's premiere, and you've got to wonder how well bitterness is going to play out in a comedy.

If Suzanne was surprised, then so is Hunter when, in the pilot episode, the 18-year-old daughter (Niesha Trout) he never knew he had suddenly shows up at the front door.

If the people in "Oh Grow Up" aren't annoying enough, this show contains one of the most aggravating gimmicks ever to involve an animal. The house pet, a dog named Mother, barks while viewers see subtitles with what are supposed to be the animal's words.

It's like chewing aluminum foil.

The show as a whole isn't that bad, but it certainly isn't good. The actors do the best they can with inferior material, but there isn't much you can do with weak writing.

And weak is about as strong as the writing ever gets on "Oh Grow Up."