October 4, 1999 12:01 AM EDT

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With the monologue-heavy Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin showed himself to be as much a speechwriter as a scriptwriter, so it was only a matter of time before he wrote a political series. His ambitious new presidential drama, The West Wing (NBC, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.), like an ambitious presidency, swings wildly from the impressive to the insufferable.

Sorkin’s tendency toward the dramatic is exacerbated by casting serial over-emoter Martin Sheen as Democratic President Josiah Bartlet, who makes his first appearance speaking in the voice of God. Bursting into a showdown with religious conservatives, Sheen quotes the First Commandment, then unburdens himself of a pair of minute-and-a-half speeches while Coplandesque music swells and the camera cuts to admiring staff members, in case we’ve failed to notice how darned inspiring he is. There will be no curtains left in this Oval Office once Sheen has finished chewing the scenery.

Given the stacked deck in the pilot, detractors have claimed the series might well be called The Left Wing, and Sorkin has promised balance–Bartlet is antiabortion and a military hawk, for instance. But the real and admirable radical idea here is that people might still be passionate about principle, about government, about their jobs. When he’s not indulging his you-can’t-handle-the-truth side, Sorkin spins witty, hypercaffeinated office jabber with an intensity that’s easier to buy from folks who have the Bomb than from sportscasters. That and an ensemble including ice-cool Rob Lowe and the deadpan, woebegone Richard Schiff make this freshman White House worth cutting slack for–for now. This is, after all, no cream-puff game like politics. It’s TV, where honeymoons are even shorter.

–J.P.

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