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TV'S BEST SHOWS STILL OFFER SOME WONDERFUL IRONIES

It's an American truth of long standing: Watch television and all will be revealed to you. You have to know what you are seeing, though.

All those shell-shocked Democrats and puzzled pundits who wondered why the bottom dropped out of the Democratic Party after the recent midterm elections should have known something was going on by looking at the declining ratings for "The West Wing," where, for one hour a week, a brilliant hell-fire liberal is president of the United States.

Ratings and especially demographic inroads have been made opposite "The West Wing" by "The Bachelor," a young female demographic bonanza that celebrates dating as a competitive sport.

"The Bachelor" has the horrible truth of all the most profound junk -- in this case, that in some of the less evolved precincts of American womanhood, romance is a well-dressed and well-perfumed game of "Capture the Flag," with the most likely hairy-legged doofus in a suit and sneakers the prize. Somewhere in the Great Beyond, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Emily Dickinson, are, no doubt, looking down on all this in total bafflement.

Jed Bartlett is still president on "The West Wing," mind you. In fact, he's just been fictionally re-elected on the strength of one debate in which his Nobel Prize-winning brain flummoxed, filleted and fricasseed his opponent who stood there like a rubber chicken and drawled out W-esque homilies in a Western accent. (He was played by James Brolin, the fellow who currently fixes the sink in the Barbra Streisand household.)

It's just that while all that was happening in TV world, W himself was going from state to state and helping real Republican candidates go through the roof.

So much for "The West Wing."

That it is still one of the best shows on television ought to go without saying. So are "The Sopranos" and "24" and, yes, even "The Practice." And the November sweeps are a kind of midterm election of their own.

How are TV's current best doing? A brief midterm report:

"The West Wing" -- Win some, lose some. The fictional Jed Bartlett is in for a second term in a bit of a landslide. But his multiple sclerosis is beginning to assert itself unpleasantly at times and his No. 1 speechwriter Sam Seaborn seems headed west, largely because poor actor Rob Lowe could never quite resign himself to a show that became so quickly great and so quickly far removed from the one he had signed on to do.

This is what is most fascinating of all about "The West Wing" and its creator Aaron Sorkin: Along with everything else the show investigates with such ferocious intelligence and wit, it now has a new subject to deal with in President Bartlett's second term -- mortality.

A wonderful irony -- as the show's popularity and influence decline, it has been showing, of late, signs of creative renewal.

"The Sopranos" -- Goodbye Joey Pants (or Joe Pantoliano as the credits call him.) Goodbye Ralphie, his benighted character. His body is full fathom five somewhere off the Jersey shore and his head is buried in a bowling bag near a greenhouse. That's what happens when you make bad jokes and kill off Tony's favorite racehorse for the insurance dough. If only Ralphie knew what we knew from the first episode of the first season -- that Tony Soprano is one mob boss who's very sentimental about animals. He spent a whole season, you remember, missing the baby ducks who briefly graced his backyard pool. He still misses them sometimes.

Let's be honest about "The Sopranos" -- the quality of the show declined severely with the death of Nancy Marchand and her character Olivia, one of the all-time great Monster Mothers in the history of American narrative. And the deaths of audience favorites -- while they keep the show alive -- take something out of it every time. (I've personally never forgiven writer/creator David Chase for whacking Sal "Big Pussy" Bompensiero). But after a very shaky start this season, last week's episode pulled things together sharply -- and violently. Tony, after knocking off greedy Ralphie, is in trouble again and has put all his trust in his junky nephew Christopher.

"24" -- Beheadings are clearly big for the November sweeps. Jack Bauer ingratiated himself with the terrorists threatening to nuke L.A. by bringing them the head of an informant. True, it's only the show's sophomore year. And yes, we can no longer be dazzled by its originality and audacity. And yes, Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has the most obnoxiously wayward and errant daughter on TV (Elisha Cuthbert). But it is still as riveting as any hour of weekly TV.

"The Practice" -- David E. Kelley may be having a bad year elsewhere ("girls club" was whacked after two episodes). But his flagship show is picking up. For every apparent refugee from the road company of "Dream Girls" (a show that obviously meant a lot to Kelley) guesting on the show and for every plot-line about serial-killing women, Kelley makes sure that he throws in some tough commentary on the state of America and some heartfelt agony. Last Sunday, Bobby Donnell left the Catholic Church over the pedophile priest scandal. Even in its fifth season, it is finding a way to be dramatic and gripping.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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