- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2000

Thomas Schlamme likens the first season of his hit show, "The West Wing," to a winning political campaign.
The NBC drama debuted to critical raves, then built a small, but loyal following, says Mr. Schlamme, the show's occasional director and executive producer. Momentum began to build through its debut season, leading to its victory celebration, the 52nd annual Emmy Awards on Sept. 10.
The show, which depicts the maneuvering of a fictional White House staff, netted nine Emmys, including a best director in a dramatic series nod for Mr. Schlamme.
Now, Mr. Schlamme is back at work, visiting the Washington area to shoot several exterior sequences for the show.
"A team plays better on a winning streak," Mr. Schlamme says of the Emmy fallout, as he takes a break in shooting earlier this week.
But the award did not change the way the cast approaches each new script.
"Now, it's much more like a repertory theater," he says of the show as it slips comfortably into its second season.
On Monday, Mr. Schlamme and his "troupe" gathered along the Memorial Bridge to film a few sequences for the upcoming season. In one brief shot, a faux presidential motorcade streaks past a sumptuously lighted Lincoln Memorial.
The show's production team travels to Washington several times a season to shoot exterior sequences to lend authenticity to their political yarns.
Dressed in a loose, untucked shirt and baseball cap, Mr. Schlamme's ensemble matches the casual nature of his crew.
Winning a satchel of Emmys will do that for a work environment.
But Mr. Schlamme's attire also reflects his approach to his craft. He rubs his goatee thoughtfully while setting up shots and patrolling the grounds slowly with his hands dug into the pockets of his jeans.
Although the production team is in town for only a few days, the pace of the shoot is glacial, like a film production. That attention to detail might have made the difference to Emmy voters.
Mr. Schlamme, who once directed Holly Hunter ("Miss Firecracker," 1989) and Mike Myers ("So I Married an Axe Murderer," 1993) through their paces, is in no hurry to return to feature films.
"I've always structured my career on [the premise that] I'm going to do the best material offered," he says.
Lately, that has left out the silver screen, which he says too often serves up scripts that are "disrespectful" to all involved.
He would not rule out a film project but desires only ones with strong dialogue and the kind of crisp ensemble casts to which he has grown accustomed.
But he won't want for work anytime soon. In addition to his "Wing" chores, he recently inked a development deal with Warner Bros. for more television projects.
The small screen is proving a welcome home for Mr. Schlamme's talents.
The Texas native recently directed the premiere of "Boston Public," the new show from the prolific pen of David E. Kelley ("Ally McBeal" and "The Practice").
Like "The West Wing's" creator, Aaron Sorkin, Mr. Kelley writes most of all his shows. That makes quite a difference in the finished product, Mr. Schlamme says.
"The only really successful, quality TV starts from a very powerful point of view. It doesn't have to be singular," he says. "That's the way Aaron and I work."
One reason he can ally himself with such television talent is the nature of the medium.
"TV has completely grown up… . The level of writing has increased dramatically," he says. The same can be said for the televised images that flicker on our screens.
Mr. Schlamme credits "Hill Street Blues" for breaking television's static look in favor of more arresting compositions.
"You could start to use the vocabulary of cinema," he says. Before then, "some of TV was stifling that way."
Television, via the Nielsen ratings, also can be cruel, though. Witness the cancellation of the well-received "Sports Night," for which Mr. Schlamme served as an executive producer.
"It was marketed poorly from the building," he says. "At the time, ABC didn't know what to do with it. It's really difficult if it gets off on the wrong foot."
As for "West Wing's" new season, Mr. Schlamme says to expect flashback episodes telling audiences how several characters originally joined the Josiah Bartlet campaign. Then, the psychological ramifications of last season's cliffhanger ending, in which gunplay erupted around several key figures, will be considered.
With a full season under the viewer's belt, "there is a lot of personal exploration [that can be done with the characters]," he says. It's another perk of the medium, being able to slowly develop rich, full-bodied roles over time.
"We can see [characters] more outside their jobs. It's a slow evolution," he says.
Mr. Schlamme would not divulge any plot surprises for the coming year. Like the current presidential campaign, it's anyone's guess how President Bartlet and company will face the new year. But if the Emmy's stamp of approval is any indication, it should be worth watching.
"Expect what you got last year," he promises.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide