Monday, December 29, 2008

Season 1, Episode 8: "Enemies"


Plot summary
: A crucial banking bill is at risk when political rivals of environmentally sensitive President Bartlet attach a land-use rider to it that would allow strip-mining some of the Montana wilderness while C.J. tries to stamp out rumors -- however true -- that the Chief Executive chastised the Vice President during a cabinet meeting. An overworked Leo isn't too keen on his independent daughter Mallory dating the handsome Sam. C.J. continues to fend-off the romantic charms of a perceptive reporter with a knack for sniffing out juicy stories. Former lovers Mandy and Josh clash over the administration's attempt to jettison the land-use rider that might ruin passage of the more important banking bill.

Click here to watch "Enemies"

Av --

I don't know if it's the absence of Sorkin as a credited writer (first time that's happened so far), but this episode seemed to lack a certain unifying theme or penetrating insight that the others seem to have. That said, there are still bits and pieces worth talking about. Back in "Five Votes Down," we discussed the ramifications of winning the actual battle but losing the PR one. This episode deals with that as well, the difference being that this time the staff is divided over when to concede, and at what cost. While Sam, Mandy, and ultimately Toby are willing to deal with the fact that House Republicans attached a rider to a bill just to rankle the administration, Josh is unable to let it go, and vows to find a way to "win." Then we're left with a conclusion that has Josh re-considering his motivations and admitting to the president that he feels their motivations in these battles has skewed towards vanquishing political enemies. The question I'm asking myself: is that such a bad thing? Granted, if Josh's entire agenda is solely competition-based (as Mandy would have us believe), he'd be hindering his boss's ability to legislate effectively. But within this "ulterior motive" couldn't there just be a desire to not have the White House look weakened (the importance of which is driven home in "Five Votes Down")? In fact, Josh always seems to have that exact principle on his mind: "I do give a damn about hanging a sign outside the White House that says, 'hey, Republicans in Congress, feel free to slap us around anytime you want just to show that you can.'" Josh may be incapable of accepting this kind of loss, but if it's for the right reasons, he shouldn't feel like he has to re-evaluate these feelings.

On a different note, it was interesting to watch some personal developments with Leo and Bartlet. Leo is not above using Sam as a pawn in his battle with Mallory. (Well played, by the way. His daughter trying to go out with one of his staffers was the perfect situation to teach her a lesson about the realities of his job, Machiavellian as said lesson was.) And as for Bartlet... shouldn't he have learned a thing or two about diplomacy by now? Whatever problems he has with Hoynes, how could he think it's a good idea to embarrass him for sport during a Cabinet meeting? Moreover, while we finally learn the background for their animus (brutal primary, followed by Hoynes embarrassing Bartlet by not immediately accepting the VP nomination), shouldn't they have figured out a way to work together? Obviously throughout history presidential nominees have chosen vice presidential nominees not based on credentials or merit but rather political need (nope, nothing recent comes to mind), but if that ticket happens to win in November, shouldn't the first order of business be to work out the differences between the two people at the top? I wish I knew more about president/vice president relationships to know how often - and to what degree - a situation like this comes up (I've read Bartlet/Hoynes has some roots in Kennedy/Johnson), but alas, until I catch up on my reading, I'll just have to watch and learn.

-- Binny

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Binny --

I agree that this episode, much like Sam's birthday message, lacked a bit of panache. This could be because of the obscurity of the central issues that the episode deals with: a banking bill, which I don't think we ever have explained to us in any real detail, and the attachment of a land use rider, a move that I still don't fully understand. (If I am a congressman and want to block a bill from passing, can I attach an amendment to it that makes wearing red illegal?) It could also be because this episode does little more than recycle old storylines and themes a little too quickly: the president's petty quarrels with the VP, and Josh refusing to just take the win, instead needing a knockout punch. Didn't we just do this four episodes ago? Most likely, as you point out, it's because it wasn't written by Aaron Sorkin. Let's hope this trend does not continue as we go forward.

Still, there were some fun parts, including Leo using Sam (without his knowledge) to teach Mallory a lesson. Most striking was Leo's comment to Mallory that he "widowed" her mother the day he took the job. It seems like he has finally come to terms with what happened to his marriage and why, and seems remarkably comfortable with his decision. Watching the president's two chief speechwriters - and architects of his public message - struggle over a simple birthday card was lots of fun as well. It furthers the human element that these characters all share: sometimes the talent is just not there on a given day. Most of all, I enjoyed watching the more informal, somewhat playful interactions between the president and others in this episode, be it Josh, Charlie, or Mallory. I'm not sure I could get used to a relationship that allowed me to make jokes to someone about dumping his dead body but still required me to address him as "sir."

I once posted on a message board in response to this episode, observing that it was interesting that Hoynes takes credit for delivering the South for Bartlet when we know from "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc" that they did not carry Hoynes' home state of Texas (although not because of the "hat joke," according to Bartlet.) Obviously, stuff like this happens, but it's still somewhat unusual, I think.

--Av

P.S. I particularly enjoyed watching and recapping this episode in the manner in which we are doing it in light of the Vice President's declaration in this episode that "the Internet is not a fad." We at Blogging "The West Wing" wholeheartedly agree.

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Av --

It's not a birthday card; it's a birthday message.

-- Binny

Season 1, Episode 7: "The State Dinner"


Plot summary
: As that night's stylish state dinner honoring the Indonesian president looms in the background, President Bartlet keeps his eye on a spate of potentially explosive problems: an FBI hostage standoff with dozens of militant survivalists, a Class-4 hurricane bearing down on a carrier group at sea, and an impending national trucker's strike. Behind the scenes, the gracious First Lady prepares to host the dinner, a pushy reporter flirts with C.J., Josh and Toby corner an Indonesian government official to ask a favor, and a surprised Sam spies his call girl friend Laurie at the event.

Watch "The State Dinner": http://www.megavideo.com/?v=NXG48E00

Av --

I think one of the running concepts that this show presents is the notion of the West Wing as a workplace; these people that we're watching have important jobs, sure, but we're reminded time and again that they are still people working at their offices, and issues that can arise in any other workplace setting can arise there, too. While ordinarily the issue dealt with could be one easily identifiable with the average worker (guy gets yelled at by his boss), given the import of their workplace, the opportunity exists to present common problems with uncommon ramifications. That is what I think was accomplished here, as the Significant Seven - Bartlet, Leo, Josh, Toby, Sam, C.J., and Mandy (Dulé Hill may be in the opening credits but I can't really equate him with the others) - all had to deal with, on varying levels, the challenge of compartmentalization. Any person is naturally going to let professional ups and downs affect him or her on a personal level; an ordinarily challenge for the average man could be not letting a professional setback allow him to damage an unrelated personal relationship. But the challenge is that much greater when your profession involves making decisions that impact whether people live or die. (Come to think of it, this could explain the continued success of TV medical dramas)

As I mentioned, everybody had to deal with the issue of compartmentalizing the personal and professional, but their degrees of success in meeting the challenge varied greatly. The best microcosm (although least significant, from a global standpoint) of success vs. failure in that regard is the Sam/Laurie encounter (clip starts at 1:34) at the dinner. Sam and Laurie's relationship seems to be one where they're on the same page; Sam, though he doesn't like it, seems to be able to have at least a minimal level of acceptance of Laurie's "night job." But seeing her as "Brittany" in action proves to be too much. Laurie, though she genuinely likes Sam, is able to compartmentalize. She recognizes the situation, frowns for about half a second, then puts that smile back on and introduces herself to him. Sam, bless his wounded heart, can't do it. He can't put the smile back on, can't pretend to introduce himself, almost alienates a big donor, and ultimately proves to Laurie (and himself) that her night job is something he'll never really come to terms with.

Meanwhile, we see Leo and Josh able to compartmentalize when it comes to trying to put aside serious and tragic events that are happening if there's nothing they can do about it. Leo advises C.J., then Bartlet, to go back to the party despite the fact that both feel uncomfortable doing so with thousands of Navy sailors in danger of being killed by a hurricane. Josh is able to tell Mandy that the FBI standoff in Idaho ended with an FBI negotiator in critical condition, then turn around and applaud as the president enters the room. Mandy, meanwhile, needs to throw up. Granted, that had a lot to do with the fact that it was Mandy's own plan that was put into effect, but I was left with the feeling that had it been Josh's plan gone awry, he'd still be able to handle it the way he did. And C.J. might be well on her way to having to deal with the ultimate personal/professional compartmentalization issue: Danny the reporter's flirting is getting more direct, and she's getting more receptive. Though she seems like the consummate professional (and if there's any press secretary who could pull off dating a reporter it's C.J. Cregg), I really think this would be a terrible idea. There's compartmentalizing, and there's flat-out conflict of interest.

Finally, the most poignant separation of personal from professional is the Toby storyline. From a narrative standpoint I love how this was done, as we see Toby's insistence on writing a toast that tackles Indonesia's violations of human rights, and only at the end do we discover that his motivation stems not just from, well, being Toby, but because of a personal cause - his friend is unjustly sitting in an Indonesian jail. The reason I think it's a great storyline is because we're indirectly asked to consider whether Toby would've changed the content and tone of the toast he wrote had he known that his request on his friend's behalf would've been met the way it was. (In short: "Go to Hell.") I, for one, don't think he would have. Though he undoubtedly cares for his friend, Toby is not one to let a personal stake interfere with his job serving what he perceives to be the best interests of the country.

-- Binny

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Binny --

I liked your brief comparison between working in the White House and working in a hospital because I have learned, from watching many episodes of Scrubs and from talking to some real-life medical professionals, that the only way to be successful is to achieve the type of compartmentalizing you spoke of. In short, if you break down every time a patient dies and take it personally, you're never gonna make it. In the White House, the stakes can also be life and death, at times, but even when they're not, the quality of thousands of people's lives are in play with almost everything you do: ensuring people have health care, that their children have proper education, or in this current administration's case, making certain their rich friends have sufficient tax cuts. It is a job that brings with it a lot of passion, and as we see in this episode, requires a personality that enables you to separate your personal emotions at time in order to be successful professionally.

Toby's storyline is particularly interesting to me. First of all, from a comedic standpoint, it was very well-executed, featuring a hilarious scene where two translators are required as middlemen to facilitate a conversation between Toby and an Indonesian official, only to learn than the official is actually fluent in English. But from a more serious standpoint, Toby's relentless commitment throughout this episode (and the past few episodes, as well) to never miss an opportunity to accomplish something is enlightening. Whereas others might view the upcoming fundraiser in California (mentioned in "The Crackpots and These Women") and a state dinner as nothing more than a fundraiser and a dinner, Toby sees them as opportunities to make a statement and effect change, even if a minor one. This passion might be a little misguided at times, because, let's face it, sometimes a dinner is just a dinner, but it is inspiring nonetheless. I was also moved by his conversation with the Indonesian official, particularly when Toby is asked if it's hypocritical for a nation that wiped out a civilization of Native Americans to lecture the world on human rights. Toby concedes that it is, but I think we can tell that Toby has considered this point and believes that it is specifically because of our past that we are in a position to do so.

Finally, I'd like to discuss Bartlet's role in this episode, aided by the emergence of the First Lady as a character for the first time. Bartlet is faced with a trifecta of crises: an FBI standoff, an approaching storm, and a last minute negotiations impasse between the Teamsters and the trucking industry. Ultimately, he chooses the last of these problems to focus on, and does so in an aggressive way that is sure to anger both sides, but will also get the job done. He resorts to this method because as Mrs. Bartlet puts it, "he can't save a gunshot victim and he can't stop a hurricane." Firstly, I think it is great to have a character on board that can give us unparalleled insight into the president's motivations and behavior. Secondly, she raises the notion that as human beings, when faced with a series of problems, we will often focus on the simplest of the problems and ignore the more pressing ones, because that's the one we can fix. This is an idea that I think has a lot of truth to it (I know Stephen Stills would embrace its sentiment) and is one that will continue as an ongoing theme throughout the series.

-- Av

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Av --

See, I thought you'd be pleased with Mrs. Bartlet because she seemed to support your theory about the "three fifths of all other persons" being in the original Constitution. You surmised that maybe that phrase is there as "a chilling reminder of the 'original sin' legally inscribed into the founding document of our government." When asked about the potentially controversial vermeil in the White House collection, Abbey remarks, "It's our history. Better or worse, it's our history. We're not going to lock it in the basement or brush it with a new coat of paint. It's our history." Make of that what you will.

I agree it's great to have a character like the First Lady as a regular part of the show, but for a different reason. I don't think she can give "unparalleled insight into the president's motivations and behavior"; after all, Leo knows him just as long, and just as well. What I think she can do, though, is serve as the personal conscience - be there to remind him what's at stake personally, whereas his staff is there to keep him focused politically. I'm also intrigued to see the level of involvement Abby will have in the administration; given who the real First Lady was at the time it, was probably a delicate issue.

-- Binny

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Season 1, Episode 6: "Mr. Willis of Ohio"


Plot summary
: Toby and Mandy work to convince some congressmen - including the nervous Mr. Willis, who assumed his late wife's office - to approve a commerce bill that includes a vital census-counting provision, while the president's daughter gets into an ugly fracas in a Georgetown bar along with Josh and Sam. Elsewhere, C.J. swallows her pride and asks Sam for help to understand the basic components of the administration's stance on random census-taking in 2000, and a peeved President Bartlet scolds Leo when he learns that Leo's wife has left him.

Watch "Mr. Willis of Ohio": http://www.megavideo.com/?v=2SWZTG1N

Av --

Eight weeks before he died, Jim Valvano advised the audience at the ESPY awards, and a much larger audience watching on television: "To me, there are three things we all should do every day. Number one is laugh... Number two is think... And Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy." Though I'm beginning to suspect this won't be the last time it happens while watching this show, this episode helped me accomplish the first two, and while saying it "almost" helped me accomplish the third would be an exaggeration, it was certainly putting me on the right track. Let me start with the laughing. I unabashedly loved the Josh/Donna ongoing dialogue about the merits of the government spending a budget surplus. It was much more than the witty banter they exchange; it was the way the witty banter was used to break down a complex political issue into simple partisan positions (including, notably, poking fun at the liberal side), with practical ramifications at the forefront of the discussion. And in a related story, the execution of the census storyline was perfection. The challenge of spending the amount of time they did discussing the census is that the head count/sampling debate isn't just complex, it's flat-out boring. To make it as accessible and intriguing as they did is no small feat, and it was executed in a way that managed to be highly entertaining without pandering to the viewers. A line like C.J.'s, "Pretend for the purposes of this conversation that I'm dumb," is usually code for, "you viewers don't get what's going on so pay attention because we're going to explain it to you slowly." In this case, though, it served as fodder for more back-and-forth between Sam and C.J. (OK, and as a way to tell viewers to pay attention.). In short, I can't say it any better than Richard Schiff: "That Aaron can make things like the census as fascinating as he does on the show is a benefit for anyone who watches."

Number two is think. I thought a lot about Bartlet after this episode. We've discussed person vs. president ad nauseum thusfar (and I'm sure we will again), but here the focus was strictly on Jed Bartlet the person. The friend, the father, the "camp counselor." I'm starting to realize that the minutiae, often presented as comic relief, actually give us a great deal of insight into the characters. Lately, that's been especially true of Bartlet. We saw it last episode during the basketball game, and we saw plenty of it in this one. For one thing, he's insufferably stubborn, which we can clearly tell by the way he refuses to play his turn in poker until his trivia questions are answered. For another thing, he firmly believes that he knows more than anyone he's talking to, evidenced by the fact that he actually pesters his staff with trivia questions during said poker games. But in two more serious situations, these traits come to the surface and put him at odds with someone close to him. In the first such scenario, his reaction to Leo's impending divorce, he reacts the way we (and Leo) expect him to: bothered by the situation, guilted by his indirect role in causing it, angered with Leo for his letting it get to this point, and convinced it can be fixed. Fortunately, he comes around, reverses course, and makes himself available as a friend to Leo. The other situation which brings out the quintessential Bartlet is his handling the issue of protecting Zoey following a bad one-two punch: an armed, mentally unstable woman tries to break through security to get to Zoey; and a fight nearly breaks out in a bar that began with unruly college guys hitting on her. (While I'm on the subject: any chance Chelsea Clinton goes unrecognized in a Georgetown bar in 1993? Didn't think so. Were we supposed to buy that? And also, what's with all the people recognizing Josh? Do young people (remember the girls in the diner in "Pilot") recognize Blake Gottesman? How about Joel Kaplan?) Anyway, after Zoey pleads with him to let her live a relatively normal life, he comes down on her with, as he might say, the fury of God's own thunder, detailing quite graphically (and eloquently) the ramifications of the slightest security lapse. It is here, however, that he's right; though the anger may have been a bit uncalled for, the sentiment behind it is completely justified: "proper protection and security... is never too high a price to pay." Their dialogue, however, does highlight a sad reality of the situation, and one worth bearing in mind as grade school-age children prepare to move into the real White House: presidential children are deprived of the ability to live normal lives, but, unlike their parents, they had no say in the decision that put them there.

And number three is cry. Though, as I mentioned earlier, I wasn't quite overcome with emotion, I was genuinely moved by the title storyline, that of Joe Willis, the social studies teacher-turned-Congressman filling his wife's seat for a short while. I've always looked at Congress with a mix of indifference, skepticism, annoyance, and more indifference. Congress, to many Americans like me, represents an irksome, at times corrupt bureaucracy. It's a place where partisan politics, above all else, dictates legislation in this country. To be presented with a man like Joe Willis, someone who is taking his job seriously during the short time he has it, someone who doesn't care that, as Toby puts it, "around here, the merits of a particular argument generally take a back seat to political tactics," is inspiring. So is making me believe that there just might be people like that in our government. It seems like sometimes an episode has one character representing the conscience of the American people. In this case it's Toby, who is moved by the way Joe Willis fulfills his duty, and who quietly takes the time to appreciate a simple, run-of-the-mill Congressional roll call for what it can be, and what it sometimes is: representatives of the American people, doing the best they can to live up to the massive responsibilities they've been given.

-- Binny

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Binny --

Wow. I knew that the nature of this episode was such that you would be able to go in a number of different directions in how you approached it, but I certainly did not anticipate that you would go Jimmy V on us. But boy am I glad you did. Laugh, think, and cry, eh? You seem to be unwilling to admit that this episode brought you to the brink of tears, and that's OK. You're a married man with a child and you have to set an example of toughness. I get it. So let's just use a different word then: chills. The feeling that came over me (that Charlie experienced in person) as the president began his national address at the end of "A Proportional Response" is the very same feeling I got at this episode's conclusion as Toby hears the very simple, yet enormously touching words emitting from his television set: "Mr. Willis...Mr. Willis of Ohio votes yea." From your description of the episode's main storyline, I can tell you felt it too. All I'll say is, you better get used to it.

The kids in the bar being able to recognize Josh but not Zoey is implausible; I agree 100%. Also implausible: the White House press secretary lacking even a basic understanding of the census. Her inability to follow the distinction between standard data and sampling data? Fine. I can live with that. Maybe. But not knowing that we count the people in each state and district in order to determine representation in Congress and local government? Please. Every student in Mr Willis's 8th grade social studies class probably knows that.

This minor subplot is worth further discussion because it, along with Josh and Donna's subplot, is an example of a storytelling tool that you touched upon and that Sorkin will use over and over again. He realized that he will often be forced to find a way to explain the sometimes complicated issues background to those of us that didn't major in PoliSci, but had to do it in a natural, non-condescending way. His solution is obvious, yet flat-out brilliant: have one character explain it to the other. Now, this approach works much better when the "student" is a secretary rather than the press secretary, and I think Sorkin figured that out rather quickly, as Josh/Donna will prevail as the ongoing fixture embodying this dynamic. Essentially, Donna plays the role of the viewer at home who is confused by the issue, asks all the questions that we, too, are wondering, and gets answered by Josh, the policy wonk.

I don't necessarily think that this was done on purpose, but I definitely found it interesting to see the way Josh and Mr Willis's approaches to their respective issues are juxtaposed. Although his responses were surely sarcastic ("Because we're Democrats...you shouldn't have voted for us"), they are typical of the types of reasoning and responses to political issues that Toby believes Mr. Willis defies. Josh chooses his position because of the political party he belongs to; Mr. Willis chooses his based on the side whose argument he finds more compelling. Again, I am not sure this is what Sorkin was going for and certainly Josh would be more than able to give a well-thought-out, sensible explanation for his position, but I still found the contrast interesting.

One final thought on an issue the episode raises. "Whole number of free persons...three fifths of all other Persons." Although the second half of the clause is moot in light of the Reconstruction Amendments (13th-15th), the fact that those words are still present in the actual text is somewhat shocking. I would like to think that they are there to fulfill something similar to the Jewish concept of zecher l'churban - "remembering the destruction." Many Jews have a custom to leave a part of their home unfinished as a way of remembering that our happiness is not complete without the Temple in Jerusalem. (The custom of breaking a glass during the wedding ceremony has a similar origin.) Here, too, perhaps the continued presence of those despicable words in our constitution is there to serve as a chilling reminder of the "original sin" legally inscribed into the founding document of our government. I'm sure there is a much more boring, practical reason for this phenomenon, but a small part of me likes to believe I am right about this.

-- Av

P.S. Hearing the words "fix it" repeated several times is much more tolerable when they come out of the mouth of Martin Sheen (during his marriage advice to Leo) than that of Kenan Thompson.

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Av --

Chills. Maybe that's the right word. Again, I wouldn't go that far, but it's closer to what I was feeling on some level. I think there are many great TV moments I've seen that fill me with some level of emotion. While it's often easier to script something you know can be one of those moments - an impassioned speech, a dramatic plot development, or a traditional emotional moment (wedding, death, etc.), accomplishing the mission of giving the viewer that feeling, but through a quieter, subtler experience (like, say, a man listening to a Congressional roll call) is fine work. And I'm glad to hear it's not uncommon for this show.

As far as Sorkin's method of exposition, he didn't invent the technique of using one character to inform another on a subject, thereby informing the viewers as well. That's one of the oldest tricks in the book. What separates the exposition on this show from the rest of them, I think, is that it plays more naturally into the characters' conversations, especially when, as you point out, someone like Donna is the one used to be on the receiving end of the background information that we need as well. Oh, and he makes it funny, too. That helps. I think you're right that C.J. not knowing the basic info on the census was a bit odd; it was probably less about C.J. not knowing the info and more about needing to inform the audience.

I'm not sold on the idea that Josh is used as an example of partisan politics based on his interaction with Donna. I get the sense that if push comes to shove, Josh would use and appreciate nuance and detail, and form opinions based on much more than what the Party line is. (You concede the same point.) In this specific instance he was summarizing his general philosophy on government spending which, not surprisingly for a Democratic deputy chief of staff, is in line with the Democrats. So I'm not so sure its presence is there to serve as a counterexample to Joe Willis as much as it is to be light but substantive humor on a different topic.

-- Binny

P.S. I give you Valvano, you give me Kenan. Next Chanukah you think you could do better?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Season 1, Episode 5: "The Crackpots and These Women"


Plot summary
: Josh is troubled when he receives a special card informing him of where to safely go in the event of a nuclear attack - a privilege denied to most of his White House co-workers - while Leo instructs the senior staff to meet with various special interest groups, some of whom have wacky agendas. Prior to an important press conference, Toby voices strong opposition to many of President Bartlet's plans for an upcoming California trip and later checks out the rumor that he was not the chief executive's first choice for the job. The president, meanwhile, virtually orders his staff to sample his prized chili when he arranges a reception for his Georgetown-bound daughter.

Watch "The Crackpots and These Women": http://www.megavideo.com/?v=YARBJYCG

Av --

The more I think about what to write about this episode, the more I realize it is the least substantive to date. While the first four have a central storyline in terms of government operations, this one's "serious" themes (leaving aside the comic relief provided by the fringe elements getting rare face time with the senior staff) are more about the workplace relationships. I still found it interesting, though, because I think the relationships the staff have with the president are fascinating. They've known Bartlet so long, and work with him so closely, that even though they address him as "sir," Bartlet can still be seen by them as the guy they play basketball with. (Speaking of, terrific work by Juwan Howard in that scene. He almost made me believe someone would pay him $105 million to play basketball.) Sometimes they have to be reminded that he's not just their friend and boss, he's the leader of the free world. Though it was played for laughs, I found it insightful when Bartlet has the staff look down at the presidential seal in order to have them respond with appropriate enthusiasm to his dinner invitation. The message is clear: I'm the president; try to keep that in mind that once in awhile.

Interestingly, the person least in need of this reminder is also the member of the staff most willing to vocally challenge the president. The tension between Toby and Bartlet was hinted at in the previous episode, when they gently sparred over the president's changing part of a speech on the fly. But the tension escalated, and we're to believe this isn't the first time. In our correspondence about the first episode, you made reference to Toby's "stoic passion and idealism," and his battles with Bartlet, I think, are extreme manifestations of this passion and idealism. (Not so much on the stoic, though.) He clearly wants to seize the opportunity he has in this administration. He grasps the unique position he's in to effect change, and refuses to compromise it in any way. Bartlet, on the other hand, is in a position where he needs to consider every ramification of every decision he makes, and thus he has no choice but to compromise even his own views and ideals. We saw that firsthand when he was forced into responding to the terrorist attack a specific way. What was touching to see was the mutual respect these two have for one another despite their differences; the scene where they admit the faults they see in each other and express their mutual admiration was particularly poignant. In terms of personal relationships with the president, I think Toby's only trails Leo's as the one I'm most looking forward to seeing develop.

Everything else in this episode seemed to be missing something, be it the "crackpots" that the staff was forced to meet with (though score one for the casting department; the UFO guy and the wolf crew were spot-on), or the random discussion at the end about the quality women that work in the West Wing. Even Bartlet's speech at the end, though well-articulated (and apparently well-received by fans), seemed a bit all over the place. The only thing worth discussing, other than Toby, is Josh's noble decision to not accept an NSC card which essentially proclaims him "more important" than his co-workers and friends. I'm glad they explored the root cause of that decision (the visceral feelings of guilty abandonment he still feels after he ran out of his burning home while his sister didn't make it), because otherwise it really doesn't seem like a big deal. So you're all in this group and consider each other equals, except you officially have a more important title and thus are treated differently in certain situations. Who cares? I suppose the fact that Josh does makes an already likable character that much more likable.

-- Binny

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Binny --

I agree that we do not find that much in the way of substance in this episode, but this episode is pure fun. Indeed, I think that it is very likely the most fun episode in the entire series. This episode's main function is to serve as a springboard in setting up future character developments and relationship dynamics. For me, knowing what I know about these character's personal and professional futures, seeing them interact in these ways was fascinating. Be it Toby's frustrations with the president or Josh's fear that everyone he gets close to will die and leave him alone riddled with guilt, watching these scenes in light of future events gave me all the more appreciation for the way Sorkin developed these characters, but more importantly the subtlety with which he did it. I'm sure that when a writer has grandiose visions of where he wants characters headed, it is very tempting to jump right into that immediately. But instead, here, he merely lays the groundwork, giving us a hint of what is coming ahead.

It is Toby's "feud" with the president, in particular, that I found most interesting. He takes the president to task on the basketball court for compromising his principles because of his "obsessive need to win," a further extension of the tension between idealism and pragmatism the president constantly has to struggle with. He introduces the concept of there being an inner battle between a president's angels and demons, which struck a chord with me, having just seen Frost/Nixon, which chronicles Nixon's self-destruction despite lofty expectations. What a concept: the greatest obstacle standing in the way of a president and greatness is his own humanity, his own personal flaws.

Which bring me to the crackpots...and these women. The notion of the White House opening its doors, even for a single day, to these groups who would never ordinarily be able to have this kind of access, is a noble idea, even if purely symbolic. I greatly enjoyed the line that the staff, in this case Sam and C.J., flirt with while meeting with these fringe organizations, between respectfully listening to their presentations and taking them seriously and overtly mocking them. C.J.'s reaction to the information that the wolves-only roadway would cost the taxpayer "only $900 million" is priceless: "C.J., if we're gonna do this, why not do it right?" "We're not gonna do it." "Sure, there are other things we could spend the money on." "You think?"

Most of all, this episode is about the triumph of people who, as the president puts it, live "in a world that tells [them] to sit down and shut up." This is the case with the women in their lives who are dedicating themselves to public service and succeeding in a man's world, but is even more true with respect to the so-called "crackpots." These groups are, by any objective standard, crazy, but there is something truly admirable about them. Having that much passion and dedication to a cause that you believe in, particularly one for which they are surely ridiculed on a regular basis, is inspirational. Honestly, I think Leo's little "big block of cheese" exercise is more for the staff than for the groups because despite their kookiness, there is a great deal to be learned from them. As Josh puts it in his touching conversation with C.J. in his office, "do you think you have to be crazy to create something powerful?" Maybe you do.

-- Av

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Av --

To answer you and Josh, no, I don't think you have to be crazy to create something powerful. I think it's just one of those "lines" that Josh says which seem, dare I say it, clichéd. (He had one in "Five Votes Down," too - "President Bartlet's a good man. He's got a good heart. He doesn't hold a grudge... That's what he pays me for." - but I think the look on his face as he walks away shows he reveled in how clichéd the line was.) Then again, I guess it depends on how you understand the word "powerful." Many people, fully sane, create powerful things on a daily basis. If power is defined strictly by potential negative global consequences, then I'll concede that maybe you do have to be a little crazy to create something powerful. However, that doesn't mean people who are passionate about "crazy" things, the "crackpots" visiting the White House, are sources of inspiration. Their crazy/power relationship hasn't reached a relevant level. I think the point Leo wants to communicate to the staff is not necessarily to admire the populace's passion for their causes, but rather to embrace the notion that the government should be accessible to all Americans, not just those representing the "big" issues. I do agree, though, that passion is their key to get in the door, as Leo says: "I assure you that listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one, and surely not the peoples' servants."

-- Binny

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Season 1, Episode 4: "Five Votes Down"


Plot summary
:
Leo needs five more House votes to pass a bill restricting the sale of automatic firearms, but the cost might be too high, especially if he has to go to the unpredictable vice president to help put them over the top. The staff's annual financial disclosure statements prove to be thorny for Toby, whose innocent technology stock purchase last year proved to be wildly profitable, which raises eyes due to his association with an expert in the field. In addition, Leo's long hours on the job cause an unforeseen crisis at home, and the President unintentionally mixes up the potent medications he receives for his ailing back.

Watch "Five Votes Down": http://www.megavideo.com/?v=G37LBRIS

Av --

It's time to talk about the "Walk and Talk." Though it's often done in a subtle way, the style in which a show is filmed can be an indicator of what kind of show the creators are trying to put forth. (Consider the purpose of the documentary-style filming of The Office. Is its existence only serving a narrative function, or does the cinematography subconsciously make us feel like we're watching real people at work?) I've read that when filming Sports Night, director Thomas Schlamme (who directed 16 episodes of the show) began using the "walk and talk," presumably because of the nature of the setting's work environment. (There have been enough SportsCenter "behind the scenes" shows by now to know he made a great call.) And so Schlamme, who directed the pilot of The West Wing and served as an executive producer for 5 years, brought the style to this Sorkin show as well, giving their setting the fast-paced, frenetic energy it so richly deserves. Coupled with Sorkin's dialogue, it's simply a joy to watch. I can already see the "walk and talk" on this show has become part of its essence, so much so it's even a subject for self-mocking: "Where are you going?" "Where are you going?" "I was following you." "I was following you." But to me, the ultimate achievement in this style is what they - episode director Michael Lehmann, director of photography Tom Del Ruth, and camera operator Dave Chameides - managed to pull off in the opening to this episode. In one single camera shot - no edits, no cuts - Bartlet leaves the stage, and the entire cast (with dozens of extras) walks through the bowels of - and exits - the hotel, the camera staying with them for three entire minutes. That's 3 minutes, 11 characters speaking (I'm counting the Josh fangirls as one), down stairs two separate times, through narrow corridors (on location, mind you, not their usual set), with filming starting in front of characters, then moving behind them, then back in front of them, while everybody in the main cast shuffles in and out of frame. It's a cinematic feat nothing short of remarkable. (The fact that someone like me, who tends to concentrate more on narrative and less on scenery, noticed it is a clear sign of that.) The audacious shot wasn't even necessary for the story; the fact that the cast and crew dedicated half a night to shooting a three-minute scene whose greatest import was an aesthetic one is a sign of how committed the people who worked on this show were to making it as good as it can be.

But enough about style; the substance of this episode belonged to Leo McGarry. The point Leo's story calls to attention is clear: we've been watching these people hard at work for a few episodes, but we have to remember that they are people who have families, and who once had lives outside of work. What struck me, though, was something else: is being on the White House staff the only job with insane hours? Of course not. Millions of people work harder and longer than they would like, and their families have to find a way to cope. What makes Leo different? Two things. For one, he only came to this crazy job later in life, long after he and his wife had settled into their routine. While it's certainly hard to be married to an 80-hour-a-week worker in your 30's, it's undeniably harder when the life you've become accustomed to is suddenly altered dramatically. The other, more important difference is that Leo believes his work (for the time being) is more important than his family. While he may be right, you can't blame his wife for not appreciating that sentiment. It's terribly sad that it came to this for him, but I think he realizes it's a situation he can't really solve. The effect of being a senior staffer on a personal life is something we're going to have to think about as we see other staffers foster new or current relationships. As for Leo, he'll be OK. We saw that his personal situation does not affect his work (yet), and now he has a support group to make sure he doesn't turn to self-medicating. (By the way, I love Sorkin's reasoning that this kind of AA meeting exists: "I have to believe that with 545 congressmen and senators, agency directors and White House staff, there have got to be a bunch of people there who are recovering alcoholics, and it wouldn't shock me at all if there were such a meeting.")

The other theme in this episode is quickly becoming a recurring one: that of perception vs. reality. The fact that this is an issue they keep coming back to works for me for three reasons: 1) it's just interesting; 2) the show focuses on the communication staff, so it's a consistently relevant issue; 3) they keep presenting the issue in new ways. While Toby's sticky stock situation (try saying that three times fast) is basically the Sam/Laurie issue with different details (a fact not lost on Sam), the more fascinating storyline in terms of perception and reality is when the Bartlet staff gets a "win" - the anti-weapons bill passes - but it feels like a loss. And it's no secret why. While publicly the bill was presented as an important piece of legislation, privately the staff knew the real battle here was making the White House look strong, a fact which Josh and Leo readily admit. The fight to get 802 passed was a fight to show the White House as having some muscle, a fight they were on their way to winning, until the vice president came in and stole their thunder. Thus, while they won the "reality" portion of the battle, they lost the more crucial one - the VP got the credit for the win. (And why did Josh feel that confronting Hoynes about the credit swipe would do anything other than make him feel worse?) Meanwhile, it's obvious that the POTUS/VP dynamic is one worth watching. I don't find it implausible that the president and vice president have different staffs, different offices, and occasionally different agendas. But can this amount of dysfunction exist? The relationship as is between Bartlet and Co. and Hoynes cannot be good for either's future, nor the future of their party. Somehow I think we haven't seen the last of this.

-- Binny

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Binny --

I won't focus on your cinematic analysis of this episode, as you have done a more than adequate job attending to that already. I will, however, expo
und upon your final point on this subject as I think it is a big part of what made this show so successful: namely, the commitment and dedication of everyone involved with this show to make it what it became. Achieving the attention to detail and realism of scenes like this necessitates Sorkin/Schlamme being able to get every member of the cast to buy into their vision of the show and understand the importance of getting it exactly right. I remember hearing Sorkin/Schlamme explain in the DVD extras that in an upcoming episode (I don't remember exactly which one, and no, there are no spoilers of any sort coming up here) there is a scene where C.J. is having a conversation with someone (I think Josh) in the foreground and if you pay attention, you can see that in the background Toby is having a conversation with a random staffer. This latter conversation was totally irrelevant to the plot and would probably not even be noticed by most viewers, but Sorkin/Schlamme believed that this added an element of realism to the scene because, after all, that's how offices work; the press secretary and communications director would often find themselves in the same room, even if they are not meeting with each other. The kicker here is that adding this little nugget of authenticity to this scene required Richard Schiff to come in for filming on a day when they wouldn't be filming any other scenes that he was actually "part of," a level of commitment that seems out of line with typical Hollywood stereotypes.

I was looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Leo's behavior in this episode because being married yourself, you are in a far better position to understand the depth and ramifications of a man declaring to his wife that something else is more important than their marriage. (Quick marriage advice from someone who knows nothing about it: don't try to make this argument to her about the Mets; it won't work.) When I think of couples that split despite lengthy relationships, even when the "reason" is about prioritizing things of importance in their lives, it is usually more likely attributed to a waning of the loving feelings that they once shared. However, here that doesn't seem to be the case; it appears that Leo still dearly loves his wife and I don't think it would be unreasonable to suggest that his marriage to her is the second most important thing to him in the world. It's just not number one and they disagree about whether that is acceptable. (Although an argument in his wife's favor could be Leo's unrelated words later in the episode that "if the White House isn't strong, it doesn't really matter what number two on my list is.") This reality is both depressing and heartening because while it surely is demoralizing for people like Leo who find themselves in situations like this, it would be encouraging to believe that his real-life equivalents share that level of commitment to serving our interests.

Which brings me to
the central issue of the episode: guns. I will attempt to avoid getting on a soapbox and launching into a tirade against the lunacy of the way our society and the courts have interpreted the second amendment. Instead, I will merely echo Josh's sentiments during his spirited conversation with his old buddy, Congressman Chris Wick: "we can all get together on the grenade launcher, right?" There are assault weapons out there that legally infiltrate our streets that serve no purpose other than killing human beings. They are not used for hunting and they are not necessary for self-defense. They are used to murder people. That's all.

This episode also gave us what I thought was a very realistic insight into the way whipping (yes Kramer, because they whip them) votes for legislation works. We are presented with a wide array of motivations for why these Congressmen are voting in a certain way and varying tactics used to lobby their vote. We see a politician threatened by special interests won over through bullying (featuring a wonderful emergence of Josh's inner Rahm), a political stunt to get attention that has nothing to do with the merits of the bill, and principled objections to the bill either because it goes too far or because it does not go far enough. (As an aside, I have always found these "protest" votes particularly interesting because in modern politics they often seem to backfire. In this case, we could expect a future campaign opponent of Congressman Richardson's to run an ad citing this vote as proof that he is "pro-gun.") As Josh explains, the overarching goal is to get back the votes without giving up too much, or as Josh hopes, nothing at all. Lobbying for legislation is all about achieving the goal without sacrificing something that is an even greater priority than the bill in question. So did they accomplish that or did they give up too much? A game of chess with the President? Definitely OK. Having some congressmen upset that they were intimidated? Also probably fine. But yielding credit for the bill's passage to someone else? Taking it one step further and tying it into the episode's other main storyline: what if you accomplish something great, but you lose your wife in the process? Is it worth it then?

-- Av

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Av --

Oh right, I forgot to mention the guns. You're right, the issue is a no-brainer, to the point that the producers of the show didn't even try to balance the issue like they do with others: "'All the network has asked us to do is present a very balanced view of an issue, to present both sides,' said [producer John] Wells. 'The only issue we don't do that on is gun control. Frankly, no one involved in the program feels there is a logical reason for streets to be flooded with Saturday night specials and automatic weapons.'" I like your point about the voting, though. So much goes into deciding which way to vote, be it political currency, standing in the party, special interests, the "too far" or "not far enough" attitude, or, oh yeah, how the Congressman actually feels about the issue. Though I suppose it's slightly outside the scope of this show, I hope we see this type of scenario again.

As far as the marriage question goes, I've only been married about two and a half years, though I suppose that's two and a half years more of marriage than you've had. But then, I haven't had the crazy work schedule you either have had or will have soon. Any way we can combine these experiences so we can better internalize the Leo story? In any case, as a married man I will definitely submit that telling your wife there is something more important than her/your marraige is probably among the worst things you can say. (I haven't tried it.) And yes, if the something in question is the Mets, well, I'm at a loss for how that conversation would end, but it would be rather ugly. Even if the fact that there's something more important than the marriage is true or justified (note: its being true does not make it justified!), admitting it is a one-way ticket to splitsville. What makes Leo's case particularly sad is he's justified, I think, in putting his job first, and she's justified in not wanting to live like that. Add to that the fact that, like you said, they still have the same feelings for each other and it was external circumstances that brought them to this point, and, well, you could see why he needs a drink. But while I agree it's depressing, I'm not sold on heartening. Your basis in saying it's the latter is because you want to believe that Leo's real-life counterparts are as committed to serving the public as he is. I'd like to believe that people in that position choose work over family because of selflessness and dedication to the greater good, but given what we know about politicians, I feel like I'd need evidence of that to believe it.

-- Binny

Monday, December 15, 2008

Season 1, Episode 3: "A Proportional Response"


Plot summary
:
Still seething over the downing of an fully loaded American jet in the Mideast, a vengeful President Bartlet overrules the joint chiefs' plan for a "proportional" military strike and demands a more severe attack that would result in thousands of enemy and civilian casualties. While Leo and other advisers try to cool off the Commander-in-Chief, Press Secretary C.J. scolds a wayward Sam over his potentially explosive private crusade to rescue a well-known call girl from her profession. Feeling overlooked during the hubbub surrounding the military options, Josh interviews a shy African-American teen as a potential personal aide to the President.

Watch "A Proportional Response": http://www.megavideo.com/?v=0Q6FUCOS

Av --

More and more I'm starting to hope that Dee Dee Myers was well compensated for her work on this show. I recognized her name when I saw her listed as a "consultant" in the closing credits after "Pilot," and I assume as a former press secretary in a real administration, she made a lot of calls on the set as to what could "work" and what couldn't. An episode like this one could not have been made without the knowledge and counsel of someone who directly experienced these situations. I thought this episode was amazing, a thought which only struck me in the last minute, when Bartlet began addressing the nation. It all crystallized for me at that moment: we, the American people, only see the finished product. We see the shiny TV graphic telling us, "This is an NBC News special report," we see an anchor introduce the situation, then we go to the Oval Office and see the president directly address us. That's all we see. But what goes into making that happen? That is what we just saw. On a small scale, we saw literally what makes it happen - Toby and Sam hurriedly and exhaustively writing and re-writing the actual speech. But on a larger scale, we saw a president having to deal with his first major decision in his role as commander-in-chief.

I'm sure this concept has been covered extensively, but it is fascinating to consider the notion of the president as, literally, the commander-in-chief. Granted, there have been many generals and military veterans we've elected to the presidency, but often the man in charge has no real qualifications for being in charge. He may be qualified as a chief executive which serves him well in other capacities, but leader of the armed forces? How did that happen? That's the central issue here, and it's one that's particularly humbling for President Bartlet. He admitted in the last episode that the only experience he has in this field is being in charge of New Hampshire's National Guard while serving as governor there. Now he finds himself having to decide between what is accepted as standard operating procedure - retaliating with a proportional response - and what he perceives to be a more fitting punishment. The question I asked after the last episode, the one about how much of Bartlet's attitude is based on his personal loss, is addressed head on, with Bartlet assuring Leo that he feels the way he does because Americans were killed, not just Morris. But as you said, the issue was less about why he felt the way he did, and more about separating the man - who felt the need to avenge American lives - from the office - which has to behave a certain way in the world. That realization, which Bartlet only came to after an intense conversation with Leo, is a tough one for a new president to stomach, since the idea of there being a specific "fine" that's accepted for taking American lives can run counter to the natural patriotic feelings of the average American, especially those who dedicate their lives to public service.

In a sense, the Sam storyline runs somewhat parallel to the main one, in that here, too, what constitutes a "proportional response" is the issue on the table. C.J. believes that there's no place for a senior White House official to have any kind of relationship with a woman who is a part-time call girl; Sam believes cutting off all contact is a disproportionate response - it's more important to be good than to look good. For the record, Sam is completely wrong here. I understand and respect his conviction and commitment to caring more about the reality of the situation than the perception (even C.J. does), but it shouldn't be just hitting him now that in his position, perception goes a long, long way. Everybody else gets it, why can't he? The importance of perception is brought up again when Josh tells Leo that the only reason he has not to hire Charlie as Bartlet's body man is the perception of the young black man holding the door for, or carrying the bags of, the older, stately white man. And Leo's answer is that the perception does matter, it just won't be perceived the way Josh worries it could be.

Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one other proportional response in this episode I enjoyed: C.J.'s comeback to Josh after being called a "paranoid, Berkeley, shiksa feminista." I don't know who has more fun, Sorkin writing these lines, or the actors delivering them.

-- Binny

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Binny --

There you go again with your astute title analysis and how it relates to the themes of the entire episode. As I mentioned in our correspondence on "Pilot," one of the most enjoyable aspects, for me, of Sorkin's writing style is the way he ties together the entire episode by implanting common themes into unrelated storylines. I'd like to expand on the theme that you touched upon that runs throughout this entire episode.

In each of the three plots that you mentioned (Bartlet's response to the attack, Sam and C.J.'s discussion about Laurie, and Josh's concerns about Charlie), one of (or a group of) the characters is on the "how does it look/feel" side and the other is on the "what is it really" side. In the latter two subplots, C.J. and Josh are concerned about perception, while Sam and Leo (backed up by Admiral Fitzwallace) focus more on the facts and reality of the situation. Similarly, in the main storyline, Bartlet is preoccupied with how such a minor retaliation, in his opinion, looks and feels. Blowing up some satellites doesn't feel in proportion to him for the human life that was lost. Further, he argues about how it looks: that our failure to act in the past has induced further attacks. Leo and the Joint Chiefs take the more sensible, yet somewhat unfulfilling side of things: it is what it is. It doesn't feel right or fair and certainly doesn't do justice to the human lives that were lost. As Leo explains, "It's not good; there is no good. It's what there is." That's reality. Which brings me back to my point from last episode and the lesson that Bartlet learns in this episode. Last episode's Bartlet didn't feel violent towards America's enemies; this episode's Bartlet wants to retaliate with "total disaster." But by the end, he retreats to the sensible, "proportional" middle. He realizes that even though sometimes you have an idealistic vision of the way things should be, more often than not that vision is defeated by practicalities. Nobody, including Fitzwallace, sees the "virtue" of the proportional response and this endless cycle, or "cost of doing business," as Bartlet calls it. But, for now, "it's what there is."

As for Sam, I agree that he's wrong, but I think I better relate to why everyone else gets it and he doesn't. Simply put, a person's judgment is always going to be clouded when he is the one at the center of the situation, particularly when emotions or relationships are involved. I can't even count how many times in my life I have seen people (myself included) ignore the relationship advice that they have given other people when they are the ones with the problem. It is much easier to tell someone to cut ties with a friend or love interest than it is do so yourself, even if the situations in both cases are identical. If Josh had been the one with this problem, I guarantee that Sam would be giving the same speech to Josh that he receives in this episode. However, when the speech is given to him, because he is emotionally involved, he becomes defensive and self-righteous. As an aside, this episode includes a perfect example of the dark, sarcastic sense of humor that Sorkin has given to Toby Ziegler that I love so much. From his conversation with Sam about C.J.'s knowledge of his Laurie situation: "Think she knows?" "Yeah." "Why?" "She told me she knows." Priceless.

I remember thinking that this episode was the first one that I thought was truly phenomenal. It was the first one that left me speechless at the end and I think served as the final hook to get me to fall in love with this show. It is the first episode to feature the classic Sorkin "chill" scene at the very end and like Charlie watching the president, I had never felt that way before while watching a TV show. And in case you're wondering, no, "it doesn't go away."

-- Av

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Season 1, Episode 2: "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc"


Plot summary
: Despite warnings from fellow office workers, infatuated Sam presses his luck when he continues to publicly pursue a high-priced call girl with whom he shared a night of passion. Meanwhile, C.J. tries to defuse a potentially nasty public clash between the president and his willful vice president concerning the veep's quotes about a bill favored by the chief executive. Exasperated political consultant Mandy Hampton drowns her troubles when her only client ignores her advice and agrees to bottle up a key bill in committee that could have been costly for the president if put to a vote. The president forges a kinship with a young African-American Navy captain who's substituting for his regular White House physician - so much, in fact, that he asks him to assume the position on a full-time basis.


Watch "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc": http://www.megavideo.com/?v=C6KXSXD0

Av --

Wow. I did NOT see that coming. The episode is moving along nicely, and then out of the blue... a crack about Yeshiva University?

OK, so I sort of did see that coming. I, like you, was in Yeshiva University's high school at the time this episode aired, so the fact that this small, unknown Jewish college (U.S. News and World Report top-50 ranking notwithstanding) was referenced in a network TV show made quite a few waves on campus. Though having Josh sarcastically pick Yeshiva University over the Cowboys overlooks the fact that YU doesn't have a football team, it is to Sorkin's credit that he can call up a joke like that and expect (or not care) that it will land with Middle America. There's the "New York humor" referenced in the pilot.

This episode felt like a second pilot to me. Its function was more about telling us about the characters (and in Mandy's case, setting up her future) than about advancing plot, at least until the dramatic final scene. But I didn't find it unsatisfying; on the contrary, I felt like so much was revealed about the characteristics of these people, even through minimalist stories. The best example I can think of is C.J. "She's a good girl," as Leo put it. The incident with the vice-president shed so much light on the kind of person she is. She was professional during the media briefing when she was blindsided with the potentially damaging quote from the VP. She was dignified in the way she confronted him, even opening with an apology for something that was his fault. And she was classy in the way she "took one for the team," trying to keep the incident away from Leo because Sam and Josh felt that was the best thing to do.

I also learned that though I have never accidentally slept with a prostitute, I find myself relating to Sam for some reason. There's the naivete you mentioned, but it's more in the way that his naivete breeds a certain stilted optimism I often see in myself. And I learned that Leo is not a politician you want to mess with. (I kind of figured that one out from the start, though. Anyone in his position who is willing and able to chew out a New York Times crossword editor should be automatically feared.) But obviously the person most ripe for analysis in this episode is the president. Earlier in the episode he says, "I'm not comfortable with violence. I know this country has enemies, but I don't feel violent toward any of them." He's intimidated by being in the same room with the Joint Chiefs. By that night (or, more accurately, early the next morning), it's, "I am not frightened. I'm gonna blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God's own thunder." The contrast isn't subtle, and neither is the cause. The president's personal physician, a man he's come to like a lot, a new father, is senselessly killed in an act of terrorism. Hence the fury and thunder. But the question I was left with is what would Bartlet's response have been had the act of terrorism occurred but not involved someone he knew personally? Would he have felt the same way? I think that's why this episode is called "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc." Literally translated (and for the record, when trying to decipher the Latin, I pretty much said exactly what Josh did), the phrase is a logical fallacy: since one thing happened after the other, it was caused by that other thing. (I took my LSATs last week; I have had enough of causation/correlation.) Was Bartlet's sudden change of heart caused by the fact that someone in his life was killed? Post hoc, ergo propter hoc? He'd probably deny it; that's stuff for people like C.J. to believe. He'd insist that his response is objectively commensurate to the situation. But I'm not sure I'm convinced yet.

-- Binny

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Binny --

That is an interesting question you raise at the end. The obvious answer is yes. Essentially, the explanation you offered would be that President Bartlet, the idealistic, sophisticated, nuanced thinker doesn't feel violent towards America's enemies and would probably favor a diplomatic approach to resolve most foreign policy situations when asked about it; Jed Bartlet, however, is a living, breathing human being whose friend was just murdered by terrorists and he wants vengeance. I think this a perfectly valid explanation for Bartlet's change in course during the episode and one I am perfectly willing to accept. I would like to offer another explanation, though, which I think draws on broader ideas of the presidency.

Often times, political leaders make statements on an issue during a campaign or even while in office, and then later either speak or act in a manner that contradicts their earlier statement. Political operatives would call this "flip-flopping" and more academic minds might attribute the change of heart to a reconsideration of facts and intellectual honesty, but I think there is a third possibility: the politician's perspective has changed. The best recent example I have of this comes from Israeli politics. Ariel Sharon was for years the darling of Likud and a vigorous champion of the settler movement, up until the moment he was elected Prime Minister, when he suddenly shifted gears and was the driving force behind Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and the removal of Israeli settlements there. Why the change in policy? The most likely answer, I think, is that Ariel Sharon, the Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Defense could cling to his Utopian idealism of the way he thought things ought to be. Prime Minister Sharon, however, confronted with the facts on the ground and the way things actually were, sitting in the Prime Minister's chair, ultimately decided that the status quo and the policies he had supported his entire political career were not practically feasible and in Israel's best interests, and thus promptly changed course. I think that could be what happened here, as well. It is very easy for Bartlet to speak of his lack of violent feelings towards enemies when he is speaking in the hypothetical. However, once confronted with the loss of American lives under his watch, whether he knew those people or not, the President has to do what he has to do, and sadly, in the world we live in, this usually involves violence.

Your insight about the episode's title was fascinating and one that had never occurred to me. Admittedly, if I had been at the meeting in the Oval Office, the number would have increased by one to 28 lawyers in the room that didn't know what "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" meant. My previous theory of how the title tied into the storyline of the episode has now been supplanted by yours, but I think mine is still thematically relevant.

I found this episode to be a commentary on the state of politics today and our tendency to focus on nonsense issues. In this episode, the White House senior staff deals with a cryptic quote made by the Vice President, the consequences of Sam's legal sexual encounter with a consenting adult, and a joke the President made that offended the Ryder Cup team. Indeed, it is not until the President rhetorically asks, "I've got an intelligence briefing, a security briefing, and a 90-minute budget meeting all scheduled for the same 45 minutes. You sure this is a good time to talk about my sense of humor?" that it occurs to anyone that maybe these "issues" are not appropriate ones for the people running the government to be focused on. Yet, our political discussions all too often revolve around nonsensical news cycles about lipsticked pigs, expensive wardrobe bills, and plumbers who are not actually plumbers. And it's these types of issues that dominate this episode until something real happens to remind everyone what they are doing there. If I was a right-wing Rabbi who believed that the world works in a certain way, I might explicitly declare "post hoc, ergo propter hoc," or whatever the Yiddish translation is: namely, that the tragedy at the episode's end happened because of the nonsense that we were preoccupied with and serves as a wake up call to remind us what is truly important. Thankfully, I have not been ordained and I do not share that view of the world's operation, but within the context of the episode's storyline, the same message rings true. The episode's culmination, for the first time, refocuses the characters on who they are and us, as the audience, on what we are watching: a show about the White House and the President of the United States, a place where real things happen, issues matter, and decisions affect people's lives.

-- Av

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Av --

I agree that the issue of what constitutes an important issue is alluded to, but I don't necessarily agree that this episode concerned itself with extended focus on nonsense. For one thing, that "cryptic" quote by the Veep turned out to be a manifestation of increased frustration with the president and Leo, and I believe is an indicator of where they stand with each other and a potentially dangerous harbinger of things to come. (Oh, and try to resist the urge to use that as a springboard to go off on Cheney and vice-presidential power. It will be fun, I'm sure, but ultimately too distracting.) And the staff didn't so much "deal" with Sam's relationship as much as addressed it, and with extreme brevity. One meeting with Josh, one with Toby, two reluctant "just be careful"s. And actually, I found how they dealt with it to be of great interest, because in this day and age of YouTube and Facebook and no privacy in the public sector, there's no way Josh and Toby take that approach. I don't think the act of terrorism was a "wake up call" in the sense that "this is why we're here"; on the contrary, Josh's achievement in the morning (beating Lloyd Russell to keep a bill in committee, thus essentially keeping Russell at bay as a potential opponent) seems like a more standard White House event than having to deal with a terrorist act. Or at least that was the case before 9/11. I agree that the Ryder Cup storyline is representative of the kind of thing that we overvalue in terms of news importance, but on the other hand, these aren't people in the national security office. They are the communications team. They have to react ("play defense," as C.J. put it) when these stories are being eaten up by the media and the masses.

As for your approach to the question I raised about Bartlet's change of heart, I think you're right on. Too often we see things in black and white, including (especially?) politicians' stances. Since at some high levels, especially Congress, a stance is only reflected in a yes/no vote, it can be easy to see that as a flip-flop instead of a more nuanced change of perspective. (By the way, I think your explanation of this nuance is the same as the academics' "reconsideration of facts and intellectual honesty." Why did they reconsider the facts and change their minds? The new perspective.) I agree that a president can come in believing (and promising) that he won't raise taxes, and then circumstances cause him to change that belief (and break that promise). And there's no question there was a change of perspective for Bartlet. But my question about Bartlet the man still applies, and here's why. I could believe in non-violence as a response in foreign-affairs situations and then feel differently after being affected by something personally. It's human nature. But I also don't have the power to respond. If Bartlet only feels violent because of his personal stake in this tragedy, it's a sign of his inability to separate himself from his office. I'm not saying that's an automatic strike against him; we elect people in large part because of what we think of them as people, figuring that their character can and will influence the decisions they make in the office. But it's something I'd like to know.

-- Binny

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Binny --

Your points are well taken. I agree that these issues are important as they relate to character development and furtherance of the plot, but looking at them in a vacuum as issues, these are not the types of things I would want discussed in the Oval Office or handled by the White House Chief of Staff in a perfect world. Sadly, the reality is that often enough politics is not about the issues and is instead about, well, politics. And I think Sorkin is definitely trying to highlight that point. I don't necessarily think he is going so far as to say these things don't matter at all and should be totally ignored, but I definitely think he is trying to contrast the triviality of the matters that we deal with in the episode's first 42 minutes and the one that surfaces in the last two.

As for my distinction between change of stance because of reconsideration and because of perspective, I think there is a clear difference. Altering your opinion on an issue is not the same as altering the way you handle an issue because of the position you now have to approach it from. The circumstances of the situation are not what have changed, but rather it is your circumstances as a politician that have changed. I could easily believe that Ariel Sharon fell into a coma still clinging to a deep personal belief in the merits of the settler movement and the ideal of Greater Israel and it is quite possible that Jed Bartlet still, in principle, is a anti-violence pacifist at heart. But the titles they own and the chairs they sit in don't allow them to always follow their heart; sometimes pragmatism trumps idealism. This touches on a greater theme that you addressed and one that we will continue to see Bartlet struggle with: the necessity of a president to separate between the man and the office.

I'm glad you mentioned Josh's triumph at the beginning of the episode because one of the things I hope to be on the lookout for in this latest re-watching is the Rahm Emanuel persona inside Josh's character. I wasn't aware of this nugget (Josh being based on Rahm) until last month, but already at the beginning of this episode, we have a clear example. On that note, was it just me or can you easily imagine Obama having precisely the same conversation with one of his aides or a military man he trusts that Bartlet has with Morris Tolliver? Bartlet is insecure because of his lack of foreign policy experience and has to be reassured that what he lacks in experience he more than makes up for with his intellect and judgment. Part of me wishes that we could have seen the president's relationship with Morris develop further, as one of the things Sorkin does best is showing the development and evolution of one-on-one relationships between his characters. Already in this episode, we get a few gems, most notably those between "bosses" and their assistants: the President and Mrs. Landingham, Leo and Margaret, and of course, Josh and Donna. Watching the dynamics of these relationships at play is truly one of the most enjoyable aspects of this show and one that I am sure you will love.

-- Av

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Av --

I agree the contrast between trivial issues and important ones is striking, and presented in order to be striking. On the other hand, if that helicopter isn't shot down, there wasn't a bigger issue that day to distract them from the other ones. I've seen the footage of NBC's Today Show the morning of September 11th, 2001. Before 8:46, it was standard Today fare: a cooking segment, some shopping stuff, the usual. After 8:46, it was probably weeks, if not months, before they returned to the regular, "trivial" segments. In other words, it's all relative. Yes, the people who work in those offices are there for the big issues, but big things have to happen first.

In response to your Obama question, I have been holding myself back from any Bartlet/Obama comparisons (and I've been tempted several times already) until I get a better sense for both Bartlet and Martin Sheen's portrayal of him. But some thoughts have definitely been festering, yes. (Side note: Sorkin's already invaded my brain. I only used that word because of this back-and-forth from this episode: "In the event of a military coup, sir, what makes you think the Secret Service is gonna be on your side?" "Now that's a thought that's gonna fester.") And yes, I could totally see Obama having that conversation. But then in 2000, I probably would've said the same about Bush. As for Rahm Emanuel, I only know what I've read; I don't remember him or his persona well enough from the Clinton years to bring up any Josh Lyman comparisons. And you're right, I am starting to enjoy the one-on-one relationships, partly because it's something I enjoy in many shows. But it's also because I am a sucker for all things Kathryn Joosten.

-- Binny

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Season 1, Episode 1: "Pilot"

Plot Summary: The entire White House staff bristles with activity when it's learned that the President injured himself during a bicycle accident, and his absence becomes a factor as chief of staff Leo McGarry must juggle a host of impending crises, including a mass boat lift of Cuban refugees approaching the Florida coast and the reaction of conservative Christians to a controversial televised comment by Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman. Meanwhile, Sam Seaborn , the trouble-prone Deputy White House Communications Director, unknowingly spends the night with a call girl and then makes another critical error during a children's White House tour.

Watch "Pilot": http://www.megavideo.com/?v=DM91J9A5

Av --


So I finally got around to watching that show you've been telling me about for some years now. No, not that one. I speak, of course, about The West Wing. I just finished watching the pilot, only 3,366 days after it first aired on NBC. Watching any show from scratch 9 years later is a fascinating study that can often result in disappointment: for comedies, styles of comedy and senses of humor change all the time; for dramas, scenarios that seemed plausible and/or created suspense when they were aired may be completely dated by now. From what I know about this show, however, the time gap between airing and viewing should prove to be irrelevant. (Dated jokes, such as the one in the pilot about then-new NFL instant replay, excepted.) No matter how much the setting - presidential politics - may have changed in the last decade, as you said, the show isn't about the White House per se; it's merely a vehicle to express ideas and views. Working with that premise, I'm glad I'm only coming to it now. I was 17 when the show debuted. Not that I'm so much more mature now, but I certainly think that I'm in a better place to appreciate the layers presented and available for analysis than I would have had I watched the original airings.

What took me so long? Honestly, I don't know, and I don't think it's relevant to this discussion. What is relevant, however, is what I do know going in. From a details standpoint, I know very little. I'm familiar with who is in the main cast, and who the show's driving force is. (Or was, for four seasons.) That's basically it. Somehow I avoided any and all plot details, analyses, and repeated airings on Bravo. But back to the driving force. Aaron Sorkin is the type of writer I know I'm going to love. Yet somehow I've steered clear of most of his major works. Sports Night sits on my shelf, untouched. I didn't feel right watching Studio 60 as my first Sorkin show. And I never saw Malice, The American President, or Charlie Wilson's War. I did, however, see A Few Good Men, Sorkin's first major credit, and it is one of my favorite movies of all-time. What is it about that movie that made me want to record its audio, put it on a CD, and listen to it in my car 10 times one summer? I think, in no particular order, it was the superbly written story, the sharp dialogue, the richly-drawn characters, and the acting performances. Which brings me to The West Wing.

I don't read much in the way of fiction. As such, my exposure to original content creators in mainstream mass media is pretty much confined to television and movies. And my favorite creative artists tend to be the ones who tell great stories, rich in both content and characters, with sharp, smart dialogue being of central importance. Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith (20th-century version), and David Chase come to mind, as does Larry David to a lesser extent. Based on the combination of A Few Good Men, what you and another fellow Met fan friend passionately believe, and this pilot, I don't think it will be long before Sorkin joins that group. The pilot was probably the best pilot I've ever seen. Any pilot's goal, presumably, is to introduce the setting and characters, but the way in which he accomplishes this is pure artistry. There was only one explicit expository speech (Sam Seaborn's backstory, told comedically to a class of 4th-graders); instead there are unforced, genuine-feeling conversations to guide us as to who and what we need to know. I also respect the basic plot outline: instead of trying to get our attention with a major national emergency, or starting off from Day 1 of the presidency, we essentially see a somewhat typical day. There's a national issue on the table (the Cuban exodus to Florida), but it's presented as the kind of issue that arises every day. There is a damage control issue (Josh's remark to a right-wing Christian leader), and it's handled well by the right people. And everybody is at their beepers (there's a clear 1999 sign for you) when the president has a minor bike accident. In just 42 minutes we learn so much about these people, just by watching them in their element. It may look effortless, but to me that's a sign of how terrific the writing is. And as for the actors, well, I'm fortunate that there's nobody in the main cast I can only associate with another role and thus am able to pretty much let the performances speak for themselves. Though die-hard fans probably feel this applies to more of the cast, so far there are three people who just seem born to play the roles they've been given: John Spencer as Leo McGarry (I'm guessing chief of staff? They don't make it clear right away); Allison Janney as press secretary C.J. Cregg; and Richard Schiff as communications director Toby Ziegler. I can't wait to watch them again. The others were perfectly fine, too, though it will take some time for me to get used to Bradley Whitford playing this kind of role (I can see you laughing as you read this; I suppose I will be too should I read this again in a few weeks/months).

And the dialogue. Man, is that something. You probably won't be surprised when I tell you I found myself rewinding early and often, in an effort not to miss anything. It's a truly fast-paced show, and completely dialogue-driven, which makes me thankful I watch on Winamp, a program which lets you rewind 5 seconds back with the push of one button. What impresses me most, I think, is the combination of well-written monologues and snappy dialogue. It's hard to be good at writing both of those, but there were plenty of examples of the former (I suppose the president's opening screed remains most prominent in my head) and the rest of the script was pretty much an example of the latter. The acerbic sarcasm is used well; if you're going to go the sarcastic dialogue route as your primary dialogue device, I'd say Rule One is "be funny," and they nail that. What makes it more enjoyable is that the sarcasm doesn't just sit there - there's invariably an equally amusing retort: "You're the White House Deputy Communications Director and you're not good at talking about the White House?" "Isn't it ironic?" These lines don't simply exist to make us laugh; guys like Sam need to get the last word in.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, this show just felt real. I think it was primarily the dialogue - this felt like how people talk, how important people talk. Sorkin created, at least to this one-episode-seen point, a fake White House I can believe is real. The writing sells it, the acting sells it, even the staging and cinematography sells it - the episode is bookended by a superb long take through the bowels of the office, and an inspiring pan/high-angle zoom out on the Oval Office; it's no surprise this episode won an Emmy for best direction in a drama. The only thing I'm still not sure I'm sold on is Martin Sheen as the president, though it's hard to judge from only two scenes. (Aside: going 85% of the pilot episode of a show about the White House without showing the president? Gutsy. Also: they didn't even mention his name!) I'll give that one some time, and I'll even agree to let slide the overly cinematic way he was introduced to us, enjoyable as that moment (3:19 into the clip) was.

I feel like I've pretty much covered everything except the hilarity of giving a chracter played by Rob Lowe an awkward/potentially incriminating tryst right off the bat. Anyway, I'm thrilled to be starting this project and, with that in mind, I'd be delighted to hear some of your thoughts on this episode. (Remember, don't spoil future plots!)

-- Binny

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Binny --

I'm glad to have you on board. This promises to be an exciting and enlightening experience for both of us. I am actually delighted to hear how little exposure you have had to The West Wing, as hearing your unbiased, initial reactions to a show that I know backwards and forwards by now will make for a very interesting perspective in my opinion.

The point you make about being in a better place to appreciate the show now than when it first aired is an interesting one. As I mentioned in my initial post, before watching The West Wing, my interest in politics was minimal. Other than the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election and September 11th, when I - and many Americans - were glued to our television sets and CNN and MSNBC replaced ESPN and MSG as the go-to channels in my bedroom, I generally found politics to be boring. The West Wing changed that for me. It transformed the political arena into one that I found to be of critical importance, entirely fascinating, and one that, on given days, I was sure I would devote my career to. So I would agree that right now I am in a better position to understand the issues raised in The West Wing because I have a better understanding of the real-life situations it is based on. But perhaps if I had started watching the show earlier I would have had a better understanding of the real-life situations at an earlier point. Does watching and appreciating The West Wing generate a better understanding of politics or does a better understanding of politics generate a deeper appreciation of The West Wing? Some might argue that it's irrelevant; I am just left wondering.

As for the pilot, titled "Pilot," while it is a fairly ordinary episode of The West Wing, it is remarkable as a pilot. As you alluded to, the brilliance of the pilot, in a way, is its lack of ambition. It doesn't try to do too much. It shows us a snapshot of the lives of these people on an "average" day and introduces us to them in a way that seems real and unforced, yet allows us to immediately gain a deep insight into their characters: Toby's stoic passion and idealism; Josh's endearing hotheadedness; Sam's genuineness and naivete; etc. The characters advising the president are all exceedingly brilliant, but they are all deep, complex, flawed human beings, and that makes it real. The way they talk feels real, the way they handle problems feels real. One of the great hooks of the show to me is it authenticity. As opposed to other shows, where it's hard to believe that in every case a lawyer tries he either gets the real killer to break down and confess on the witness stand or delivers an impassioned closing argument, or that a hospital is faced with new deadly illnesses on a daily basis that nobody knows how to treat, it is much easier to believe that this type of drama and sense of crisis exists in the White House every single day. The stage which Sorkin has chosen on which to tell his stories allows him to create sensational plots that feel real.

The one aspect of the show that sometimes seems contrived is the way in which the storylines tie together, but this quality is also central to its genius. It is unlikely that in real life the themes of the legislation the staff is trying to pass intersect with a development in one of the staffer's personal lives. On The West Wing, this happens frequently. Sorkin has mastered the art of weaving different storylines together to form a wonderful final product, and although it does seem a tad unrealistic at times, he does it as best as he possibly could. And hey, it makes for great television. In this episode, for example, I think by juxtaposing the story of the Cubans with that of Josh's altercation with Mary Marsh and the religious right, Sorkin has a clear message: the Cubans are the religious right hundreds of years later. As President Bartlet says in his speech in the episode's final scene: "With the clothes on their back they came through a storm and the ones that didn't die want a better life and they want it here." Sound familiar? The Puritans fled England to avoid religious persecution and intolerance and now that they are in the majority, they are the ones unwilling to accept a system of belief and values that is different from their own. Sorkin's opinion of this segment of our society is very clear from the outset of the show and I can assure you it is a topic he will return to quite often.

As for President Josiah Bartlet (that's his full first name, but we'll refer to him mostly as "Jed"), the man most West Wing fanatics dream would be the real President of the United States, or POTUS, you will soon fall in love with him and join that group. He is both brilliant and sincere, a combination that is all too rare in real American politics and owns a charm and quick wit that makes him incredibly likable as a person. Some might think that we just elected such a man last month, but that remains to be seen. For now, I'll stick with Jed Bartlet. One interesting nugget that you may not be aware of: Sorkin's initial vision for the show was to be a show that centered on the White House senior staff, not the President himself. Sam Seaborn, perhaps, was envisioned as the main character. However, a combination of believing this style would inevitably wear out and the extent to which he was impressed with Martin Sheen's command of the character led to a change in direction after the pilot. Your confusion about Leo (you guessed right; he is the Chief of Staff) made me laugh because I actually remember that the first time I watched the pilot, I was also extremely confused about who he was. In fact, I remember concluding midway through the episode that even though it didn't seem right, he must be the President. After all, he seemed to be in charge and nobody else had claimed the title yet, so it had to be him. Oh well.

Anyways, I am glad that this project is now officially underway and I am eager to continue this discussion.

-- Av


P.S. What is it about A Few Good Men that made you want to record its audio, put it on a CD, and listen to it in your car 10 times one summer? Honestly, knowing you as well as I do, I suspect that the answer has much less to do with the movie and much more to do with your personality then you are letting on.