Thursday, January 28, 2010

Season 1, Episode 22: "What Kind of Day Has It Been"

Plot summary
: In the season finale, President Bartlet prepares for a town hall meeting with college students while the U.S. military races to find a downed American pilot in the Iraqi desert before the Iraqi military captures him. C.J. doesn't relish the notion of misleading the press over rescue preparations. Likewise, Toby tries to ignore updates from the distressed orbiting space shuttle which includes his brother, a payload specialist aboard the craft which cannot close its cargo doors. Meanwhile, a huffing Josh is dispatched to run down and convince the wayward vice president to re-think his position on campaign finance reform.

Click here to watch "What Kind of Day Has It Been"

Av --

I'm going to put the shooting aside for a moment.

There was a whole lot to like about this episode, the finale to the first season. In fact, in some ways I felt it serves as a kind of bookend to "Pilot," as parts of this episode were reminiscent of the series premiere. Bartlet can't get minor staffers' names right, much like Leo messed one up in his classic opening walk through the corridors. Then, a situation existed which the White House was monitoring closely, though unable to control - Cubans heading for Florida. Now, the space shuttle - with Toby's brother aboard - is in peril, a similar situation the White House can't control, but only monitor. Then, Josh gets in trouble because he can't resist going for the cheap but enjoyable one-liner instead of being diplomatic. Now, he gets in less trouble, but still angers Leo by gleefully telling Vice President Hoynes, "If we bring this pilot back home alive, that’s another 10 points." Then, Toby is mopey, Donna annoying, Sam optimistic, and President Bartlet the provider of great wisdom. Now... well, you get the idea. (Though the dollop of wisdom dropped here, borrowed from Woody Allen, was more prolific, as it became a calling card for the show: "Decisions are made by those who show up.")

At the same time, seeing similar quotes and storylines emerge here that we've seen earlier in the season provides a great opportunity to reflect on the growth that has occurred. Charlie came aboard as the new guy, the only member of the team that wasn't with Bartlet since the campaign. He's now close with the president, to the point that he can needle him about getting excited to watch girls' softball. That's changed. But even though he spends almost every waking minute with the president, he still gets excited by the president using information in a town hall that he recommended. The feeling referenced in "A Proportional Response," the one he had "never felt before," is blessedly still there. C.J., who has been managing two complicated relationships - professionally, with Leo, and personally/professionally, with Danny, seems to have reached a comfort level with both. With Leo, months after being left in the dark over India/Pakistan, an incident still fresh in both their minds, she's finally reached the point where he can trust her to lie to the press. (And it wasn't an accident, either. When she asks, "Is there a rescue mission?" Leo pauses a beat, clearly thinks for a second, then decides to clue her in.) With Danny, she realizes she unfairly made him look bad by having him ask the question she responds to untruthfully, and pays him back with the inside scoop on the safe landing of Columbia. And the president, who early this season felt intimidated by the militaristic responsibilities of his job ("every time I sit with the Joint Chiefs, I feel like I’m back at my father’s dinner table"), is now at ease in the situation room and with Chairman Fitzwallace. (I enjoyed their small talk in the Oval Office, though someone should clue them in to the fact that the notion of the eagle facing the other way is not accurate.) All in all, this episode really measured up as one of the best of the season, and that's even without the shooting.

Right. So that happened. I think there are three things worth examining here: the shooting as a story, using it as a cliffhanger, and its narrative presentation in the episode itself. Regarding that last one, I think I could've done without in media res here. While the shooting came as a complete shock, the surprise was somewhat muffled by the fact that we were teased almost right away that something terrifying was going to happen. I suppose it comes down to whether our viewing the events of the day (another similarity to "Pilot": the episode takes place within a single day) is enhanced or detracted by knowing how things will turn out. Personally, I would have gone with not knowing. "What kind of day has it been"? Nobody asks the titular question specifically, though it's certainly something that we can envision someone bringing up. Grading the day seems to be part of the presidential jargon: "You had a good day today, John." ("20 Hours in Los Angeles") "You all had a good day." ("Mandatory Minimums") They were having a good day: Bartlet made a good call on the Iraq rescue mission, and they just received great news about the space shuttle landing safely. With that news we could even start to believe that just like the administration was making a conscious decision to change philosophy, the luck that had plagued them to this point ("what kind of luck have we had, Ginger? Bad luck.") was finally starting to turn. And then it all would have been quickly forgotten, good feelings dissipated by a hail of bullets. This isn't to say I didn't enjoy watching the episode unfold the way it did, but I wonder what it would have been like structured naturally.

Then there's the story itself. And with it, the first real question of whether Sorkin allowed himself to let the fact that this is a television show impact what kind of story gets presented. Put another way: the climactic moments of drama on this show have been organic to the political nature of the series; is this shooting true to that nature? I'd argue it is. For one thing, it had only been 18 years since a sitting U.S. president was shot and wounded, along with three others. It's not a far-fetched storyline at all. Sure, putting it in the season finale is overly convenient, from a theatrical standpoint, but there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Further, it would appear this wasn't an assassination attempt at all, rather an attempt to kill Charlie and/or Zoey. The signaller, the creepy-looking guy on the ground, seemed to be a skinhead, and there were already pre-existing threats towards the couple. (Unless the attempt was on the president himself for condoning the romance, which is possible, but I'm thinking that's not the case.) So one could make the case that Sorkin wasn't going for the sexy storyline of a presidential assassination attempt, rather the completion of a more realistic storyline (sadly), that of mindless, race-based hate. (One important nitpick: I can buy "realistic" for this story except for the two shooters somehow being free to sit armed in a building overlooking an open area which the president would be passing through. No way that building isn't swept thoroughly, and probably guarded heavily.)

Finally, it's hard to objectively judge the merits of a cliffhanger when I plan on watching the next episode quite soon, and don't have to wait five months to learn the answer to the season's final line, "Who's been hit?" From what I've read, the cliffhanger was met with near-universal scorn, mostly because Sorkin had elevated the show to something that was expected to defy conventional television tropes. As the Newark Star-Ledger put it:

The slo-mo finale smacked of a desperation that usually doesn't surface in a hit network drama until season three or four. Ronald Reagan... was wounded by a would-be assassin mere months into Reagan's first term, but art doesn't have to imitate life - especially if the art is written by "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, who has such a knack for dialogue and characterization that his conversations are more exciting than most car chases and fist fights.

An understandable sentiment, though Sorkin's defense that summer is also reasonable:

"I will tell you that I think the season opener, which begins just moments after the season finale, may go somewhat towards helping you a little bit with the last two minutes of the season finale... I promise you that moment in the show happened for the exact same reason every moment on every show happened: I thought people would like it."

If that's the case, I suppose I'll have to reserve judgment. Sometimes a cliffhanger can be only be truly evaluated after its resolution is learned. And given that, as I mentioned above, the story itself works, I think people would have been more forgiving had this occurred mid-season and not end-of-season. But watching the show now, without the restrictions of the network television schedule, I see it as an incredible, breathtaking final scene, capping a terrific episode which itself capped a wondrous season of television I'm grateful to have seen.

And on that note, as we finish the opening season of this blog, a brief word of thanks. To you, Av, for bringing me into this fantastic show, for putting your veteran experience with it to use in our discussions both published and unpublished, and for your endless enthusiasm in pushing me to keep this project going when I hit periods of weariness. And to my other viewing partner, my dear wife Shani, for keeping me company as a first-time viewer, who patiently waits after each episode for me to write, putting up with "we can't watch the next one yet, I don't want to be influenced by information in future episodes" as an excuse to break between episodes. My first discussion of every episode is with her, and it's undoubtedly had a positive influence on my writing.

-- Binny


Binny --

What an exhilarating end to a tremendous first season. I’ll get my thoughts on the ending out of the way at the outset so that I can move on to the rest of the episode.

I thought the ending was perfect both in conception and execution. You mentioned that you didn’t like using the in media res technique in this episode. You also quoted critics who didn’t like the fact that Sorkin resorted to a cliffhanger, twist ending that many thought was the type of cliché plot device "The West Wing" had transcended. Yet you didn’t make the connection that I think is evident and addresses both complaints, which I believe are inextricably linked. Sorkin wanted to leave us with the ending he did, but he didn’t want to conform to normal finale clichés. As director Tommy Schlamme explained in an interview with The Detroit Free Press, "It was never designed as 'a cool cliffhanger,' as a 'Who Shot J.R.?' way just to get more viewers. Our intent was to open a storytelling avenue." If they had employed normal linear storytelling, when the shots start firing, we would be shocked at a plot development that came out of nowhere from the perspective of this episode’s plot arc. It would be what a cinema buff would call a “twist.” And that wasn’t something he wanted to do. The in media res storytelling gives us a glimpse of the final scene and lets us anticipate where the story is heading for the next 40 minutes, thus downplaying the severity of the twist, cliffhanger ending.

This episode was so good that it didn’t need the cliffhanger (if it had gone to credits after Bartlet closes the meeting with the words “class dismissed,” it would have been a wholly satisfying conclusion), but I think adding it put it over the top, especially the way he uses it to segue into the storytelling he does at the start of next season. As for last scene itself, I loved Jorga Fox in the buildup to the shooting. Her frantic repetition of the words “I saw something,”as she scatters around to locate exactly what it is that she saw, highlights her need and ability to balance her instinct that something tragic is about to happen against creating a false panic that could be equally dangerous. She totally nailed that scene. And as for unrealistic details, how about the shooters waiting until literally seconds before to load their guns? Either that was unrealistic or a remarkable indictment by Sorkin of skinheads’ intelligence.

You wrote a lot about the maturation of certain characters over the course of the season and I agree wholeheartedly, especially regarding C.J. I also loved your point about Charlie’s development from a nervous, shy teenager into someone who can uniquely tease the president of the United States in a way that even the senior staff would never dare to try. The only other person that seems to enjoy this type of relationship so far is Mrs. Landingham, whom we have seen respond to the president at times with her uncanny dry wit, most recently in this episode. Bartlet: “Do you see me walking out the door?” Mrs. Landingham: “No, I see you standing and arguing with a senior citizen.” And while I agree that the president has certainly changed with respect to his newfound comfort with the military leaders, it is ironic that his instinct to overreact to attacks on U.S. soldiers has not changed: “If Fitzwallace has to call this kid’s parents, I swear to God I’m invading Baghdad.” This reaction is hauntingly similar to his response to the news that Morris Tolliver’s plane had been shot down (“I’m going to blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder) at the end of "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc" and his general handling of the use of military force throughout "A Proportional Response", before Leo settles him down.

A couple points on policy issues that were raised in the episode:

First, Josh totally nails on the head a critical point about campaign finance regulations. Giving money to a candidate you support or even to the party you favor can be construed as free speech. But when massive corporations are giving boatloads of cash to both parties, that crosses the line by miles. Campaign finance has emerged as a hot issue recently on the heels of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest step in the Roberts Court’s attempt to whittle away at the restrictions on campaign spending and bolster the rights of corporations.

Secondly, this episode touched with such subtlety on a talking point that is one of my biggest pet peeves: the vilifying of NASA (and to a lesser extent, military spending). Many people have labeled the space shuttle program a "failure" and called for for the gutting of NASA’s budget because they haven’t produced an epic achievement since the moon landing 40 years ago. (Many of the same people call for cutting military spending because “we don’t need more warplanes and tanks.”) What these people fail to realize are the incredible, life-changing byproducts that these two programs have given us. Anyone use a cell phone? Well, isn’t it convenient that there are literally thousands of satellites floating around in space that allows you to get a signal? I wonder how those got there. The list of everyday inventions that are credited to the military and space program are endless: the integrated circuit (used in every device that contains a computer chip), cordless tools, and smoke detectors all came from NASA, while the Internet, GPS, and digital photography all were developed by the military. In our episode, Toby’s brother is in space, not to travel to Mars, but to study the inner ear of newts, which are remarkably similar to that of humans. Sure, this doesn’t sound so exciting, unless of course it leads them to figuring out how to cure deafness or create a breakthrough audio device. So the next time you feel like criticizing the amount of money we allocate for these two programs, consider the incredible contributions they have made to our society that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with their primary mission statements.

And with that we come to the end of season one. Thanks for thanking me. More so, thanks for providing me the impetus to not only revisit this show (because let’s be honest, I probably would have done that anyway) but to revisit it in this manner. It has instilled in me an even deeper appreciation for this show (something I wouldn’t have guessed was possible), opened my eyes to many new points and details, and sharpened my approach to watching television in general. I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of re-watching and re-re-watching these 22 episodes and eagerly await our impending journey into season two and beyond.

-- Av

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Season 1, Episode 21: "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics"

Plot summary
: While President Bartlet and his staff nervously await the results of a poll to determine his favorability rating, he begins a heady transfer of ambassadors and members of the Federal Election Committee designed to kickstart campaign finance reform and defuse a embarrassing incident overseas.

Specifically, wheeler-dealer Bartlet recalls the married Ambassador to Bulgaria who is discovered to be romancing the daughter of the country's prime minister, but faces another crisis at home when Sam is photographed by a newspaper giving a graduation gift to a known call girl. Meanwhile, C.J. anxiously paces the White House corridors and wonders if she is being marginalized by Leo for past mistakes. In addition, Josh clashes with opinionated pollster Joey Lucas.

Click here to watch "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics"

Av --

I had high hopes for this season's penultimate episode. With other great drama series I've come across, the episode before the finale is often as good as, or better than, the finale itself. But while sometimes a good episode of this show, or even a great one, can still maintain its quality despite one or two things that nag at me, ultimately there were too many things here I was puzzled by, combined with the fact that not a lot really happened.

For one thing, there's the polling. At first I was puzzled by the collective tension over this specific poll; approval ratings are released regularly, and I'm sure the administration cares about every single change to those numbers throughout the entire four-year term. But given the fact that the approval rating was now lower than it had ever been, I suppose it's justifiable to see hand-wringing over language used in the questions and a terrified silence in the Oval Office as C.J. announces the results. (Though isn't it usually a media outlet or professional polling group that gets these numbers? I have no doubt the administration would do their own polling, but wouldn't the media be skeptical of the results and rather trust an independent source?) And while I have nothing against a positive ending, a 9-point jump? Really? Because they came out with a drug policy that favors more treatment? I just don't buy it. If the country got to see the meeting at the end of "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" and thus had renewed faith in the president, that would be an easier sell. But the manifestations of that meeting so far wouldn't be enough to truly change the hearts of the public. Not enough people would care about FEC appointees (or appreciate the symbolism of the decision), and the drug policy is in the early stages. I guess my point is the writers sacrificed a slight bit of reality (it's a long struggle to become favorable again) in the name of convenience.

While we're on convenience, I also found it too convenient that Joey Lucas was still in town. My understanding is that Al Kiefer's job is to gauge national numbers on various issues. Joey's job is to do the same with California. But studying these numbers is done in order to advise the president on how best to proceed. Once he's proceeded, and the actual polling starts, there's nothing more he can do. There's nothing more Joey can do. They can go back to California and wait for these numbers to arrive and process them accordingly. Joey wasn't there "because Al Kiefer told her to stop by," she was there because the writers enjoy the interplay between her and Josh, and wanted to get it into another episode. Not that hearing Joey argue against English as the national language wasn't fun, of course. (As an aside, she could have used a great line on that subject from Jed Bartlet, even though it came two years after the show went off the air: "The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it.")

And then there's Sam and Laurie. What's that about? Isn't he dating Mallory? If he is, isn't this relationship with Laurie a little too much? He keeps calling her a friend, but clearly she means more to him than that. I was slightly puzzled by her sudden re-appearance, though it actually makes sense in the big picture. We know Steve Onorato knows something (actually, we don't, but we are told this is a reasonable assumption). The timing of a paparazzi photographer teaming up with Laurie's friend to trap Sam couldn't have been a coincidence. My guess is Onorato wanted this to get out without it coming back to him, so he brought the friend and the tabloid together, they worked out a deal, and created this problem for Sam. And I know Sam's right, it shouldn't matter what she does, he's naïve, etc. but come on. He has to - has to - be smarter than that. Toby and Bartlet let him off easy, though maybe it's because Bartlet was saving the best monologue of the episode for how to handle Laurie.

Finally, the C.J. story felt like it was missing something. Her frustration could be understandable, but we haven't seen a reason for it. She tells Danny she feels people still blame her for the Mandy memo. While I'm not questioning how she feels, I find this belief difficult to believe. For one thing, it's not her fault. Any intelligent person would know that, and she happens to work with some pretty intelligent people. And on another level, while the Mandy memo was bad, it created something much better - the whole administration turnaround referenced above. C.J. is bothered by the fact that Leo didn't tell the president she predicted they'd go up 5 points. She sees this as a sign that she's not equal to the others. But is it possible Leo didn't want to tell the president her prediction because he knows the president would take that a reason to be optimistic and Leo didn't want to get his hopes up? Can she say for certain that Leo would have shared a Sam prediction if it was a 5-point gain? C.J.'s feelings of frustration were more identifiable during the India/Pakistan skirmish from "Lord John Marbury": "Either I’m a trusted member of the communications staff or I’m not." In this case, we haven't really seen enough to make us understand why she's feeling the way she is.

-- Binny


Binny --

It's interesting. In my mind, this episode has always been a lot better than it actually is. I think the reason for this is because I have never really judged it by itself in a vacuum, the way we are doing now. "The West Wing" has always been a show whose episodes I have watched in bunches and, in this case, I have always seen this episode as the culmination of a three-episode-long story arc (with "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" and "Mandatory Minimums") that gives the staff and the show a momentous head of steam as it heads into the finale and next season. To me, these three episodes have always been more like one long episode that I have always labeled "great" in my mind. But this episode standing by itself, I will agree with you is probably no better than "good."

And I agree with you that not much happens in this episode. And further, there aren't enough great moments or humorous parts to counteract the lack of major plot progress. Where I part with you is with regard to the things that felt off to you in this episode.

I'll start with your questions regarding the poll itself. First of all, this was an internal poll, conducted primarily for the benefit of the White House itself to get a sense of how it's doing. That's why C.J. won't be announcing the results, but rather "leaking" them. Second, internal polls are typically considered more reliable than newspaper or most other polls because campaigns and administrations spend a lot more money and use much more professional, scientific methods to produce much more comprehensive accurate results. This is because they care much more about the results than anyone else since they use them as a guide for how to strategize. They'll usually hire an independent professional pollster to do the work for them and then leak the numbers to the press. Why does the press trust them? Well, why does the press trust anything the White House tells them? There's a certain trust that has to exist between the White House and the press or it'll all be chaos. Also, the numbers are probably authenticated somehow by the independent body that actually conducts the poll. As for the reasons for the jump, well, they don't really give us enough information to accurately explain that. What I will point out is that they have been employing a new media strategy for the last three weeks, which Josh alludes to when he speaks to C.J. If I had to guess, that media strategy entailed getting out the message that the White House has a newfound energy and a willingness to govern aggressively and stand up for the issues that matters to them. So it's probably not just drugs and the FEC that has prompted this increased popularity in the public eyes.

With Joey, I think saying that Al Kiefer was there as a national polling expert while Joey Lucas was there as a California expert is technically accurate, but doesn't tell the whole story. Kiefer was brought in to counsel the president on the drugs issue. Joey was brought in to counsel them on the Republicans' potential counter to the FEC move: the issue of English as the national language. Her expertise on California, which has a big Hispanic population, is what makes her opinion relevant. Since the president has already made his decision on drugs, while the English as the national language issue is still potentially upcoming, it makes sense that Kiefer would be gone and Joey still there. Further, I think the tone from "Mandatory Minimums" made it pretty clear that she was going to be around for a little while, so her presence in the next episode is totally consistent.

As for Sam, I think his relationship with Laurie is more than just friendship, but I think he sees her more as a little sister than a potential love interest right now. He wants to save her and protect her, not sleep with her (at least not anymore). And while that might be sincere, it's probably not smart to have that kind of relationship with one woman while you're trying to court another. And it probably wasn't smart to go there that night, but I'll give him somewhat of a pass. Watching on TV, it was easy to anticipate that something might go wrong. In real life, however, most of the time you aren't being set up and betrayed by a friend who is being paid $50,000 to do so. Her law school graduation is a place he could reasonably expect someone could be watching; late at night for a few minutes outside her friend's apartment, not as much. (And as an aside, why would the London Daily Mirror care - to the tune of $50,000 - about a potential scandal involving a staff member in the administration of a different country? Sam Seaborn shouldn't be on the radar of a British tabloid. Don't they have another princess to kill or something?) But as you pointed out, even if you didn't especially like this storyline, "It’s nice when we can do something for prostitutes once in a while, isn’t it?" made it all worthwhile.
And here's one thing that bothered me: the weird interaction between Charlie and the outgoing Bulgarian ambassador. This is the second time they've brought in someone that has crossed paths with Charlie in the past (presumptive Supreme Court nominee Peyton Cabot Harrison III in "The Short List" being the first), make you think that something significant will transpire as a result, only to have the meeting be a footnote. That I find puzzling.

On to something I liked: the way they got the majority they needed on the FEC. I found the early scene with the "in the closet" soft money opponent Barry Haskel to be very relatable because I think it captured very well how many people would react if being called to the White House. Even though he is aware of the fact that the "trappings of the White House" would be used against him, all it takes is one "Baaaaaary" from Leo and one charming "Barry, I’m Jed Bartlet. I understand you’re thinking about helping us out. It makes me so happy" from the president and it's over. As much as I disliked George W. Bush, if he summoned me to the Oval Office and asked me to do something for him, I'd probably do it. Also, while the Federated State of Micronesia are used as an example of an obscure country that nobody has ever heard of to the point of hilarity, those who support Israel and follow it closely recognize the FSM as the only country other than the United States that consistently has Israel's back in the United Nations. Naturally, I can't tell you as much about the country as the president, but the fact that I had even heard of them I felt put me ahead of the curve.

-- Av


Av --

Your explanation of the polling makes sense, as does your explanation of the trustworthiness of the poll. But the 9-point jump still doesn't feel right. I understand what you're saying about a newfound energy and aggressiveness, I just don't think these things can be recognized in three weeks. The average American doesn't usually keep track of day-to-day presidential activity, and forms opinions based on the big picture. Three weeks is not enough time to change perception that was formed over the course of a year, at least not that dramatically.

I'll bite that Joey is there to help beyond her initial polling responsibilities, but you'll have a hard time selling me on the notion that she belonged in the Oval Office waiting for the poll results with the senior staff. And while you're right that Sam should feel less concerned seeing Laurie privately on a quiet street than publicly at her law school graduation, given the fact that he was told Onorato's radar was up, he should have taken a zero-tolerance approach.

I forgot about the game of ambassador musical chairs; glad you brought it up. That one bothered me, too. Influence is a tricky thing. I liked how they got Barry Haskel on board by using the trappings of the White House, because you're right - it's completely relatable, and a great weapon at the president's disposal. But the way Bartlet and Co. basically manipulated the presidential appointee system to get their new nominee didn't sit well with me. It's not that it's underhanded - I didn't mind Leo threatening to blackmail congressmen with familial drug charges last episode - it's that it's abusing power to win. Just because Bartlet can technically change who's ambassador to where and then happily find himself in need of a new FEC commissioner doesn't mean it's right. I think what actually bothers me is not that he did it (hey, I like him and enjoy seeing him win), but that we're to believe that this would be acceptable politically. It's one thing to nominate the previous two people he did - though it was a huge shift in protocol, at least it could be defended. But how could Bartlet do all this and not have the Republicans revolt against him and frame him in the media as someone who is willing to play games with executive powers?

-- Binny


Binny --

Well, that's just how politics works sometimes. It's part of playing the game. The tactics they took were all in bounds and more importantly, realistic. As former White House Press Secretary Martin Fitzwaller pointed out, in an interview with Jim Lehrer:

They had the president fire an ambassador and then hire a person off the Federal Election Commission to be the ambassador, so they could get an open slot on the Elections Commission for somebody else they wanted. Well, the president wouldn't get involved in that in reality. He would make the decisions to do it, but no one would ever see it. But it's exactly how the White House works. I think that's the great value of this show. It shows how the presidency works.

Sure, it'll piss off Republicans. But that's kind of the point here isn't it? The pre-"Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" administration would never have thought of doing something like this. As Josh noted in that episode, "it's not what we do." That's the new White House we're seeing. The old staff was beholden to Congress and felt like they were above playing the game. The new one is committed to keeping its eye on the prize and doing what it takes to get the job done, even if it means taking advantage of a loophole in the process.

-- Av

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Season 1, Episode 20: "Mandatory Minimums"

Plot summary
: A newly energized President Bartlet bucks tradition and throws down the gauntlet when he names two campaign finance reformers - to the Federal Election Commission despite threats from his political opponents to introduce embarrassing legislation that would dare him not to sign. Early reactions to his announcement are not encouraging, especially from top-notch pollster Al Kiefer. However, Kiefer's arrival means his attractive cohort, Joey Lucas, accompanies him, and she again draws a smitten Josh's attention.

Toby agrees to seek out his ex-wife, a breezy congresswoman, to gauge her response to any future narcotics legislation that would emphasize prevention over enforcement. Leo, uncomfortably aware of his own brush with drugs, agrees to be the Chief Executive's front man for positioning the high-voltage issue of revising the drug laws.

Click here to watch "Mandatory Minimums"

Av --

"Let me say this: this is not a place where one's personal things, where things among people, this is not a place... let's... this is a place where work is done, and nothing else." -- Josh Lyman

Given the typical season structure to this point, I'm not used to seeing one episode's political discussion continue into the next one, so it was kind of nice to see a key storyline extend into another episode. (I was also pleased to see - or hear - the "energy" musical theme for a second straight episode. It's a shame an original score album wasn't ever produced.) And speaking of unexpected developments, in a series that has for the most part avoided mixing the main characters' personal lives into the story, we got bombarded with the personal brushing up against the professional, with a variety of results.

I suppose the most harmless personal sidebar belongs to Josh and his less-than-subtle thing for Joey Lucas. With their last interaction in Los Angeles ending with her crushing him, it was nice to see Josh begin to get somewhere with her, almost in spite of himself. (I've gotta say, for someone as politically smooth as Josh Lyman, he shouldn't have this much trouble with the ladies. After all, what's the dating scene, especially at the start, if not a mirror of politics? Feeling out the other side, jockeying for position, friendly debate, trying to gauge response. Also, say what you want about Mandy, but I don't see how someone like her could have the patience for the romantic doof Josh we see here.)

Despite my being on record here as being tentative about Danny and C.J. and the myriad of problems their relationship creates, I actually think the story here, despite being grouped in with the other personal stuff, is actually more of a professional one. What happened with Danny could happen to anyone, regardless of personal relationship: reporter has story, press secretary wants to quash story, reporter prints story, press secretary freezes out reporter. It probably happens regularly, even to people that haven't shared a kiss, although that admittedly adds a layer of complication here. In my heart of hearts I think C.J. here acts mostly out of professional anger, though the fact that she feels let down by a "friend" probably didn't help Danny's case. What should have helped Danny's case is the simple fact that he was right. I mentioned it last episode, and Bartlet thankfully calls C.J. out on it in this one. And while we're here, I agree with Bartlet about Mandy, too. No question it's hard to accept her and have her in meetings after they learn what she "really" thinks, but C.J.'s complaint from "Lord John Marbury" rings true here: "Either I’m a trusted member of the communications staff or I’m not."

Though the directing on "The West Wing" is usually quite good, Robert Berlinger's work in this particular episode's was so good it actually got me to notice it. For one thing, two scenes were shot with a particularly nice touch: C.J.'s conversation with Josh about her press briefing gaffe and Bartlet's patronly speech to the staff conducted from his bed. But what really made a mark were some quick shots used as narrative devices. When Mandy walks into the Oval Office, there's a succession of quick shots: Bartlet, then C.J., then Toby, who starts walking to the door. Though it's almost imperceptible on first viewing, those shots were a conversation, the end result of which is Mandy being told not to participate. And earlier, when Josh is talking about Joey with Sam and Toby, Sam goes on a mini-rant about women. As he gets up to the part about how they "take your heart, throw it on the floor, and stomp on it with their big high heels," there's a brief shot of Toby, who quickly tilts his head, scratches his nose, looks down, raises his eyebrows, grasps his beard, then looks up almost surprised. The shot is maybe three seconds, and at first seems meaningless, but when we finally see our first glimpse into the personal life of Toby Ziegler, the shot becomes that much more knowing. So Toby was married. To a congresswoman. Who's smart, articulate, and put-together. And who clearly knows how to bring out the best and worst in him. Many questions are left by this brief glimpse into their relationship, not least of which is why Toby still wears a wedding ring (not coincidentally featured prominently in the above-mentioned shot). My interest in this backstory is certainly piqued and left me wanting more, though I feel introducing Andy Wyatt this way and without a full explanation or history was more appropriate for the story.

Finally, we get to the ultimate mixing of personal and professional: when personal missteps threaten professional life. Or blackmail, if you want to get technical about it. The staff finds itself brushing against both ends of blackmail. Leo threatens congressional staffers that he'll go public with lenient sentences imposed for drug arrests of their bosses' loved ones if said bosses try to play the "soft on crime" card in the upcoming debate on drugs, while it's believed that Sam is being targeted by Republicans who may know about Laurie, his old friend the call girl. Without getting into a whole debate on personal ethics of politicians, I've always been dismayed with how personal missteps can be exploited for political purposes. We're all human, and we all have our own personal issues. So long as a politician isn't doing anything illegal, unethical, or genuinely damaging to himself or others, his ability to govern shouldn't be seen as compromised because of an issue in his personal life. But at the same time, there's no room for hypocrisy, either. Which is my way of saying Leo's in the right, and Sam's in the right. It's fair for Leo to pre-empt any soapbox speeches about how the government needs to be tougher on drug-related crimes if the speaker used connections to lighten a drug-related sentence. But it's unfair to use Sam's relationship with Laurie as a way to smear him and bring him down. His being friends with a prostitute doesn't change his ability to draft and debate legislation on drugs.

Oh, and on a personal note, hard as it may be, I'll try not to hold Toby's Yankee fandom against him.

-- Binny


Binny --

This episode did so many things well. It was funny, it advanced several ongoing storylines (Sam and Laurie, Josh and Joey, Leo and drugs, Toby and Kiefer, the president's sleeplessness, Danny and C.J.), poignantly touched on a policy debate, and gave us deeper insight into several characters' personae. Truly enjoyable.

I'm glad you noticed and mentioned Toby's wedding ring, because it gives me an excuse to mention this nugget, courtesy of Aaron Sorkin. (I can't remember where I saw it first, but I found it reproduced on a message board.)

When we started shooting the second episode of the series ("Post Hoc, Ergo Proctor Hoc"--One Follows the Other, Therefore it Was Caused by the Other), I noticed that Richard was wearing a wedding ring. I asked Tommy if he'd been wearing it in the pilot and he had. I went to Richard and said, "You know, I don't think Toby's married" and Richard said, "Yeah, I don't think so either." I said, "Well you've been wearing your wedding ring" and he said, "It's not my wedding ring, I got it from wardrobe." I said, "You ASKED for the wedding ring even though you thought Toby wasn't married?" and he said, "Yeah" and I said, "Why?" and he said, "I was hoping you'd figure it out." And that's how Toby got an ex-wife he was still in love with.

As an aside, as I recently mentioned in a comment on our discussion of "Mr Willis of Ohio," while it may have been as early as episode two that Sorkin conceived the idea to give Toby an ex-wife, he certainly hadn't fully developed her backstory, or at the very least, her name by the time episode six came around. The House roll call at the episode's conclusion proceeded directly from from Mr. Willis to Mr. Zantowski, skipping right over the lovely Ms. Wyatt.

I was glad that my thought from last episode - that they had to choose something ostensibly insignificant such as campaign finance to make their move on - was confirmed in this episode. C.J. admits in her press briefing that the reason for the decision was "symbolism." It needed to be something that doesn't inherently warrant taking such a principled stand in order to serve a symbolic purpose and send the message that the White House means business. It's almost as if I've seen these episodes before.

Speaking of C.J., while I agree that her treatment of Danny is wrong, I disagree with your assessment that their personal relationship merely accentuates her wrongdoing. To me, the fact that they are friends (and perhaps a potential couple) is the only thing that makes her behavior "wrong." Danny wrote a story that was embarrassing for the White House and, as a result, the White House Press Secretary is giving him the cold shoulder, choosing other reporters for exclusives instead of him. Rewarding reporters that give positive coverage and "punishing" those that provide negative reporting might not be right or fair, but it's the way things work. It's only because they have a personal relationship that I think she mishandled the situation. If Danny were just a colleague, her actions would just be the cost of doing business; but as a friend, it's petty and immature, which is why Bartlet calls her out on it. He understands that to the administration - and to C.J., specifcally - Danny is not just any reporter; he's an ally and a friend.

Sam, meantime, was in vintage form in this episode. Can a character have a vintage form 20 episodes into a series? Maybe not. But I'll say it anyways. Sam was in vintage form in this episode. As I've mentioned in the past, the flip side of his fierce idealism and optimism is his naïveté and innocence. He comes off as an adorable, callow (Jerry Gallo's dead!) youth (ute? sorry couldn't resist) in at least several instances in this episode: not informing Toby that they had passed the restaurant where the staff was meeting for breakfast because they "were having a nice conversation"; not being able to recognize that he was being manipulated by Steve Onarato and then overreacting and throwing a tantrum when Josh and Toby explain to him what's happening; and referring to Leo as a "hooleelia," a word he admits his mother made up.

There were a bunch of little moments in this episode I absolutely loved, and I'll get to them in a minute. But first, I wanted to touch on one that irked me. I'm probably starting to sound like a broken record since I criticized the way she was used in the previous episode, but I'm only pointing this out because it's a theme that recurs throughout the series and it inexplicably bothers me much more than it should. I am talking about Donna's presence at the breakfast meeting. What was she doing there? This was a meeting between Leo and his senior staff. His assistant being there makes sense because he's the chief of staff and she's his right hand and walking memory bank. But Donna? Why should she be there and not Ginger and Bonnie? I know, I know. Because Donna is a main cast member and they're not. But in real life, she should never be there, her playful ribbing of Josh about Joey Lucas, notwithstanding. But keep this thought in mind as we continue throughout the series because I think you'll find yourself wondering, "Why is Donna there?" a lot.

Now, on to the little nuggets I loved:

  • I said early on that I was going to be on the lookout for Josh/Rahm Emanuel similarities, since Josh was supposedly loosely based on Emanuel. Well we have a pretty blatant reference to that here, as Bonnie teasingly calls him "Rambo", much to the delight of the fellow staffers. Josh could have used a cinema lesson here, however, as his retort, "You talkin' to me?" comes from Taxi Driver, not Rambo.
  • Speaking of Josh's movie references, though it may not have been as good as Shaq's, I loved his Godfather analogy. "I'm James Caan. [to Sam] You''re Al Pacino...Toby, you're the guy who shows Pacino how to make tomato sauce." (It's Clemenza, by the way.)
  • Leo, a notorious substance abuser and addict, instructing his staff to "talk to me about drugs."
  • Margaret, who clearly has severe OCD, as evidenced by the fact that she memorized the names of seven unconnected congressmen because she "couldn't help it," mocking Josh: "You assign your clothes days of the week?"
  • Joey's male translator Kenny (speaking for Joey) shouting, "I'm not sleeping with Al Kiefer anymore," in a hallway in the West Wing of the White House.
  • This wonderful exchange between Toby and his ex-wife:
Andy: Toby, are you upset that I went out on a date? Or are you upset that I went out on a date with someone who plays in the same division as the Yankees?
Toby: Honest to God, I'm not sure.

And for the record, Toby being a Yankees fan doesn't bother me, as although he's a wonderful character, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't ever be friends with him for reasons that have nothing to do with which baseball team he roots for. In fact, it might almost bother me more if here were a Mets fan.

Finally, I will follow your lead from past episodes and play the episode title game. And despite having seen this episode many times, this is a thought that didn't occur to me until this latest viewing. Other than its obvious meaning (the racially unfair policy of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders), I think there is a secondary explanation that emerges from the final scene. As you alluded to, the energy theme (though you meant it musically, it applies to the narrative as well) is still full on from the end of last episode and the president realizes that. As a result, he says that because of the staff's newfound aggressive and energetic approach, he understands that some mistakes will inevitably be made. The goal, however is to "minimize them." What might be a term one can use to refer to the inevitable number of mistakes a staff will make, yet try to cut down to as few as possible? How about "mandatory minimums?"

-- Av

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Season 1, Episode 19: "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"

Plot summary: Rumors percolate about a scathing memo that outlines the weaknesses of President Bartlet's administration for his political rival and grip the White House until C.J. learns it came from one of the trusted staff. C.J. finally discovers that the memo is in the possession of one reporter and tries to dissuade him from publishing it. Meanwhile, Sam and Toby meet with opposing military officers and congressmen to discuss amending the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy towards gays in the armed forces. When two members of the Federal Election Commission resign, Josh sees opportunity and moves fast to meet with contentious senators to suggest that the President appoint two Democrats as replacements instead of sharing one spot with the Republicans. Leo not only has trouble with the White House's faulty e-mail system, he confronts the president and issues a challenge that could define or destroy his administration.

Click here to watch "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"

Av --

In an effort to clean up my crowded email inbox, I've been going through some old emails recently. I came across a conversation I had a few months ago with my father in which I was complaining about politics, which is actually quite unusual for me. Sonia Sotomayor was going through the Supreme Court confirmation process at the time, one which saw its share of political divisiveness and controversy. What bothered be more than anything else during the confirmation was my sense that the Senate votes, the 100 yeas or nays that would decide whether this person would be appointed to the highest court in the country, were motivated by anything and everything except how the voting senator actually felt. Party loyalty was talked about as a factor. Support for the president was discussed a lot. And, of course, the effect that the senator's vote would have on his or her re-election was a prevailing theme. Though these factors have played a role in almost every legislation decision since time immemorial, for some reason I felt outraged over this issue. How about voting a certain way because your constituents would vote that way, and your duty is to represent them? Or, at worst, voting yea or nay because - and I know this may sound crazy - that's what you think is best for the country?

On some level I get it. Even if it is unseemly, the argument can be made that playing the game - party loyalty, supporting (or battling) the president, and keeping re-election in mind - is done with the goal of staying in government for the long haul, and being in a better position to effect real change. But where's the line? At what point does a politician give up the politically-driven motivations, stick to his guns, and legislate the way he intended to when he first sought (and won) office? Without question, this episode is meant to answer that question for the Bartlet administration, and the answer is a resounding "NOW." Tired of being "stuck in the mud," being able to count nothing outside of a successful Supreme Court appointment as a policy victory one year into office, the staff gets its wake-up call, and though how successfully they respond to it remains to be seen, so far it can be said that they haven't hit the snooze button.

You know it's funny - since this show throws so much at you nearly every episode, I didn't realize the extent to which the administration had been struggling. It's not entirely my fault; since I'm not living in the "West Wing" universe reading Danny Concannon's stories every day, I can only react to what I see, and this was the first time Sorkin really took a real step back to examine the political landscape from a broad perspective. But the hints were there: Sam's disappointment when the president passively allows a death penalty sentence to be carried out; Toby's continued and increasing frustration with being stuck in neutral; and even outgoing Justice Crouch's sharp critical remarks to Bartlet. (Yes, thank you "previouslys." You have a very good handle on the show.) While we've been able to look at various things going on in the White House that tend to end well for team Bartlet, the big picture clearly hasn't looked as good.

Of course, this being a television show, everything that happens in this episode conveniently reminds everyone of this fact at once. Sam finds himself doing a fine job battling congressmen and armed forces officers on gays in the military, until he's coldly - and correctly - reminded that his assignment is just to talk about it, and not really do anything about it. Josh does his best Josh with the Senate party leadership in a neat attempt to try to change how Federal Election Commission nominees are appointed, but quickly backs down when threatened with political retribution. And Leo is there to call all these failed shots. Incredibly, it takes a dated memo from Mandy of all people to point out just how bad things have gotten. But the outrage at Mandy is completely misdirected. Whether or not Danny is right - that upon re-hiring Mandy, the administration didn't ask her what their faults were because they were afraid of the answer - the staff was unquestionably foolish for not even bringing the subject up at all. Though it's been awhile since she got to showcase her ferocity, Mandy is known to be smart, savvy, and very good at highlighting political weakness. Knowing that her job for Russell probably involved a lot of analysis about the Bartlet administration, not using that to their advantage was a strategic error. Sure, it's aggravating that her opinions are now public, but in a sense it serves the staff right for not asking for them earlier. Because then maybe they would have realized the key point that even Mandy was missing.

Yes, to the outside world, Leo was stopping Bartlet from legislating the way he wanted to. It's interesting how no matter who the president is, the media and public always look at the top advisers and chiefs of staff as key policy-makers, which they no doubt are, but often in place of the president himself. For all we know, the level of influence people like James Baker, Dick Morris, and Karl Rove had with their bosses may actually be higher in perception than reality; after all, the guy who got elected has a voice in the room, too. And, officially, the most important one. (One could even call him "the decider.") Having the perception exist that Leo moves Bartlet to the middle when Leo knows the reality is the reverse, is kind of clever. Having Leo boldly confront the president with this reality and a plea to change the status quo is exhilarating. (Though to be honest, it got a bit overly theatrical somewhere around the time each member of the staff was pledging his service to the president. The only time you'll see more cheese is at a Green Bay Packers home game.) The epiphany now having been reached, and re-election officially moving down the priority list in the name of "raising the level of public debate in this country," (great line by the way) I look forward to seeing where the staff - and the show - goes from here.

Finally, though I keep promising myself I'm not going to look at the Bartlet administration and attempt to draw real-life parallels, seeing a liberal president who "ran great guns" in a campaign only to find his administration stuck in neutral, facing internal and external criticism for not having done much in a year, and hearing about the "frustration of the people who voted for him," is hitting too close to home right now to ignore it. I wonder if Rahm Emanuel has seen this episode lately.

-- Binny


Binny --

I think a big "West Wing" fan would be hard-pressed to come up with a list of their top 10 favorite episodes without including this one on it. You nailed one of the things that made it so great: the way the series up until now had ever-so-subtly showed us the frustrations and growing pains of the young administration without going over the top with it until it all spills out in this episode. The only accomplishments we've seen them have so far have been the Mendoza confirmation and the passage of an admittedly toothless gun bill that the vice president got most of the credit for anyway. Indeed, most of the time has been spent on defense - avoiding a showdown between India and Pakistan, escaping one PR nightmare after another - rather than leading and governing on the offensive.

The episode as a whole was so great, in fact, that it almost makes you overlook what was a brilliant opening scene. Watching this episode for what was probably the 25th time, I still laughed out loud at this exchange: C.J.: "We should move the thing inside." Toby: "Sam says it’s probably not gonna rain till later," as thunderstorms and lightning are seen and heard in the background. And even though I already know how the president will start his speech (I'm pretty sure I knew what would happen the first time I saw it, as well), it still gets me.

The silver lining of Mandy writing that memo is that now at least the staff hates her as much as the viewing audience does. I'm glad we're finally all on the same page. I was almost cringing in that scene where Josh patronizes and then scolds Mandy as she tries to explain to him what he already knows - that a debate on English as the official language (why not Dutch?) would be a bad idea. I bet she wishes she could go back to panda bear duty.

In other news, Donna returned from her brief stint as an actual character to her original role as a plot device. "Hey Josh, talk to me like I'm a 7-year-old and explain to me using only small words what this super important thing all the grown-ups are talking about today is." It's a clever device in general, but I think they were a little too blatant about it here. That is probably my lone criticism of what is a fantastic episode of television.

Returning to the main point, I wondered about the truth of who drives whom to the middle between Leo and Bartlet and who is really aware of it. Clearly Leo has his opinion and the president either comes around to realizing Leo's right or knew it on some level all along. More interestingly, though, is the seeming knowing glances between Toby and Leo as they discuss the memo as if the fact that the reality is the opposite of the public perception is kind of an unstated understanding among the senior staff. I would even say that this notion is present in the disappointment that Josh and Sam exhibit during the episode: their real frustrations are with the president, but they can’t voice it because he’s the president. So I would argue that the entire senior staff is aware that really it is the president that holds back Leo, not vice versa. So why, then, does Mandy have it backwards? If she was such an integral part of the campaign and is considered such a major player in the party, why can’t she see what is so obvious to everyone else? Maybe that’s why she was put on panda bear duty.

Finally, I was glad that the writers chose a topic as obscure as campaign finance reform and a decision as ostensibly minor as appointing new FEC commissioners as the point for the Bartlet administration to get aggressive about because anything bigger (gays in the military, for example) would have overshadowed the importance of the symbolism of what they were doing. Taking a stand on a major issue is taking a stand for reason; doing so on a minor one is taking a stand for the sake of taking a stand. As someone who has cycled through the series several times now, I think this episode is a real turning point, both for the staff and for the show. The staff is injected with new life to finally go do the things they came to the White House in the first place to accomplish and the show will follow suit. While the first 18 episodes of the series are tremendous, I think this episode kicks off a run of brilliant episode after brilliant episode that goes well into next season and beyond. You have a lot to look forward to coming up. Along those lines, you touched on the most resonating line of the episode, but I think it is one that, very much intentionally so, speaks for the show as well as the staff: "We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy." It is, Aaron.

-- Av


Av --

Lest it seem that I, too, have not been enjoying the cold opens, let me register my opinion: very enjoyable. I think what makes them work especially well is that the show uses the sitcom approach of laying the groundwork for a joke that ends with a solid punchline into the credits (in this episode, Bartlet not looking over his remarks carefully and opening with "As I look over this magnificent vista"... while indoors), mixed in with the drama approach of introducing a key plot point before the credits. (Of the current sitcoms I'm familiar with, many, notably "The Office," feature hilarious cold opens completely unrelated to the episode's storyline.)

Well said about everyone being on the same page about hatred toward Mandy, but I think both groups' outrage is misdirected. Like I said above, Josh and the rest of the staff have no right to be angry with her about what she did while working for the opposition. They saw how ruthless she could be when working for them, and when working against them (remember Josh's lunch with her in "Pilot"?), so they can't pretend to be angry that she did her job for their opponent when she was working for their opponent. If the anger is about only finding out about the memo now, that's partially on her, but, as mentioned earlier, it's mostly on them. And our hatred of her is less about her and more about the writers' failure to make her interesting or relevant or someone we want to see on screen. (I mean, I guess that's the same thing as hating a character, I just feel like we should absolve Moira Kelly, who has been given nothing to work with.)

As for your suggestion that the staff deep down knows that Bartlet is the one that keeps nervously staying in the middle, I'm not as sure as you are, at least not unilaterally. When pressed as to why they won't push hard for their FEC nominees, Josh tells Mandy "that's not what we do." That's more of a blanket statement about the administration than it is Bartlet himself. Sam is reminded that the president himself would need to take action to actually get something done vis-à-vis "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but that could easily mean the office, not just the man. But I think you're right that Toby gets it. The scene you reference, where Toby and Leo discuss the memo, can be seen in an entirely different way. Consider the following exchange: Toby: "The sense is that his instinct is to be aggressive, and you take him to safe ground." Leo (somewhat dismayed): "Okay." Toby (concerned): "Leo..." Leo: Don’t worry about it." When I first saw this, I understood it to mean that Leo was hurt with the accurate criticism, and Toby was attempting to console him about it. Now, though, especially given the look Toby gives Leo when the criticism is first mentioned (excellent pickup on your part), it could mean that Leo is hurt that he has to live with this inaccurate perception. Toby's "Leo" could even be his wanting to confront the issue head-on and let Leo know that he realizes the reality is not this way, and they should challenge the president together. And then Leo shrugs him off, deciding to ultimately take on Bartlet himself. And why does Mandy have it backwards? You answered your own question (emphasis mine): "she was such an integral part of the campaign." She was with the Bartlet crew during the campaign, but not in office. To the outsider, which she was when she wrote that memo, it looked like Leo was the one pushing the president to the middle; it was only the true insiders who could see the truth.

-- Binny

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Season 1, Episode 18: "Six Meetings Before Lunch"

Plot Summary
: When Zoey attends a college fraternity party in which one of her friends is busted for using illegal drugs, C.J. struggles to keep the embarrassing story out of the press while the White House staff celebrates the confirmation of their nominee, Judge Mendoza, for the Supreme Court. An uncomfortable Josh is assigned to talk with the administration's controversial nominee for Assistant Attorney General for civil rights who advocates that African-Americans receive financial reparations for slavery. Elsewhere, Sam crosses swords with Mallory over the issue of private school vouchers while Mandy lobbies to secure two new pandas for the National Zoo.

Click here to watch "Six Meetings Before Lunch"

Av --

Though I can't speak from years of business experience, I suppose it wouldn't be too bold a statement to say that business meetings take on many forms. The first seventeen episodes of "The West Wing" have featured all kinds of meetings, so I found it interesting that the writers felt it was important to spend the entirety of an episode focusing on this one aspect of the political arena. Why do I consider it focused on one aspect? Well, for one thing, it was a pretty self-contained episode, and, well, the episode title speaks for itself. (Although try as I did to match the number of meetings I witnessed to the number referenced in the episode, it seems the title was more a literary reference than a literal count.) In any case, though I struggled with the purpose of highlighting all these discussions/confrontations/meetings, keeping the focus on one area allowed this episode to act as sort of a microcosm, highlighting the kinds of meetings we've seen thus far, and should anticipate seeing in the future.

There's the information-gathering meeting, where one person meets another to solicit information. Clearly in Washington, especially at this level, knowledge carries with it a certain power. It can be exchanged for favors, used to strengthen (or damage) relationships, and used as currency. The beauty of the piece of information at play in this episode is its essential triviality. Zoey Bartlet attended a frat party at which a possible friend of hers was arrested for drug-related charges. What exactly was she doing there? That becomes the key piece of information C.J. seeks out from whomever she can - Charlie, Danny, Agent Toscano, Zoey herself - through a series of meetings in which she is on the less powerful end. (Hold that thought.) Though the plotline involved something relatively unimportant, a "non-story," C.J.'s process throughout is representative of what the chase for information often becomes for anyone on the staff, often C.J. herself.

There's the political strategy meeting, where two people sit down and really try to figure out the right move for the administration. Here, Toby and Mandy debate the advan-- oh, who am I kidding, that was just comic relief created to bring Toby back to being Toby, and have him stop being the guy who freaks out co-workers by genially greeting them in the hallways. The only strategy at play here was the writers strategically making Mandy even less likable than previously thought possible. This is her job, really? To bother Josh and Toby about getting a panda bear from China?

Then there's the meeting where one person needs to put the other in his or her place, knowing what's best and needing to enforce it at all costs. In what was a very strong episode for Allison Janney, C.J.'s confrontation with President Bartlet towards the end of the episode was her finest work I've seen to this point. The complex relationship between president and press secretary was alluded to in the previous episode, when C.J. is tasked with picking up Bartlet's under-the-radar signals in order to carry out his wishes. Now in this case, she, the one who has not spent most of her life as a politician, is the one who needs to tell him what the right move is. Sam's advice to "get in his face" was sound, but is much easier said than done. We have yet to see any staff member truly take the "get in his face" approach with Bartlet other than Leo, who has earned that right by being a decades-old friend and, oh yeah, chief of staff. This is the same C.J. whose previous moment in the spotlight in this episode was lip-synching "The Jackal." Though only included because Sorkin had seen Janney singing that song on set and felt he had to write it in somehow, it actually gave her showdown scene more weight - C.J. Cregg: capable of acting the fool a little to entertain the office, but also not afraid to get in the face of her boss, the president of the United States. (Also - that "Jackal" scene gave us this, presented without comment.)

Finally, there are meetings involving policy debate. We've seen many before, and will see many again. (I'd think. Assuming this show stays about the White House communications staff and doesn't quickly spin off into a National Geographic series on panda bears.) The beauty of the two featured here - Josh and an Assistant Attorney General nominee debating slavery reparations, and Sam and Mallory debating school vouchers - was that while both appeared to be true debates, with each side firmly believing its argument, both were revealed to be "simply" intellectual arguments. We got to see Sam teach a lesson and Josh learn one. In Sam's case, the man who "is dumb, most of the time [he's] just playing smart" played his part perfectly, arguing the opposition's position without ever admitting to his personal belief. (Watch the scene again where Mallory grills Sam before "The Jackal" scene; she asks him if this is his position; he avoids the question entirely.) Sam was tasked with preparing the opponent's position (Mallory should have followed her instinct when she realized Sam was referring to the liberals as "the other guys"), and he scored points with a girl he likes by respecting her as an intelligent person worthy of debating the issue with, and then finally revealing himself to be on her side. Josh, meanwhile, could use the lesson he got in academic debate. His job has always been to win the fight. It's in his blood. It's the only way he knows how to debate. His life has been so dedicated to the fight that he identifies the day of his father's death as "the night of the Illinois primary"; that comes to his mind instead of a date. Jeff Breckenridge, the nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, has his own motivations for spending most of the debate with Josh arguing on a practical level; maybe by insisting on reparations as a non-theoretical discussion it's the only way he gets to discuss it with the White House at all. But once he's in he realizes he has an opportunity to educate Josh, to engage in real discourse, with the ramifications being more than reparations. His lasting message rings true about almost any discipline: "We're meant to keep discussing and debating and we're meant to read books by great historical scholars and then talk about them." I think he meant TV shows, too.

-- Binny


Binny --

I don't know about you, but the business meetings I have attended have all followed a similar structure: four or five other people in the room, all more important than me, and I try not to make eye contact with any of them and pray that none of them actually know my name.

The opening scene was perfectly done and supports my suspicion that many people who get into politics are professional athlete wannabes who couldn't hack it on the playing field. There are a lot of similarities in terms of the competitiveness and the focus on winning and losing. I can only imagine that the feeling of winning a political campaign is not all that different from that of winning a championship. Those who were not physically gifted enough to do the latter attempt the former. We see Toby reiterate his superstitious instructions not to "tempt fate," as if he is a pitcher 7 innings into a perfect game. And you can't really beat seeing White House senior staffers booing and shouting "loser" at a United States Senator who votes against their candidate. Toby and Josh may have ended up working in the White House, but they both really wish they were playing in the majors.

I really enjoyed the Zoey/C.J. storyline because unlike other instances where this show has given us a different perspective by offering us a behind the scenes look at a particular event, here the entire story occurs behind the scenes. As C.J. reminds the president, the two of them, Charlie, and Zoey are the only people in the world that know Zoey lied, rendering it a non-story. But it was oh-so-close to being much more, wasn't it? What if Gina hadn't neutralized Edgar Drumm so quickly and he was able to grill Zoey for longer? What if Zoey had confided in one of her friends what really happened? What if C.J. had tipped her hand to Danny that something was amiss? What if C.J. was unable to keep the president out of the briefing room? Any of these things go awry and the press has their hands on a potential bombshell. And it's entirely possible, and even likely, that Zoey had the purest of intentions and did nothing wrong here (as Gina argues), but when you have drugs and the president's daughter, it doesn't take much else to turn a non-story into the scandal of the year. This was a story that to the citizens of "The West Wing" universe didn't even exist, but to the behind-the-scenes television viewers was an exciting account of a press secretary on top of her game.

And this was a very big episode for C.J. with regard to her relationship with the president, which is a relationship I have tried to focus on more in this current trip through the series than I have in previous ones. She is able to convince the president to follow her advice by demonstrating to him that she "gets it" both on a personal level ("sometimes 19-year-old girls lie when they don't have to") and on a political one. While Sam was the one that gave her the speech about how she had to "get in the president's face," I'm not sure he (or Josh or Toby for that matter) would have been able to do so with the right balance of personal and professional to keep him at bay.

But of course the three men were busy anyways: Toby, as an unwilling participant in Josh's attempt to mess with Mandy (or was it Mandy that was an unwilling participant in Josh's attempt to mess with Toby?); Sam, having a fake argument with Mallory; and Josh, trying to "explain to a black civil rights lawyer why I don't owe him any money." Let's address those briefly in order.

The most confusing part of the Toby/Mandy meeting is how seriously Mandy seems to be taking this issue. Given her credentials and job title, I would think she would scoff at the notion of being tasked with the job of finding a new panda bear. Isn't that a job better suited to someone who works at a zoo than to someone with a doctorate in political science? Not only does she take this matter seriously, but she seems offended at the notion that Toby doesn't.

This episode was Sam being Sam: innocent, naive, idealistic. He risks his relationship with a girl that appears to be interested in him in order to engage in a serious discussion about school vouchers. At any point, he could have told her the truth - that he agrees with her and wrote the memo for opposition prep - and everything would have been fine. But Sam Seaborn can't miss out on an opportunity for a good, old-fashioned public policy debate, and he bites. And sure, it works out for him in the end, but there is no way you can convince me that that was his plan. He's not smooth enough for that.

As for Josh, his meeting was the most intense but also the most poignant of the episode. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, reparations is a topic I have considered, discussed, and debated both internally and with others over the years. It seems that Josh has as well. ("You know, Jeff... I'd love to give you the money, I really would. But I'm a little short of cash right now. It seems the S.S. officer forgot to give my grandfather his wallet back when he let him out of Birkenau.") It's an issue that doesn't have a right answer, I think, which Breckenridge ultimately admits. I'm not sure I totally buy the classic argument that since "no amount of money can make up for it," even putting a dollar value on it cheapens it and acts as a forgiveness of unforgivable crimes. Monetary payment is how a person or a country "compensates" for wrongs they can't undo; that's why we have wrongful death suits. That being said, I don't think the Germans owes me any money, which would be the comparable analogy for what Breckenridge is advocating. I didn't suffer anything at the hands of the Germans, and certainly not from their current government. It's a tricky issue, one that needs to be discussed and debated in the larger context of persecution and bigotry, which is what Breckenridge's point was all along. He got Josh's attention and mine as well.

Two other minor items that I enjoyed immensely:

  • The book the president was reading when Charlie interrupts him towards the end is "110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." In his most recent book, which I read an excerpt of this past September, A.J. Jacobs (as only A.J. Jacobs can do) attempts to live and abide by Washington's rules of social etiquette. Hilarity ensues.
  • When trying to define the boundaries of his rules for the press, the president declares that he doesn't "give a damn if it was the Bergen County Shopper's Guide." Despite having grown up in Bergen County, I never subscribed to or even heard of the Shopper's Guide, but I enjoyed the shout-out nonetheless.
-- Av

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Season 1, Episode 17: "The White House Pro-Am"

Plot summary
: The President's and first lady's staffs feud over rival agendas when her public statements about foreign child-labor abuse inspires a Congresswoman to attach an amendment that will surely torpedo a long-delayed international tariff bill favored by the president. What's more, when the revered chairman of the Federal Reserve dies, the president is under pressure to name the former head's top lieutenant as his successor - the same handsome man who seriously dated the first lady in college. Away from the White House, Zoey clashes with her boyfriend Charlie when she suggests that they not step out together at an upcoming club opening at the request of the Secret Service which is concerned about recent hate letters concerning their interracial relationship. Josh asks opinionated Toby to mind his manners prior to parleying with two important Congressmen.

Click here (Part 1) and here (Part 2) to watch "The White House Pro-Am"

Av --

What, no golf? Though I'll admit I had never heard of the White House hosting a golf tournament, the sports fan in me was excited by the title of this episode, hoping to see some of the actors get a chance to show off their golf swings. (Martin Sheen and Richard Schiff, incidentally, have 16 and 25 handicaps, respectively, but Rob Lowe tops them at 14.5.) Instead, we got a pretty strong episode centered around one theme: relationships. The many personal and professional relationships that exist within the White House are crucial elements to the functionality of the people within, and, by extension, the White House itself. No matter what person, or what party, is in power, relationships will always be one of the most important facets of a presidency. One imagines the focus on this unchanging aspect of political life was the impetus to spend copious amounts of time reciting tidbits from a book about life in the early 1900's and, as a contrast, highlight the many changes the country has undergone. (Note: One doesn't imagine this. In fact, one has no idea why this book was discussed to the extent it was. I guess it's one of those things we have to write off as "one of those things," akin to Sam's Alabama/Ten Commandments obsession a few episodes back.) Anyway, as many different relationships were featured here, I decided to go bullet points and delve into five relationships featured in one way or another. I'm including both individual relationships as well as those that are meant to represent more than just the individuals involved. (You'll see what I mean.) I'll take it in order from least intriguing/important in this episode to most.

  • Josh and Toby - Though their meeting with representatives of the Congressional liberal base was probably the least relevant thing that takes place in the episode, it highlights the difference between Toby, whose goal is winning at all costs, and Josh, who shares the goal, but often needs to get there diplomatically. Even though Josh is frustrated with Toby's behavior, he doesn't give him too hard a time about it because he knows Toby's attitude won't change. And it's a good thing for us; few things are more enjoyable on this show than watching Toby having to deal with people and things he doesn't want to.
  • Charlie and Zoey - Here's a typical relationship between college-age boy and college-age girl. You know, other than his working directly for the most powerful man in the world and her being guarded by secret service agents at all times. While we have previously been cautioned of the potential dangers of their going out, seeing some of the practical ramifications was obviously difficult to stomach. It's worth noting that in this one respect, their relationship is not actually changed all that much by their extra levels of security. After all, we saw Zoey and Charlie run into trouble in "Mr. Willis of Ohio" when nobody knew who she was. The challenges they face were (and, in some parts of the country, probably still are) faced by many a young interracial couple, the only difference being Charlie's inability to stand up in the face of hate, the choice being taken out of his hands by his superiors. While his conviction is admirable, I hope he'll take Danny's sage advice to heart: be the one guy in her life who's hassle-free.
  • The senior staff and Congress - One issue that has been dealt with more in previous episodes, and I anticipate being dealt with a lot more in future ones, is the symbiotic relationship between Bartlet's staff and Congress. (The inventor of the term symbiosis, Heinrich Anton de Bary, called it "the living together of unlike organisms." He may have been talking about biology, but the definition couldn't be more appropriate here.) The two need each other: Bartlet needs congressmen to vote with him, support him, and work with him, and congressmen need Bartlet to stand behind them, back their positions, and use his influence to help them get re-elected or elected to new positions. The more traditional manifestation of this relationship is the Josh/Toby meeting to court more votes for the GFTMAA (not nearly important enough to reference beyond the acronym), but the more intriguing one is when Abbey, reluctantly acting on behalf of the president's staff, negotiates with a Congresswoman willing to compromise the bill's passing for her own political agenda. I think these kind of things probably happen often enough that the Congresswoman backing down is realistic (and we saw some similar bargaining in "Five Votes Down"), but it will be fascinating to see the genuine showdown that will ensue when a Congressman won't back down.
  • The president's staff and the first lady's staff - This one can actually be summed up in one back-and-forth between Lily Mays, Abbey's chief of staff, and Sam: "We've gotta find a way for our two staffs to work together better than this." "No we don't. We need to find a way for your staff to work better with our staff." Sam's correct (and kind of ballsy) in calling out Abbey for her numerous missteps this episode, and he's right to assert control over the first lady's public appearances, stances, and media quotes. An intelligent, charismatic first lady can be a terrific asset to a presidency, but she and her staff need to remember that "your guy's married to our guy and our guy won an election."
  • Jed and Abbey - The first two times we met Abbey were briefly at a state dinner, then as doctor/loving wife during Jed's MS flareup. Now we finally get to see her as Abbey Bartlet, first lady, and it was a very satisfying look indeed. I'll address the elephant in the room and say that I really don't think they were looking at Hillary here; she hasn't been cast as another politician spearheading a massive policy initiative; Abbey's background is not in law, and she seems to be taking the pre-Clinton approach of taking on a family-friendly issue (Nancy Reagan: war on drugs, Barbara Bush: literacy) as her cause. Watching her with Jed, you can see what he sees in her: intelligence, passion, and someone not afraid to call him out when he's wrong. The thing about this specific argument is Jed is in the right - Abbey leaking her support for Ron Ehrlich to be the new Fed chairman created a problem for him - but instead of explaining to her why it's a problem and why he's waiting a day to make the decision, he "staffed it out to C.J," because he didn't like that she was sending messages through a medium. And though Abbey was right to be angered by that, she has to know that putting out that statement of support will create a story, not to mention touching on her husband's sensitivities as a man, even if they are decades old. (I think Jed's waiting was less about not wanting to confirm a former boyfriend of Abbey's, and more about trying to stall making a big decision, even when you already know what you're going to do. We've all been there.) The battle that ensues (quite well-acted, by the way) follows the natural course - the built-up tension that leads to anger and raised voices gives way to concessions and apologies, and the Bartlets walk out of the Oval Office arm in arm. In a golf pro-am, the winning pair is usually the one that gets the best teamwork from the "pro" and the "am," each one respecting the other's talents and understanding each's own role. Maybe this episode was about golf, after all.
-- Binny


Binny --

Sorry Binny, no golf. Although maybe it would have been fun to see the staffers paired up with pro golfers. I'd say Donna and Tiger would go well together.

You are clearly correct that this episode was about the series of different relationships we are presented with and the way they are all interwoven. This isn't necessarily how we would normally picture the president but in a way he is one giant relationship manager: he has a hand either directly or indirectly in all of these and needs to either deal with them himself or manage the people who are handling them. I'll chime in on some of the examples you raised:

  • Josh and Toby - This was actually my favorite storyline of the episode. You hit it right on the head when you said that there are few things more enjoyable than seeing Toby being forced into a situation he wants no part of. Indeed, when Josh tries to encourage him, telling him that "this is why you have a reputation as a pain in the ass" he doesn't let it bother him. "I cultivated that reputation," he proudly replies. It is incredible how much pleasure one can get as a viewer from watching Toby Ziegler squirm. And let's definitely add "How about you be the good cop, I'll be the cop who didn't go to the meeting" to our list of Tobyisms. What list of Tobyisms, you might ask? The one I just started.
  • Charlie and Zoey - I wonder if things would have played out differently if the news that Charlie couldn't go to the club opening had come from the president rather than from Zoey. I think she was right to be the one to tell him from a big-picture relationship approach but I don't think there is any way he reacts the way he does if he hears it directly from the president or the Secret Service. That could have saved them all some unnecessary frustration. I don't blame Charlie for being upset initially, but I was surprised that hours later he hadn't yet figured out on his own that this wasn't Zoey's fault (or even the Secret Service's, really) and that he was making too big of a deal out of it. The point Danny makes about him being the thing in her life that is hassle-free seems to be the point that ultimately convinces him, but I think it was his earlier point that really resonated with Charlie: "One of these days they're gonna miss her and hit me." Charlie realizes that this isn't just about him being a tough guy and risking himself getting hurt to make a point. He would be putting others in harms way, as well.
  • The president's staff and the first lady's staff - I loved how condescending Sam is to Lily throughout this episode. You could almost see him roll his eyes when she told him that they wanted the news cycle. And Sam is right: the first lady and her staff are an extension of the president's staff, not an entity in their own right. They shouldn't have an independent agenda and they should never go rogue. I loved the reasoning Sam used to explain to the first lady why she should run things by his office before she does them: "And I don't not believe that exercise is gonna make me any healthier. But I didn't go to medical school, you did. You say so and I go to the gym." (As an aside, apparently this minor plot line was throw into the episode as Sorkin poking fun at Rob Lowe for his obsession with going to the gym every day.)
  • Jed and Abbey - This was a situation where rather than trying to determine who was right, you try to determine who was less wrong. Abbey shouldn't have given a quote without running it through proper channels and the president should have just spoken to her directly about it (as she points out, they share a bed). They both behaved pretty childishly and foolishly in this episode, but it was refreshing to see that a couple's dynamic doesn't change just because they live in the White House now.
-- Av


Av --

One more I want to toss in here, though I feel like this one will likely be covered more extensively in the future:

  • The president and the media - I was going to say something about the president's relationship with the media, how the flow of information can work both ways, how one can help inform the other and the personal relationship between a president and an individual reporter can be crucial for both... I was going to say something, but I was distracted by President Bartlet's abject unprofessionalism in trying to coax a source out of Danny (a source, it's worth adding, that wasn't even Danny's to begin with). I'm with Leo here - I was strongly urging the president not to have this conversation. It probably didn't hurt his relationship with Danny to ask, but he came off looking like an amateur, with Danny being the pro. (Incidentally, I do not know Timothy Busfeld's handicap, though it no longer is annoying me. Though I still have strong feelings about the conflict of interest when it comes to his relationship with C.J., I concede Danny's kind of growing on me.)
-- Binny