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DRAMA MAKES RIVETING RETURN

The West Wing *** 1/2 (out of four)

9 p.m. tonight, Channel 2

Before the heavily hyped changes involving "The West Wing" (9 tonight, Channel 2) are apparent, it has some things to resolve from last season's cliffhanger (which is repeated at 8 p.m.).

Tonight's fast-paced and involving season premiere is conducted on two fronts. There is the emotional story involving the fate of Donna Moss (Jalel Moloney), who was seriously injured in a terrorist attack in the Gaza Strip that killed Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos) and fueled calls for President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) to respond with force.

And on a more intense and complicated front, there is the attempt by the president to ignore the advice of his hawkish trusted aide, Leo McGarry (John Spencer), and attempt to find a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than illustrate America's might.

"I'm not bombing half the Middle East because we'll all feel better," says an exasperated President Bartlet.

Based on a proposed Clinton administration plan to bring peace to the region, the premiere is a riveting hour that illustrates this thought-provoking political series is back on top of its game. It is at its best when the president and McGarry, who is the president's closest friend and "would jump over a cliff for him," debate ways to respond appropriately.

There is also an excellent, understated scene in which Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) gets some friendly advice in a hospital waiting room from one of Donna's new friends.

The episode also has a healthy dose of dark humor, along with some unintentionally amusing moments in which stars of two new ABC hits, Terry O'Quinn of "Lost" and Steven Culp of "Desperate Housewives" appear.

NBC also sent along highlights of what looks like a compelling second episode, which further explores the Israeli-Palestinian talks while the life of a White House aide hangs in the balance.

The third episode, which was available for review, deals with some of the administration changes that NBC has been promoting for weeks. It is a powerful episode, with the president making his surprising choice for a key available post in a subtle, moving poetic way that reminds one of the glory days of this Emmy-winning series under creator Aaron Sorkin.

With the real presidential election inspiring more interest in politics and the reality show craze looking like it is losing some of its popularity, it is time to be hawkish again about a reinvigorated "West Wing."

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com