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":

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


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 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.


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?


  1. A bunch of ramblings based around this episode and ensuing conversation:

    1. I would go so far as to say that the brilliance of this show is not how Sorkin uses main characters like Leo, Sam, Josh and C.J. to show you how the West Wing operates, but rather how Sorkin uses characters like Donna, Mrs, Landingham, Charlie (for now, at least) and other side characters to "teach" what Sorkin sets out to. This is only made possible by staffing a large cast and knowing how to move the pieces around in careful and crafty ways. Not every character appears in every episode, they only pop up when they're necessary to push an agenda, storyline or lesson. Sorkin never wastes a word, character or a plot element.

    2. When C.J. and Sam are having their first conversation in this episode, she states "There are things that I do not know." In this scene, she sounds exactly like Dana (Felicity Huffman) from "Sports Night." Here's where I get all exaggeratory of the significance of this: Any writer knows how hard it is to write the voice of the other gender. Women tend to write chick lit better than men can. Not always, but mostly. In a show dominated by male characters, WW has many prominent female characters. That doesn't mean Sorkin can write them as well. And if he can, and when he does, they can sometimes sound like other, strong women he's written for before. This is more prone to happen than with, say, Josh Lyman and Casey McCall since Sorkin is a man more attuned to picking up subtleties in how men speak than he might with women. I'm probably wrong about this, but in that scene I definitely heard Dana come out inside C.J.

    3.Foo Fighters' "Learn to Fly" is playing in the background of the bar. I've become too accustomed to "Lost"-type thinking and wondered about the choice of music. Then I just had to remind myself that that would simply have been the song playing in the background of that bar a decade ago. (Side note - The bar was way too smoky for these characters, probably the intent of the writers. I question this decision since D.C. has many wonderful, up-scale bars that wouldn't pose any problems for this crew of people as they sat and ordered drinks. But if this was the direction Sorkin wanted to go with the scene and the storyline, then the bar needed the smokiness.)

    4. Lastly, and most importantly, this was an episode that again tied together storylines that were occurring simultaneously. Not in the follow through, but rather the emotions behind the scenes. Toby is moved by the Congressman emphasizing personal feelings over a political agenda, having been swayed by a persuasive argument; Donna wants to know what's in it for her, not her party or its future; and the President must consider his role as a father ahead of the POTUS.

    It's the crossing over of the private life into the public role (Josh explains he basically doesn't struggle with this decision at all). When the President first speaks to Leo, he's in his office in a suit and acting as the POTUS. Later on, after being deeply affected by his conversation with Zoey, he has a change of heart and a change of attire. In a sweater, he tracks down Leo and apologizes. This is Jed Bartlet. He re-approaches Leo in the same fashion he just dealt with Zoey. For te people who are most important to him, Bartlet can transition from one role to the other. This episode reminds you that there are emotions involved in every decision and everything helps shape these characters, on and off the screen.

    It reminds me actually of Tom Coughlin having to negotiate his offensive lineman, Chris Snee, with his son-in-law, Chris. Kate Coughlin probably has her own voice, though.

  2. Watching this show for the first time, I feel important. After watching shows like HIMYM, Scrubs, Friends, etc. over the past years, this is a refreshing intellectual change. I feel smarter watching the West Wing because I am leaving with more than I came with.

    I may have this type of story line stuck in my mind from the plagued, disgust that I used to (read: still choose to) watch, but for some reason, I feel that the playful banter between Josh and Donna will turn into a real relationship which may or may not be done in secrecy and may or may not be started in the White House.

    With all due respect to Sorkin, I do not think that this will come so quickly -- in a year or two or three or four, that is where I predict this relationship is going to take a turn for the sexier.

  3. Loved this episode but there's one problem -- they don't do roll calls like that in the House, only the Senate.

  4. Interesting. Also, for continuity purposes, the roll call goes straight from Willis to Zantowski, omitting a prominent female democratic House member whose last name falls in right there. Binny's head: Who is he talking about? We'll meet her in the next episode.