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'WEST WING' REDESIGNED FOR NEW SEASON

As "The West Wing" enters the final year of the Bartlet administration, at 9 tonight on WGRZ-TV, executive producer John Wells has made some campaign promises to disaffected viewers.

After listening to Wells' plans for Season Six, the slogan appears to be "more fun, more unpredictability and more big names. And no more repeats or long waits between episodes."

Starting tonight, NBC will carry nine straight Wednesday episodes. After a holiday pause, 13 straight episodes will begin after the New Year. That's a change from NBC's earlier announcement that a new series, "Revelations," would get the time slot in midseason.

Wells' schedule revelation would seem to validate his belief that those who think the series will end as soon as President Bartlet is out of office don't understand that it would be the wrong place and the wrong time for NBC to lose one of television's finest series.

Besides, television and politics have one thing in common. It's the economy, stupid, that often decides whether presidents or TV series are renewed for another term. And though the approval ratings for "The West Wing" were dangerously low last season opposite "The Bachelor" on ABC and "The O.C." on Fox, the series still attracts a healthy share of the wealthy viewers that advertisers seek.

"I don't believe this will be the last year of the show," Wells told television critics. "You can look at (NBC's) schedule, and losing a show of 'The West Wing's' quality this year would be a very bad thing for them in many, many ways.

"Financially, ad revenues are very healthy. I'm sure there will be saber rattling but I'm very certain we'll be on NBC next year. We're not planning toward the end at all."

Wells, who took over the leadership of the series from creator Aaron Sorkin last season, is the rare leader who will admit some mistakes were made.

"I don't think the show was funny enough," said Wells. "We're trying to make it simply more enjoyable."

As with all series entering its sixth season, Wells also concedes that the White House characters were getting a little stale, perhaps because they've been in their jobs far longer than the typical 18 months that White House aides usually stay around.

He isn't about to dispatch the incredible acting ensemble of Martin Sheen (President Bartlet), John Spencer (Leo McGarry), Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler), Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman), Allison Janney (C.J. Cregg), Dule Hill (Charlie Young), Joshua Malina (Will Bailey) or Janel Moloney (Donna Moss).

But with Bartlet in his final year of office and a new election coming up, several staffers will get new jobs in about three weeks. I'll try to keep some secrets to avoid spoiling things, but if you don't want to know anything, you are advised to skip the next several paragraphs.

One staffer will have a major medical problem, another staffer will get a huge promotion and a few staffers are going to leave the White House to look for a presidential candidate they can believe in, in the post-Bartlet era. C.J. is among the staffers who will have a new role, enabling Janney to get away from all those repetitive press conference performances.

"She's a wonderful actress having a whole different meal," said Wells.

Lyman, who is disillusioned over the candidacy of Bartlet's vice president (Gary Cole), ends up working with Matt Santos, the former mayor of Houston and three-time Congressman who is a reluctant Democratic candidate for president. He is played by Jimmy Smits, the charismatic former star of "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law." Smits arrives in the Nov. 10 episode.

Lyman's new job will enable him to pursue a relationship with Donna, something that was difficult when she worked for him because of potential sexual harassment problems. His candidate, Santos, will eventually be debating a conservative Republican senator from California, who is played by Alan Alda ("M*A*S*H"). Alda, who is a heavy part of NBC's promo campaign, won't arrive until just before Thanksgiving.

"He is a Democrat's nightmare," said Wells of Alda's character. "Because he is someone who could easily win an election. He is Pro-Choice but fiscally conservative."

The plan is to take those candidates and a few others (Ed O'Neill of "Married with Children" has been signed to play one) through primaries, debates and the general election this season. That clouds the future of the Sheen administration. Asked if Sheen would remain on the series after the Bartlet administration is over, Wells said it is the acting president's call. Sheen's contract runs out after this season and his decision will impact the direction of the season. If Sheen decides to stay for another season, the end of the Bartlet administration could be delayed until next season.

"It would be our preference to do the election next season," said Wells. "If Martin decides not to come back, we may accelerate that."

Wells thinks there is life after the presidency for Sheen's character.

"I don't think there are 22 episodes in it, but there are some very interesting things to see and explore," said Wells.

The one thing that Wells wouldn't reveal is who will be elected president. Smits and Alda have signed to stay on, if their characters are elected. Wells said the writers have had some heated discussions about what would make a better dramatic choice, but nothing has been resolved. He did, however, note that the present members of the Bartlet administration certainly have their preferences.

"If it is a Republican president, I think we'll have a serious problem with our existing cast," said Wells.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com