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":

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


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.


  1. 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.

    J Fix asked me this past week “Obama v Bartlett” – who do you vote for? (note: candidate Obama v. Candidate Bartlett. We don’t know anything about their presidencies in this scenario.)

    I told him that my impression is that Candidate Bartlett is nowhere near as impressive as President Bartlett becomes. (Binny seems to think that early President Bartlett is not even that impressive quite yet) Therefore, this year’s Obama vs. first term running Bartlett… I think I end up voting for Obama.

    But… second term Bartlett wins my vote over this year’s Obama.

    Let’s hope beyond hope that second term Obama and second term Bartlett needs deliberation.

    Good luck on the blog. What do you say – you guys completing the series here vs. Obama comleting his presidency? It’s a race! (6:32)

  2. Interesting blog. I only recently became a fan of The West Wing myself. I'm halfway through the last season now, so it'll be interesting to read your thoughts about each episode.

    I agree with almost everything both of you said about the pilot. I love the way all the characters are introduced, a brilliant start to the series. I also thought Martin Sheen as Jed Bartlet was very convincing right from the beginning, I'm just glad they decided to make him a regular or even kind of the centre of the show and not just someone who would appear every 4th episode or so.

    Looking forward to your future posts.

  3. I am more of a Team Binny player at this point as I have only seen a handful of episodes and never really got into the show, not for lack of interest in the topic, but more so for my fear of commitment. I am excited about this adventure and hope it will prove to be a positive experience for all involved.

    I agree fully with the comments posted above regarding the likability of the show and what separates it from the rest. Another factor that I believe separates this show and makes it as intriguing and realistic and addicting is the casting. Aside from Sam, and I guess there is probably always one "above-average" looking person in any workplace setting, all of the actors playing these roles are realistic in terms of what a real life chief of staff, press secretary etc. would look like. As opposed to other shows that cast an all beautiful cast, the casting director managed to find brilliant actors, that are not overly attractive, to play these roles and make the audience have to pause at certain times to remember that the show is a work of "fiction".