Thursday, December 17, 2009

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

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

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

Av --

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

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


Binny --

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

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

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


Av --

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

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Season 1, Episode 16: "20 Hours in L.A."

Plot Summary
: President Bartlet and several of his staff head to Los Angeles for a whirlwind visit that is topped off by a star-studded fundraiser hosted by a wealthy film honcho who threatens to cancel the bash unless Bartlet announces his opposition to a congressional bill banning gays in the military. Back in Washington, Leo tries to convince a stubborn Vice President Hoynes to break the Senate voting deadlock over an ethanol tax credit favored by the White House. Elsewhere, Josh learns that feisty campaign manager Joey Lucas is staying in his Los Angeles hotel and he eagerly anticipates seeing her again. The President takes a meeting where he is warned about not supporting an amendment banning flag-burning and later checks up on Secret Service security for his daughter Zoey -- and is unafraid to close down a celebrity-filled restaurant where she's lunching.

Click here to watch "20 Hours in L.A."

Av --

Considering how much time sitting presidents spend outside Washington, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see an episode centered around a trip to Los Angeles. After all, as Leo helpfully reminds us, they do have 54 electoral votes out there. (Well, 55 now.) Sending the show out West provided ample opportunity to throw in some fun moments (Donna and C.J. anxiously preparing for their minimal free time), cameos (loved the idea of C.J. thanking Jay Leno for laying off Leo drinking jokes), and inside-Hollywood mocking (any and all conversations revolving around working in "development"). But, as a trip to California is still a business trip for most of the staff (actually, all of the staff; I guess everyone was really working except Zoey), we got to see how the political game gets played outside the Beltway.

Essentially, the politics in this episode boil down to two intense disagreements, one of which Bartlet wins and one of which he loses. The win comes against Ted Marcus, the billionaire studio chairman intent on having Bartlet denounce a bill banning gays in the military. While Marcus is surely a man who understands public perception (hell, most of his fortune probably came from pitching blockbuster movies to the masses), it takes three conversations (two with Josh - one unseen - and one with the president) to make him "get" why Bartlet can't just speak up. Personally, I think the character of Ted Marcus would have understood this concept a lot faster, and the storyline was only taken as far as it was to contrast it with the other tense issue, namely the one with Vice President Hoynes. Bartlet is shown as having superior political acumen to Marcus in order to highlight that he can go out to Los Angeles and stand up to the big boys with the big wallets, but taking on Washington insiders who understand the game just as well as he himself does isn't so easy. While Hoynes has been an antagonist to this point, it's hard not to sympathize with his predicament. Breaking a Senate tie 50-50 by voting against the president is simply unheard of, but voting with the president and switching positions on an issue he had so firmly taken a stand on is political suicide for someone with the Oval Office on his big-picture agenda. (The "flip-flop" campaign by Hoynes's opponent would write itself.) While it's debatable whether the president's staff "set him up," Hoynes fairly calls out said staff for being "remarkably smug" (was anyone not thinking about Josh Lyman when he said that?), and honorably stands his ground until Leo and Sam concede that he's right. And while Bartlet isn't happy with taking the loss at first, he also comes around and genuinely confesses to Hoynes as well.

One other interesting thing I appreciated (other than the foreshadowing involving Zoey; meeting her Secret Service agent was a good scene, but one I fear is a step towards a perilous story) is the fallibility of Josh. I'm not just talking about his luck - or lack thereof - with the ladies; seeing his crush on Joey end up with him realizing she's shacking up with the ignoramus Al Kiefer was kind of... well not sad, but whatever's a step below that. I'm talking about when Josh gets talking points from Sam and Toby on what to say back to Ted Marcus. Josh is never one to back down from an argument, nor does he usually find himself at a loss for how to get people to be on his side. (See: "Five Votes Down," scene where he threatens to knock off a Congressman in the primary if he doesn't vote their way.) But here, caught off guard by a furious Marcus, maybe even slightly intimidated, Josh - the same Josh who ignored all reason and good judgment last episode by arrogantly taking on a press corps he was ill-equipped to handle - decided he needed help. Instead of making the situation worse with Marcus, he left there knowing he needed other people's take on this, and didn't hesitate to get it. Am I saying he should be beatified for doing what millions of working people do every day - ask their co-workers for help on a work issue they are struggling with? No, but given Josh's general approach and recent issues with these things, it was a nice touch.

-- Binny


Binny --

I'll start where you ended: the fallibility of Josh. I liked the layer that Sorkin added to his character to make him seem like more of a real person. We, or at least I, sometimes have a tendency to see the people who work at the (real) White House, specifically the senior staff as almost super-human: they're brilliant, work absurd hours, and turn down higher-paying jobs for the opportunity to serve their country. It's sometimes easy to forget that they're actual, normal people who can develop crushes and have their hearts broken. I'm glad that romance isn't something that pokes its head into the narrative too often, but in a situation like this, it did just the right amount and it worked. Josh seeing Joey standing in a robe next to Al Kiefer was a moment that felt very genuine. Another good example from this episode: Margaret being bitter about not getting to go along on the California trip. This is the type of thing that a "regular" person might obviously be resentful about, and it was nice to see that the assistant to the 2nd-most powerful person in the world also is.

An example of the exact opposite: the president's joke to Charlie, Josh, and Toby about how getting to notify the pilot that he's ready to leave is the "best part of my job." These people have flown with him many times before. That joke was for our benefit, not theirs. I'm not sure why, but this bothered me. (As does the point you made about Marcus. There is no way the simple reality of what the president explained to him could elude a media mogul like Ted Marcus who would presumably be much more media and P.R. savvy than how he is presented here.)

As you may have guessed, it wasn't an accident that I referred to Leo above as the "2nd-most powerful person in the world" because, in this episode, he once again clashes with the vice president, the man who traditionally is thought to hold that title. As we have seen, however, in practice and even in principle the Vice President is essentially powerless. Leo is quick to point out that breaking ties in the Senate is one of Hoynes' two constitutional duties (the other of course being maintaining a pulse). I loved the citation to the constitution here as a nod to their earlier conversation in "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc" in which Hoynes challenges Leo: "Well, let me consult Article Two of the Constitution, 'cause I'm not a hundred percent sure where this office gets the authority to direct me to the men's room!" And Hoynes is 100% right, except for the fact that he's totally wrong. Technically speaking, the VP is a prominent, elected member of the national government and the Chief of Staff is an appointed adviser. But in practice, in this administration particularly, the VP is a figurehead and the Chief of Staff is the president's right arm. When they do battle, we know who is ultimately going to prevail.

To me, the most interesting issue raised in this episode was the flag-burning amendment. Not because I find it to actually be an interesting debate but because it featured the president showing why he is the president: he is able to remove his politics, ideals, and beliefs from the issue and be thoughtful about it. You have people screaming "free speech!" on one side and others screaming "the flag is a symbol of freedom!" on the other (the "free speech" side has a much catchier chant) and then you have the president being able to make the most poignant point of all: it's a cow's opinion. This debate is totally theoretical and having Unites States representatives, senators, and the president wasting time on such a meaningless issue is ridiculous, an argument so eloquently presented by Eddie Vedder. And any time Jed Bartlett and Eddie Vedder see eye to eye on an issue, you know where I'll stand.

Other notes:

  • The prevailing term for Josh's tirade against the congressman from "Five Votes Down" on the prominent West Wing message board was "Goes Gazebo." Let's use that from now on.
  • In this episode, Donna sees "Matt Perry" at the party and chases after him. Down the line, there will be a recurring character played by none other than Matthew Perry. I love when stuff like this happens, even if it makes my head hurt a little. (Another great, recent West Wing-related example: on this season of Entourage, a character played by Gary Cole tries to sign Aaron Sorkin, played by himself. Gary Cole also plays a recurring character on The West Wing, which Aaron Sorkin created. A very bad example of this: the Julia Roberts/Tess Ocean scene in Ocean's 12, a movie I still believe was made bad and ridiculous on purpose.)
-- Av

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Season 1, Episode 15: "Celestial Navigation"

Plot summary
Sam and Toby are dispatched to Connecticut for some damage control and to secure the secret release of President Bartlet's primary choice for the Supreme Court, who has been jailed for alleged drunk driving and resisting arrest. Meanwhile, Josh is a guest lecturer at a college class to talk about working for the President and he recounts the previous week's flare-ups, which include his feeble attempt to fill in as the White House spokesman at a press conference where he promises that the President has "a secret plan to fight inflation," and the media glare that engulfs the African-American HUD secretary who publicly labeled a prominent Republican as a racist.

Click here to watch "Celestial Navigation"

Av --

I almost feel like this episode was written on a dare. Sure, I picture Sorkin being challenged, you can write an episode for a show about the White House when the plot involves a crucial House vote, or preparation for a State of the Union address, or an international conflict. But how about you try to capture a "boring" day for the senior staff? Leaving aside the reality that presumably no such thing exists for the real West Wingers, why don't you just write an episode about a typical day in the White House? It's ironic, in a sense, because the obvious conceit of the show itself is to portray a "typical" presidential administration; the issues and events that are dealt with by this staff are meant to represent those that can confront any staff. But to try to capture a "typical" day? What an atypical "West Wing" episode.

There's a powerful scene in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where a main character is injured in a gruesome car accident. The beautifully-constructed sequence illustrates how the accident would not have occurred if one of several small, random things, some of which didn't involve the accident parties themselves, had happened even slightly differently. This confluence of events, this notion that, as Benjamin puts it, "sometimes we're on a collision course and we just don't know it," is a known truism of life, to be sure, and applicable to every person every day on some level. But here we get a glimpse at just how magnified this theme can be in the White House. Had one of several different things happened (or not happened), as Josh points out to his audience, the typical day would have been just that. (My personal favorite "argh, if only...": why couldn't Sam leave C.J. and her teeth alone!) While it certainly would have been preferable for the staff (and less exciting television) had the day gone as planned, I couldn't help but sense the realism in the way things unfolded, in that watching the way actual presidential politics operate, you just know it's always going to be something. There is no move the president or his administration can make, no matter how minute it may seem, that won't bring about the requisite analysis, assessments, scrutiny, and criticism. (Yes, there must always be criticism. Even when the president picks a dog, there must be criticism.) Point being, even if Deborah O'Leary had backtracked on her calling a Congressman a racist, even if Bartlet had not taken Danny's bait on that subject, even if C.J. had not had a root canal, even if Mendoza had played the role of dutiful Supreme Court nominee, something else would happen. The day just can't go off as scheduled. Josh's way of framing the O'Leary/inflation episode as a story with a beginning, middle, and end is cute, but the most significant thing he said was all the way at the beginning: "There’s a schedule and there’s a structure to be sure, and to a certain extent it starts out as a 9-to-5 job, but you can pretty much count on it being blown to hell by 9:30." As much as they want to, as Sam says, "control the news cycle," more often than not the course of direction is out of their hands, seemingly controlled by unknown forces. Call it, say, celestial navigation.

At the same time, one way to stay in control is to assign responsibility to people you know won't lead you off-course. Three failures of people to stay on course were showcased here, to varying degrees. On the one hand you have Secretary O'Leary, who falls into a political trap despite her good intentions, and Josh, who leads himself into a complete media mess with nothing but smug and condescending intentions. They made mistakes, sure, but after receiving their rightful admonishing, they can be trusted not to make them again. (Well, Josh is bound to let his arrogance get the best of him again, but at least he will be sure not to - or, I should say, won't be allowed to be in a position to - make that mistake again.) The case of Roberto Mendoza, however, is a different one. We learn that he has a history of going off-message, of speaking out, of basically doing everything the administration needs him not to do. The culmination of this is the stubbornness he displays when Toby tries to free him from his presumed racially-provoked arrest, insisting on proving a point by letting the system do its work. Toby's clash with Mendoza in that cell was intriguing: here are two wise, good-hearted political idealists, except one "gets it" and understands how the perception game needs to be played, and the other either doesn't get it, doesn't care about it, or both. I'm glad Mendoza gets on board in the end, though if his noble, unaffected way of looking at his status as a potential justice is at all changed, it will have been a shame.

One final note: I know I like comedy, and I know I find comedy, well, funny. But I'll admit that the science, the conceptual analysis of comedy, is something I wish I knew more about than I actually do. I'm especially fond of television comedy, and though I can tell you why I find certain shows funnier than others, my ability to fully explain it is still a work in progress. This is all my way of saying that one of the most enjoyable aspects of "The West Wing" thus far has been its ability to amuse, and this specific episode was no exception, yet it somehow felt different. My inclination is to say that the core comedic elements of the show to this point have been sardonicism and sharp, incisive wit, while in this episode they went for more traditional, sitcom-y jokes (I was half-expecting a laugh track during some of the fun at C.J.'s expense) and a running, irresistible gag involving Allison Janney speaking with a mouth full of cotton balls. And damn if that wasn't just flat-out funny.

-- Binny


Binny --

It's interesting that you saw this as an atypical episode you "suggest" Sorkin wrote "on a dare" because while it may be atypical in practice, I feel like on some level this was precisely the type of episode Sorkin envisioned when he first conceived the show. He wanted to do a show that focused on the president's staff more than the president himself and that dealt more with what goes on behind the scenes than with the forefront. This episode did exactly that. The president barely appears or plays a role in the plot and the storyline focuses on seemingly minor staff issues and reactions rather than major policy initiatives. Obviously, in order to be consistently interesting as a series that model would have to be abandoned, but I feel like "Celestial Navigation" was exactly the type of episode Sorkin always had in mind.

"Why couldn't Sam leave C.J. alone," you ask. What type of person is really "nuts for dental hygiene"? Probably the same type of person who in response to a rhetorical, "How does a person do that" (drive from Canada to Washington D.C. when summoned to the White House), takes it literally and responds with his best guess of the route Justice Mendoza will take.

Your point about how all the "if only's" are kind of moot because there would have been something else for people to pounce on is spot on. This is even more true nowadays, as the media has progressed over the last decade in this regard. Once something starts, there is virtually no way to walk it back without doing something that someone will crush you for.

Things I liked in this episode:

1. More examples of college girls being enamored with Josh. Realistic? Maybe not. Hilariously fun, though? Absolutely.

2. The first usage (I believe) of the in media res narrative device. Given that Sorkin used this in virtually every episode of "Studio 60," I can only assume we'll be seeing more of this here.

3. It made me like Josh as a real person. The same way when Jed Bartlett delivers a speech in the show it makes me think "man, I would love to hear that guy speak," this episode made me think "man, I would love to attend a panel that Josh Lyman was on." Maybe our friends can let us know if there are any coming up.

4. It was damn funny. My favorite moments: a) Toby interjecting “‘of course not,’ she answered wisely" as C.J.reads the section of the transcript where Wooden asks O’Leary if she’s calling him a racist; and b) the president taking Josh to school in front of the staff, asking him, “are you telling me that not only did you invent a secret plan to fight inflation, but now you don’t support it?”

And this wouldn’t be Blogging "The West Wing" if we didn’t broach our favorite theme: pragmatism vs. idealism. We see this struggle in two separate conversations. First, Leo tries to convince Secretary O’Leary that she has to apologize. Her argument is “I called it like I saw it” and even challenges Leo for not taking a stronger stance, wondering “when are you guys gonna stop running for president?” Leo understands that her apologizing is the “cost of doing business” and the only way to fix the problem and end the story. Similarly, Toby and Mendoza butt heads over the very same ideas. Mendoza knows that was done to him was legally and morally wrong and he wants to let the justice system sort things out the way it’s supposed to work. He doesn’t want help and he doesn’t want special treatment. Toby knows better. "There’s nothing about this that doesn’t stink,” he admits, sympathizing with the justice’s situation. But there’s “nothing about it that wouldn’t be better if you were a Supreme Court Justice,” he explains. Said simpler: keep your eye on the prize. In both situations, in the battle between idealism and pragmatism, it is pragmatism that carries the day.

-- Av


Av --

While the persistent battle between idealism and pragmatism has been covered quite extensively both on the show and in our correspondence to this point, your bringing it up here made me realize something else. You mention two examples of people we see going through the usual struggle with having to put aside being in the right in order to "play the game." And Deborah O'Leary's story is in line with several we've seen already. But Roberto Mendoza is different for a very basic reason: he comes from a different branch of government. If confirmed, he will be in a position where he doesn't have to answer to anyone - no re-election to worry about, no political party forcing his hand, no special interest group he needs to worry about pleasing. A Supreme Court justice is blessed with the ability to go with idealism every time. Mendoza's refusal to fall in line with the Bartlet administration has been frustrating for them, no doubt, but it also re-enforces why he'd make a terrific jurist. I think the point Toby tries to get across is that he admires this quality of Mendoza, but needs him to just put it aside until after he's confirmed, the last time politics should get in his way.

Your belief that this episode represents the original Sorkin prototype is interesting and kind of ironic. Interesting because you may be right - for a show conceived around a behind-the-scenes look at the White House, this episode couldn't have met that ideal any better. (Here's proof: though it wasn't as strong an episode as "Pilot", from a narrative standpoint this could have worked as the first episode of the series.) Ironic because you note that the goal was to create a show more about staff and issues, less about policy initiatives and major presidential storylines, but that the show became what it was "in order to be consistently interesting as a series." So when we see O'Leary's and Toby's pragmatism winning out over idealism, are we seeing an extended metaphor for the show's modus operandi?

-- Binny

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Season 1, Episode 14: "Take This Sabbath Day"

Plot summary
: After the Supreme Court refuses to stay the execution of a Federal prisoner convicted of killing two drug kingpins, President Bartlet must decide whether or not to commute his sentence in less than 48 hours, so he calls upon his sagacious childhood priest for guidance. Meanwhile, even Toby feels the heat over the controversial issue when he hears a sermon on capital punishment from his rabbi. Elsewhere, a hearing-challenged, combative campaign manager begs for an audience with the President when her Democratic congressional candidate has purposely been underfunded by his party before the upcoming election to unseat an incumbent.

Click here to watch "Take This Sabbath Day"

Av --

Separating my personal beliefs versus how I objectively view this episode is not going to be easy, but I'm going to try. You see, growing up Jewish, especially Orthodox, seeing people who looked like us on TV or in movies was quite the pleasant surprise. Hey, that guy's wearing a kippah! That girl's speaking Hebrew! Those people are davening! (That guy's orchestrating a major financial scam!) As I got older, my reactions went from being excited to see religious Jews portrayed on TV to a variety of emotions raging from slightly annoyed to quite furious at the inaccuracies of the portrayals, often occurring in the most minor - and therefore easily researched - ways. Recently, my enjoyment of good episodes of various series, including "The Sopranos," "Grey's Anatomy," and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," has been compromised due to my negative feelings about seeing someone I should be able to relate to quite viscerally but feel I have nothing in common with. Anyway, seeing a rabbi on screen espousing that the Torah is "just plain wrong by any modern standard" is bothersome, though in defense of Sorkin, he didn't make it up - he got it from his own rabbi. So while my initial reaction was to criticize Sorkin for using this episode as a podium for his own beliefs about the relevance of biblical law in modern times, I think it's the concept that this can be - and very much is - a rabbinical position that bothers me, not the implausibility. The true implausibility is seeing David Proval, "Sopranos" gangster, with a kippah on his head, saying, "vengeance is not Jewish."

Where was I? Oh yes, separating personal beliefs versus an objective position. Sounds like a Bartletian dilemma of the highest degree. You knew right from the get-go this was going to be an issue episode, an Important Episode, from the lack of "previously"'s, a move only repeated twice more during the series. And as it became clear this was a death penalty episode, I became skeptical that they were going to go the route of a typical "here's one side of an issue, here's the other" episode. But I credit Sorkin for three things. 1: He managed to find a storyline to make capital punishment, usually a state issue, a White House one. 2: He completely accepted as valid being in favor of the death penalty, despite it not being the position of the administration. (Understandably, he didn't seem as compelled to do the same for gun control.) 3: Most importantly, he didn't make the episode about which side is right in the death penalty debate; the real issue at play was how the people in the White House could reconcile their own opinions and religious beliefs with the will of the American people and the constitutional responsibilities of the president.

The relationship between the death penalty and religion - at least through the lens of this episode - is fascinating. Yes, the origins of capital punishment are biblical. Yes, the founders probably had God on their minds when they instituted the death penalty in America. (Okay, they were more likely just bringing along laws from the old country. But those founders probably took it from the Bible.) But just because it has religious underpinnings ("We don’t execute people on the Sabbath") doesn't mean it's automatically archaic. A logical, judicial argument could be made for "Eye for an eye," a point driven home when we see Charlie, a young, educated and (presumably) liberal guy, tell Bartlet he'd execute his mother's killer himself, given the chance. The 71% of Americans cited by Bartlet who support the death penalty could support it for any of a number of reasons. And the 29% who don't could oppose it for the same amount of reasons. Just ask Joey Lucas: "The state shouldn't kill people." In Bartlet's case the reason that stands tallest is executing someone (or, in his case, not stopping an execution) violates his religious beliefs. (Credit Sorkin for a fourth thing: creating a liberal president heavily influenced by religion.) While it was certainly an issue he struggled with mightily, I think not staying the execution is more in line with his presidential philosophy: "It’s helpful in those situations not to think of yourself as the man but as the office." While we've discussed the issue of electing a man to the office in part based on belief in the person and his own judgment, it's certainly extremely difficult to defend said judgment if it's done in the name of religion. Which is why, to be honest, I had a hard time seeing where Toby came from. I get Sam - he was coming from a moral, classic liberal approach. (And personal; he was trying to help his friend in the public defender's office.) But Toby, who understands the concept of public opinion better than anybody? I can't believe he legitimately tried to sell the president on a decision that would cause a hellish political fallout. (Though I did appreciate his more Talmudic, nuanced approach to the issue.)

In the end the issue that loomed largest for Bartlet seemed to be how to do something he felt he had to do, be it out of respect for the office or for political expediency, or both, despite it amounting to a personal violation of his religion. Though it was a bit harsh, I respect Father Cavanaugh (Karl Malden was the best-used guest star to date) using a classic parable in calling Bartlet out on his purported annoyance in having received no wisdom from God. From the second Bartlet got back from his trip and had this issue on the table he knew what the decision would boil down to, and deep down he always knew what he was going to do. In the end, he had to take a hit personally, leaving him with nothing to ask for but forgiveness. I'll say this: ending an episode with "Bless me father for I have sinned" sure packs a powerful punch.

-- Binny


Binny --

The issue of the death penalty in the realm of Jewish law is certainly a thorny one and one that for me, this episode brought to the forefront. As the episode reveals, the Bible's position on capital punishment is unequivocal, calling for its implementation to punish murderers and adulterers, as well as those that violate the Sabbath. Yet, for centuries, the Rabbis implemented restrictions and rules on the criminal justice system that were so severe that the prospect of the death penalty ever actually being imposed were so minute that the Talmud tells us that a court that implemented the death penalty once every seventy years was considered harsh. Maimonides taught us that "it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death." Today, it is the official position of both the Reform and Conservative movements to oppose the death penalty. Indeed, even the Orthodox Union in its Summary of Standing Policy Decisions supports “efforts to place a moratorium on executions in the United States and the creation of a commission to review the death penalty procedures within the American judicial system.” Therefore, it is fairly obvious that while the Bible’s inclusion of capital punishment is indisputable, the Jewish position on the death penalty has evolved over the years to the point that the prevailing view is to oppose it rather than to support it. Whether this is because of the reason Rabbi Glassman gives (that the thinking of the Torah, which possibly “reflected the best wisdom of its time,” is “just plain wrong by any modern standard”) or because of the reason Toby gives (the rabbis “couldn’t stomach it”) probably depends on who you ask, but I am sure that just as many, if not more, people would cite the former reason (in explaining their positions on other issues, as well) as would cite the latter.

However, while the import of Jewish law may have been the aspect of the episode that I found most interesting, it is by no means what the episode is about. As Toby points out, declaring “vengeance is not Jewish” as the solution to the problem is not satisfactory because “for one thing, neither is the president.” Watching the president grapple with this moral dilemma was fascinating because in a series that has so far often highlighted the tension between idealism and pragmatism, seeing the usual policy-based idealism be replaced by a higher sense of idealism (faith), yet ultimately still be trumped by the political pragmatism that wins elections was somehow shocking and predictable at the same time. More interesting was watching the contrast in moral certainty in the final scene between Father Cavanaugh (“‘Vengeance is mine,’ sayeth the Lord.” You know what that means? God is the only one who gets to kill people…That was your way out”) and Bartlet (I’m the leader of a democracy, Tom. Seventy-one percent of the people support capital punishment. People have spoken. The courts have spoken.”) It’s not hard to see why one went into the priesthood and the other into politics. (And did you notice that he abides by the president's request to call him "Mr. President" until he can no longer hold back his disappointment and with his last line of dialogue asks, "Jed. Would you like me to hear your confession?")

From an ongoing storyline perspective, however, the most striking thing about this episode is the staff’s building frustration with the president. Early in the season, we see Bartlet lambasted by Justice Crouch for running to the middle of the road after taking office. In the days before the State of the Union, we hear Toby echo this sentiment (albeit with a slightly different perspective), explaining that they won and have to use their time in office as an opportunity to implement a progressive agenda. Last episode, it was C.J. who is up in arms that the president is waffling on abstinence-only sex education. And now it is Sam (and Toby to a lesser extent) that is visibly frustrated with the president and Leo’s refusal to more seriously reconsider staying the execution, asserting with dismay, “there
are times when we are absolutely nowhere.” They are all sophisticated political operatives that surely understand this balance between idealism and pragmatism, but at a certain point they all seem to be taking stock of what they gave up to take this job and why they did so, and lately it seems that not everyone likes what they see.

-- Av


Av --

I did notice the Father Cavanaugh's use of "Jed"; when anyone other than Abbey Bartlet uses that name it tends to stand out. The last person to address him by his first name was Leo when he was chastising the president for not disclosing his MS to him. In that situation it was Leo, consciously or subconsciously (I think it's the former, personally), shedding the roles of chief of staff and president, and on a very plain level asking an old friend why he didn't come to him. This case was similar. Bartlet asked to be addressed in an official capacity so that he wouldn't think personally about policy decisions. Once the execution had been carried out and there was no more decision to be made, all that was left was a former parishioner needing to confess to his priest. The office didn't need to ask forgiveness, the man did. Cavanaugh clearly got that, and addressed "Jed" accordingly.

As far as the "higher sense of idealism" is concerned, you're right it's clear why Cavanaugh and Bartlet have the jobs they have, but it's disconcerting to think that people like Cavanaugh (and to a lesser extent Toby) can appeal to the president's personal higher idealism, and use religious belief to influence policy. I understand the relationship between church and state is quite murky; officially they are supposed to be separate yet Christmas is a legal holiday. That said, the official distinction between the two is crucial in the chief executive. While it would be unpopular with the American public either way, it's a lot easier to stomach Bartlet staying the execution because he morally opposes the death penalty than because he religiously opposes it. The obvious reason is that it sets a dangerous precedent; what's to stop a more fervently religious president from making policy decisions stemming from his or her own religious viewpoints? And if you think I'm thinking about a Muslim fundamentalist in the Oval Office you're wrong; I'm actually thinking about a right-wing Orthodox rabbi.

Speaking of, I appreciate the relevant research into our faith's position on capital punishment. I, too, am familiar with the Talmud's position on the issue, and am glad it made its way into the episode. It's quite sensible that the denominations you listed, including Orthodoxy, oppose the death penalty. My issue remains not with the understanding of the Jewish stance on capital punishment, rather the willingness, near-eagerness of a rabbi to insist that he knows better than the Torah, which was simply the "best wisdom of its time." Toby's response to the Bible was to quote its scholars who used their own wisdom to interpret capital punishment as either a looming threat or last resort, to rarely, if ever, be used. Rabbi Glassman's was out and out dismissive. (And while I'm here, it was pretty interesting to hear him invoke the Haggadah to prove "vengeance isn't Jewish." Vengeance - albeit God's - is a pretty prevalent theme in the Haggadah, up to and including the passage he quoted from, Chad Gadya.)

Finally, I don't see Sam's frustration as part of a growing frustration among the staff. Given the quantity and magnitude of the issues that come across the president's desk, it's only natural that a position he - or the administration in general - stands by is going to be at odds with various individuals in his administration. I don't think Bartlet's decisions that bothered C.J. or Sam should cause concern with either of them that this is not the man they signed up to work with. The beauty of this decision is Bartlet essentially had to take a position that was at odds with himself. I think ultimately that is a point the staff can look at and respect. It would be more troublesome if Bartlet started drastically changing his political philosophy (which is what Toby brought to the forefront before the State of the Union); this would be cause for serious introspection by the staff.

-- Binny


Binny --

You don't have to sell me on the danger of a president that legislates through religion. I've been spending the last few months trying to beat a hangover that resulted from an 8-year-long drunken tirade of a born-again Christian fundamentalist whose narrow-mindedness on issues such as homosexuality and stem cell research still give me a lingering feeling of nausea.

I understand your disapproval of Rabbi Glassman's position but I think it comes from a place of a man struggling to reconcile the tenets of his faith with his own modern standards of judgment and morality, not just being dismissive for the sake of being dismissive. As for your point about his commentary on the Haggadah, yes much of the Passover story is about punishment and vengeance (and yes, as you qualified, it is God's vengeance, not man's) but I've always found one of the most uplifting parts of the Passover tale to be the story of God chastising the angels for celebrating the Egyptian's demise in the Red Sea, because as the Talmud explains, "How can one celebrate and sing joyous songs of praise while the handiwork of God is being destroyed?" The Exodus was surely a triumphant victory for the Jewish people, but we are taught that the loss of human life (even that of our enemies) makes that victory slightly less sweet.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Season 1, Episode 13: "Take Out the Trash Day"

Plot summary
: While President Bartlet and his staff debate the appropriate response to a controversial new sex education study, there are fears that the parents of a murdered gay teenager should be excused from attending the signing of a hate crimes bill because of the father's embarrassment about his son's homosexuality. Josh and Sam meet with an appropriations subcommittee which is investigating Josh's lack of cooperation in the White House staff drug probe - all of which is designed to expose Leo's former substance-abuse problem. Toby relishes his verbal duel with some congressmen who have held up the newest appointments for the Public Broadcasting Corporation. C.J. is advised to save a few embarrassing stories for release on Friday to blunt the effect on the media over the weekend, but she also finds time to continue her frisky flirtation with a White House reporter.

Click here to watch "Take Out the Trash Day"

Av --

A few weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine decided to forego their usual format and, instead of their standard features and articles, publish 52 portraits of "Obama's People." These were up-close, personal pictures of the incoming administration, intended to capture, in this moment, "portraits of those whose character and temperament and bearing may well prove consequential in the coming months and years." Going through the magazine then, I remember thinking of those 52 people - some I had heard of, some I was meeting for the first time - as teammates. These people - diverse as they are, be it through race, gender, or political party - are unified in their political goals, brought together by the vision of their boss - one Barack Obama. What I failed to internalize, though, was that while these people no doubt are in line with the president's agenda on a broad scale, they are still individuals with their own worldviews and opinions, many of which probably don't line up with the administration's. Until I watched this episode, I admit I was blind to the role of personal opinion outside the Oval Office - and its ramifications. This episode presented that issue nicely, examining opinions at four distinct levels.

The lowest level, the opinion that is least relevant to the administration, is that of the average citizen. (This is not to say the people's voice doesn't count; on the contrary, citizens are the driving force of a democracy. However, on an individual level, one man's opinion won't carry that much weight with the White House.) The Lydell family was brought to Washington as a symbol of hate crime violence. Their presence was meant to enhance the legislation the president was signing. Once it emerged that Mr. Lydell did not support the president because of his "weak-ass position on gay rights" (great scene, by the way), his presence was no longer necessary. While his attitude is justifiable, even respectable, there's no room in the White House for this citizen and his opinion running counter to the president's.

More complicated is the opinion of the low-level White House staffer, as we see with Karen Larsen. While her opinions on issues are probably treated like those of any other ordinary citizen, she's in a position to act on them. In truth, it's an unenviable position. We, the viewers, have come to love Leo McGarry. We respect him. Karen Larsen doesn't know him like we do. She sees a personnel file, sees a drunk and drug addict in the chief of staff office, remembers growing up with an alcoholic for a father, and risks her job to do what she thinks is right. Despicable as we're supposed to find her act of treachery - and believe me, I do - Leo's not wrong when he calls giving him up to Klaypool "a little brave." (So is taking her job back, by the way. Good luck being trusted by your bosses and being respected by your peers after all this.) It has to be a fine line to walk, working in a place where you have access to much more than the average citizen, but have to balance how much you believe in your bosses versus speaking out when you feel they are truly in the wrong.

Working our way up the ladder, we see the problems that C.J. has when her opinions matter less than others'. (Though she didn't get a writing credit, this storyline seems to have Dee Dee Myers' fingerprints all over it.) It certainly has to be frustrating to be on par with people like Josh, Sam, and Toby in many ways, but have her voice count less in many others. Last episode, Toby called a meeting with the president to get a phrase - and philosophy - change in the State of the Union. Granted, he's the communications director so it's his domain, but he was able to change the president's mind on an operating principle of his administration. C.J., on the other hand, is told that certain stories are "trash," and her responsibility is to treat them as such. The fact that she thinks the government has a responsibility to change their approach to sex education is less important than avoiding the debate in order to win a political favor. The fact that she thinks Jonathan Lydell's voice should be heard is less important than avoiding a potential embarrassment with the media. It's undoubtedly a difficult position to be in, though I suppose I should be fair and credit Danny for not letting her frustration come at the expense of her professionalism. (3:59 into the clip.) By the way, I think it is to Sorkin's credit that I see C.J.'s emotional reactions to these situations as being well-defined points of her character, and not simply think, "oh, she's a woman, of course she's emotional about it." After all, a male press secretary is fully capable of often being at odds with his boss.

Finally, there is that inner circle in the West Wing (and The West Wing) whose opinions count the most. I'm sure that Leo will take some flack from his colleagues (presumably off-screen, since this issue appears to be over) for bringing Karen back. (As a matter of fact, Sorkin himself was taken to task by White House officials for that decision.) But ultimately, it's Leo's decision to make. By virtue of the position he's in, unless the president himself disagrees, Leo is empowered to have his opinions count more. And if the man who was given a second chance by everyone he knows wants to give one to someone else, well, that's just the way it's going to be.

-- Binny


Binny --

Your thoughts on this episode have allowed me to see it in a different light and upgrade it from one that I considered very poor to one that was simply mediocre. You see, my biggest problem with this episode is that it was all over the place and it seemed to lack direction but the overarching theme that floats throughout it adds a level of focus to it that I failed to observe. How frustrating it must be to be the lone voice of dissent in a place where the ultimate decision belongs to the most powerful person in the world. Watching different characters deal with this frustration was indeed an interesting part of this episode.

As I mentioned, my main problem with this episode is that, if nothing else, so many parts of it just seemed totally out of place. Whether it was a storyline about Zoey's potentially racist professor that was teased (and even featured in the official episode summary) but never followed through on, Sam obsessively babbling on about a town in Alabama that wants to abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments, or C.J.'s climactic observation that "we could all be better teachers" (I still have no idea what that means), this episode prompted the same reaction in my head over and over again: WTF.

As for Sam's preoccupation with the Alabama town, I have two ideas of what Sorkin could have been going with there, at least thematically. My first thought was that it was included as a commentary on the religious right. The episode features two issues -- gay rights and abstinence-only sex education -- that are highly monitored by the religious right and perhaps they have Sam allude to this asinine policy goal of an Alabama town (and of course, it's Alabama; where else?) to show the absurd logical extreme of legislating based on religious values: abolishing all laws except for the Ten Commandments. Alternatively, this nugget may have been included because of the commandment Sam seems especially focused on, "coveting thy neighbor's wife." He points out the practical impossibility of enforcing such a law because, after all, how can you regulate and inflict punishment for a person's thoughts? A commentary on the hate crime legislation the episode deal with, perhaps? Still, even though there are plausible explanations for its inclusion, Sam's obsession with this story seems way out of proportion with whatever it was intended to accomplish.

The Lydell storyline is a particularly heartwarming one because throughout the episode, I felt myself, like C.J. refusing to believe what the men around her were telling her, namely, that it is, in fact, possible for a father to be ashamed of the fact that his recently murdered son was a homosexual. Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, my understanding of what it means to be a parent made this a notion that shocked my conscience and I was truly relieved to learn the truth behind Mr. Lydell's ambivalence. His words on the issues of gay rights ("I want to know what qualities necessary to being a parent/soldier this president feels my son lacked") resonate not only because they are simple, but because they are true. Indeed, society has begun to come around on issues like marriage equality and even the military is beginning to reconsider their position on gay troops (see this morning's NY Times opinion pagefor example.) We don't know what Mr. Lydell's positions were on gay rights before learning that his son was gay, or even before he was murdered for it, but I think we are supposed to conclude that he was previously less tolerant. As Harvey Milk explained in that touching scene in Milk, telling his friends to urge every closet homosexual they know to come out, average people are more likely to support the gay moveme
nt once they themselves know someone who is actually gay. For those individuals, it's the kind of thing that they can't understand until there is a real face on the issue, until they can somewhat understand what it's like to be gay.

Kind of like the same way that nobody can possibly understand what it's like to be an alcoholic unless they are one themselves. So explains Leo. I like alcohol. A lot. But I can't conceive of ever having anywhere the level of dependence on alcohol that an alcoholic does. Nicolas Cage's character in Leaving Las Vegas is just that: a character. The notion that someone can be so impacted on a daily basis by whether or not they drink is a concept that is totally foreign to someone who doesn't live that life. (Also, maybe I needed to be drunk to fully understand this episode.) Having Leo try to explain this idea to Karen, whose own father was an alcoholic, provided for a nice moment, but like the staffers that e-mailed Sorkin, I agree that there is no way that girl gets to keep her job. Sure, Leo might be inclined to give people a second chance because of all the chances he was given, but I suspect he would give those second chances to people who committed sins less severe than leaking classified secret service files to the opposition party.

One thing that I thought was interesting about the C.J.-Danny dynamic in this episode is that up until now we had focused on the implausibility of the press secretary, especially one as professional as C.J. Cregg, dating a White House reporter, because of the unprofessionalism this would present from the press secretary's perspective. However, in this episode, it is not C.J., but Danny that ultimately exhibits that quality. By passing on a story tip that he would otherwise take if not for his affection for C.J. as a person, he is not doing his job properly. C.J. certainly flirts with, if not crosses, the line here as well, but it is worth noting that she is not the only one doing a disservice to their employer by pursuing this relationship.

Finally, it might be that seeing Devorah's thoughts on the sexist undertones of Knocked Up validated in a recent Slate article about a similar phenomenon in episodes of Friday Night Lights has increased my anti-feminism radar, but the scene in which Donna, Margaret and the other assistants discuss the leak until being repudiated by Mrs. Landginham struck me as very odd. Maybe Sorkin was confused about which Elisabeth Moss show he was writing for, but this scene seemed more appropriate for Mad Men than The West Wing. We are shown a group of women sitting at their desks discussing an issue of extreme importance to the White House, and instead of being encouraged, the most senior member among them labels their behavior as "gossip" and essentially tells them, "get back to your typing and leave the important stuff for the men to handle." Even Josh's quip ("Well, here's a group of federal employees") as the scene continues with his entrance, has a strange feel to it that made me slightly uncomfortable. Again, this scene just seemed more out of place than anything, a symptom that that was pervasive throughout this episode, your thematic tie-in notwithstanding. I wonder if this episode aired in its normal Wednesday night spot or if in a calculated, strategic decision it was moved to Friday night, with the rest of the trash.

-- Av

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Season 1, Episode 12: "He Shall, From Time to Time..."

Plot summary: The White House staff is in full crisis mode when President Bartlet is found unconscious as he prepares for the State of the Union speech while the India-Pakistan border skirmish flares again when a fearful Pakistan gives its field commanders control of its nuclear arsenal. While the President's condition is officially blamed on the flu, the First Lady knows better, and Toby is too busy to notice as he polishes his boss' upcoming address. Equally distracting is the inevitable disclosure of Leo's former substance-abuse problem by political rivals, as well as the reappearance of the amusing Lord Marbury -- a besotted ladies' man who doubles as a key adviser on the India-Pakistan conflict. Despite the crises, C.J. and Mallory express their romantic feelings about two very different men.

Click here to watch "He Shall, from Time to Time..."

Av --

I've never considered the relationship between alcoholism and multiple sclerosis. In fact, I still don't think they're related. But the symmetry presented in this episode really stands out. Two men, both afflicted with illness. Bartlet - MS; Leo - alcoholism. Both do what it takes to keep their illness under control. Both are aware of the potentially serious outcomes their diseases can cause. Both have been extremely discreet with the information that they're sick in the first place. Even the men themselves are aware of one of the similarities of their experiences: "I tried to get up, but I fell back down again." "I know the feeling." Yet the question I keep coming back to when considering the two men and their respective illnesses is a pragmatic one: which of the two conditions makes it harder for the afflicted individual to fulfill the duties his position requires? Though for a few episodes now Leo seemed to be the focal point of that question, having to come up with answers for the media (and his political rivals) defending his ability to do his job as a recovering addict, the torch now appears to be on its way to Bartlet. As the Leo story breaks to the public and thus ends his time in the spotlight, Bartlet is forced to admit his ailment to someone outside of his wife for the first time. Should he need to go public, I'm sure Sam will write quite a statement of support, whether the president likes it or not.

Giving a main character - the president, no less - multiple sclerosis is a bold move, one you'd think was carefully thought out as the character was being written. Typically, Sorkin did no such thing - he had this idea of Bartlet sick in bed watching soap operas, plus he wanted to reveal that Abbey Bartlet was a doctor - Jed's doctor - without the "reveal" being cheesy. He needed a sickness. Enter multiple sclerosis, a revelation which shocked me as a viewer (I believe that's the first time watching this show I actually yelled out "Oh my god!"), and left me with so many questions. Some of them have been answered. For example, I thought MS was by definition degenerative and causes early death; this episode educated me about other forms of the disease. More important questions: who knew about it? Apparently his wife, and since she's a doctor, they've kept it under wraps. Why didn't he tell anyone? The obvious answer, as Bartlet says, "I wanted to be the president." But the bigger questions - how did they keep it a secret? Aren't there presidential physicals? And now that Leo knows, will others find out? What will happen then? What if the media gets wind of this? Obviously we haven't seen the last of this story, and I'm truly fascinated to see where it will go.

As far as the other storyline, that little thing called the State of the Union address, I was once again pleased with the "here's what happens leading up to the speech" route, also used in "A Proportional Response." It's especially interesting after witnessing a real-life inaugural address that is the subject of just as much preparation and scrutiny. (And in case you were wondering, Robert Gates was "the guy" chosen not to be there in case of catastrophe.) Though I had always imagined the team of speechwriters going through draft after draft of the speech, I never considered something like the president's party allies in Congress having their opinions considered. (In this particular case, interestingly enough, the debate between the Congressmen and Toby centers around NEA funding, which has become a real-life point of contention lately.) All the preparation and the analysis of every word shows just how important the State of the Union is for a president - it can serve as an agenda-setter, a rallying cry, and a message to the people.

-- Binny



The remarkable thing about this episode (and it's an aspect that applies to the structure of the series in general) is that Sorkin was able to write an episode that in title and in substance is principally about the State of the Union address without showing even a second of the actual speech. If I was writing this show, it would have been obvious to me that when we get to the State of the Union episode, of course we show the speech. But that would be the easy way out, a way to fill up time without doing any real storytelling or challenging writing. Alas, Aaron Sorkin is a better writer than I am.

I had the opportunity to read a little bit about the history of the State of the Union and discovered that from 1801-1913 (Presidents Jefferson through Wilson) the State of the Union was not delivered as an address to a joint session of Congress. Rather, it was merely written up and delivered in print to Congress. This method was used as recently as 1981, by Jimmy Carter. I was extremely surprised to learn this, but even more surprised that former President George W. Bush didn't opt to send Congress a postcard with a funny cartoon on it in lieu of one of his addresses.

The discussion of the inclusion of the "era of big government is over" line in the speech was interesting to me for a number of reasons. First, the line came directly from Bill Clinton's 1996 State of the Union (as opposed to the full paragraph we see Bartlet rehearsing in the episode's 1st scene, which was lifted word for word from Clinton's 1999 address
.) Second, by discussing the merits of including 6 words in a speech, they were able to frame the debate that underlies many of the fundamental political differences between liberals and conservatives. (Toby's defense of big government sounds fantastic in theory, but has proven difficult to accomplish in practice.) That they were able to do so briefly and subtly without hitting us over the head with it makes it all the more impressive. Finally - and this was something that only occurred to me this morning after I watched this episode for what had to be at least the 10th time - the discussion between Toby and the president gives us a very different version of the substance and message of the Bartlet campaign than that which we were given previously. A few episodes ago, the outgoing Supreme Court justice accuses Bartlet of selling out, claiming that he ran "great guns" in what must have been a decidedly left-wing campaign and then moved quickly to the middle of the road after taking office. Here, Toby makes it sound like they positioned Bartlet as a centrist in the campaign with talk like "the era of big government is over" but that now that they're in office, Bartlet should be returning to his progressive ideals. I wonder if this is more a matter of different perspectives than a pure plot inconsistency, but either way, I found this interesting.

As for the MS, the first time I saw this episode, I was just as surprised as you were when the First Lady revealed to Leo the real nature of the President's illness. At the time, I knew very little about multiple sclerosis and even now, I would say that 95% of the knowledge I have was acquired through watching The West Wing. The show deserves all the praise and recognition it has received for educating the public about this terrible disease.

I enjoyed the role of the Internet in the breaking the news about Leo (hattip Etan on this.) Back then, the story being on the Internet meant that it would get picked up and break the next day in "real" news coverage. Today, if a story is on the Internet, "it's already been broken
." Taking this point a step further, I wonder how long either of these 2 secrets - Bartlet's MS and Leo's drug addiction - could have been kept close to the vest for as long as they were in today's day and age of blogs and 24-hour cable news. It's only been 10 years, but the way the media works has changed dramatically during that time.

Finally, I find it extremely unlikely that the president wouldn't have told Leo about his MS at some point, if not during the campaign, then at the very least at some later point, if for no other reason than the person who spends the most time around him on a daily basis would know what he's dealing with if something were to happen. I find it even more unlikely that Leo never would have pressed either the president or first lady on this issue in the past, given that he has seen stuff like this before and was already suspicious that something was going on that he didn't know about. Still, I am willing to look past all of that because the tension that results from Leo being kept in the dark is what makes the episode's final scene as touching as it is,and sometimes good TV is better than realistic TV.

-- Av


Av --

Though it's a route too-often explored in the annals of WW analysis, and one I'm trying hard to avoid in my own, the Bartlet/Clinton parallels would be much better avoided by Sorkin (which, I've read, he desperately wanted to avoid), if he didn't, you know, actually lift sections of a real State of the Union. In any case, the point you made about the positions of Candidate Bartlet vs. those of President Bartlet is an interesting one, especially as I watch the dawn of a new real-world American president with more awareness and understanding of politics than I ever had at similar moments. As far as the inconsistency between the way outgoing Justice Crouch sees this change in Bartlet and the way Toby does (great catch, by the way), it wouldn't surprise me if Crouch represents the consensus among the Democratic base, but of course Toby, in the heart of Team Bartlet, feels that they were making concessions the whole campaign to the point that Bartlet was more centrist than liberal by Election Day.

The other real-world corollary you noted that wouldn't fly ten years later (and one we keep coming back to, for obvious reasons) is the notion of Internet news-breaks and the ability (or lack thereof) to keep things quiet. While the former isn't a major sticking point (if the episode was written now they'd just say the story is broken and have Leo address the media a day earlier), the latter issue makes this episode a tad dated. While many of the political issues I've seen so far have great relevance today, the drama of keeping a hot political secret off the media's radar is not one of them. On the other hand, for every issue that today's media exposes, there could be 100 more that are somehow kept quiet.

-- Binny

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Season 1, Episode 11: "Lord John Marbury"

Plot summary
: The Kashmir border powderkeg becomes more explosive when the Indian army invades Pakistani-held territory, making the threat of a nuclear confrontation frighteningly real to President Bartlet, who calls in Lord Marbury, an eccentric British diplomat with ties to both warring nations - and a weakness for booze. An angry Josh is subpoenaed to testify as the investigation into substance abuse among White House staffers grinds on towards its inevitable target: chief of staff Leo McGarry. Mandy floats a trial balloon among the staff to test their reaction to her notion of representing a liberal Republican. The President is surprised when Charlie asks him if he can date his willing daughter Zoey.

Click here to watch "Lord John Marbury"

Av --

It's time for me to reconsider some of my positions. First of all, I've gone from liking Mandy (briefly), to feeling indifferent about her, to now feeling what I believe is the common attitude: strong dislike. The qualities that would have made her a strong character, most notably her ability to get under Josh's skin, would've been more interesting to watch if she'd have stayed in her role as adversary. As an ally that often takes the adversarial approach, she's just irritating. On a more substantive note, while I was moved by the amount of personal emotion on display in the previous episode, this episode's attempt's to do the same fell kind of flat. I guess I'm thinking most about C.J.'s storyline, though I'm very pleased that her toeing the line vis-à-vis her Danny relationship is being noted and taken into consideration. While Toby may have been harsh with how he broke the news to her ("You sent me in there uninformed so that I'd lie to the press." "We sent you in there uninformed because we thought there was a chance you couldn't."), he really didn't owe her an apology for keeping her in the dark, even if the Danny issue didn't exist. Frankly, Leo's explanation to her is the best one: "You're gonna have to expect that sometimes." It's one of the perils of her job, and being the professional that she is, I thought she'd have handled it better.

One more thing that's bothering me: as this Leo crisis is reaching its boiling point, the last three episodes have made it clear that everybody is going to defend Leo to the death. Josh: "You're not gonna be taken down by this small fraction of a man. I won't permit it." Donna: "If one of us were in trouble, he would be the first person..." Sam: "Leo's in trouble... Your job isn't to end the fight, it's to win it!" The problem I have is that other than Bartlet - "You fought in a war, got me elected, and you run the country. I think we all owe you one, don't you?", we just take it as an article of faith that Leo is The Man who has done so much for all of them. While I have no doubt that it's true, the individual relationships they have with Leo - Bartlet excepted; who else but Leo could bluntly ask him if he has a problem with his daughter dating someone black - haven't been developed enough to make their attitudes as believable as they should be.

OK, I think I've buried the lede quite enough here, so let me get to the two things most interesting in this episode: Josh's deposition regarding Leo, and the India/Pakistan conflict. The reason I group these two together is they share a common theme: a conflict between two opposing sides, with lines clearly drawn and mediation proving difficult. What's striking about these conflicts, though, is how each is meant to be viewed. While we, as viewers, are naturally supposed to be "rooting" for Josh in his spirited defense of Leo and his stonewalling the man from "Freedom Watch," Harry Klaypool (not-so-subtly based on a real person, Larry Klayman), I found myself asking: who's actually right here? How can I agree with all these editorials condemning the Bush White House for its secrecy, but want Josh to cover up his "investigation"? If this were a real-life issue, I think the public would rightfully want to know about a rehab stint by a major White House official. The fact that we're trained to like Leo clouds our perception about who's in the right here. And as far as the India/Pakistan issue is concerned, I feel like Sorkin is basically daring the audience to pick a side. Each side has its case, and the United States is directly in the middle. (And it's nice to see Bartlet much more comfortable in the Situation Room. Speaking of, fair question by my wife: shouldn't the vice president be in these meetings? He's a crucial member of the national security team, and surely belongs in these meetings as much as, if not more than, the chief of staff. Could they not afford to pay Tim Matheson for the episode, or did they not want to offend him by giving him an episode with a non-speaking role? Discuss.) In any case, the India/Pakistan issue clearly mirrors so many other foreign issues, so I'm sure many people who follow one of any amount of foreign battles could relate to this one, and take a side. Wisely, though, Sorkin chooses not to take a side himself, and keeps the United States in the position of trying to find a solution without blaming a side, and I find an eccentric British diplomat (the Lord John Marbury of the title) as the voice of mediation an interesting choice, to say the least.

-- Binny


Binny --

Thank you for finally coming around on Mandy. I think one of Sorkin's greatest failings in the show was his inability to make Mandy into a tolerable character. Or maybe it's just Moira Kelly's fault. Yeah, lets' just blame her. That's much easier. Indeed, when Sam gives her an ultimatum, telling her, "Now you can work for us or you can work for them, but you can't do both," I found myself yelling, "work for them, work for them" at the TV screen.

As for C.J., I am usually not a big defender of hers as she tends to take things too personally and reacts emotionally instead of rationally to situations sometimes. Then again, she is a woman. However, in this case, although I may ultimately side with the men, I actually really do understand her argument. "Either I'm a trusted member of the communications staff or I'm not." Essentially, I think she's saying that if they can't trust her to use discretion with information and act professionally, then they should fire her and hire a new press secretary that they can trust. But so long as they're keeping her around, they have to treat her like she is a part of the team and in this case that means do not send her into the press room without the information she needs and make her look like a fool.

On the Leo front, yes, it does seem like the entire staff is willing to throw themselves in front of a bus for Leo and potentially risk the success of the entire administration to save his ass. Without dwelling too much on this point, they all have been working for Leo for well over 2 years by now (we're one year into the administration plus well over a year of the campaign plus transition), so it's not crazy to think that, especially given the close interpersonal nature of the way they work on a daily basis, his staff has developed an acute, fatherly sense for him and that they would be incredibly defensive if anyone tries to come after him. I think it's pretty reasonable to say that none of them would be where they are now if not for Leo, but trust me, we'll get some insight into all of their pasts at some time in the future. Maybe. As for the issue itself, I hear your point about the comparison to the Bush administration's secrecy, but I would respond to it by differentiating the substance of what it is that they're hiding. The Bush administration has been secretive about major things like the reasons for going to war and the use of torture, which are important components of American policy. The Bartlet administration is being secretive about the personal life of a staff member regarding events that happened six years ago when they weren't yet in office. Further, Klaypool and Lillienfield aren't doing this to achieve any sort of noble purpose or getting to the truth to improve U.S. policy; they just want to ruin Leo's name. I think you can just take that all into account, rest easy, and get on board supporting Leo.

Shani's question about the VP is a very good one, and unfortunately I do not have a good answer. My intuition tells me that the VP has to be there. And this isn't a one-time thing, either; Hoynes is rarely, if ever, together with Bartlet and Leo in the Situation Room. This feels wrong.

Finally, (and when I say "finally," I do not mean that the end of this response is coming soon) the India/Pakistan storyline really resonated with me, not because of the feud itself, but because of the way we saw it analyzed in the episode's final scene. "It's about religion." Hearing these words emerge from the mouth of Lord John Marbury was chilling to me during a week in which the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza further escalated. More so, I have found myself thinking back to the series' 3rd episode, "A Proportional Response," for guidance during this ongoing escapade because that episode's central issue of "proportionality" lies at the heart of this latest military campaign, especially for those who have condemned it. Critics of Israel's response point to the sheer disparity in casualties as evidence of its illegitimacy, and in terms of pure numbers they have a very compelling point: the operation has taken the lives of hundreds of Palestinians, mostly civilians, and only a handful of Israelis. True, the citizens of Sderot and other Israeli citizens lived with the threat of constant rocket attacks, but the actual, real-world casualties resulting from these attacks were minimal. Thus, argue the critics, Israel's response has been out of proportion with the initial Hamas attacks and is therefore unreasonable.

I keep imagining President Bartlet sitting at a table of military advisers - or in this case, a table of Israel's critics - and simply asking, "What is the virtue of a proportional response?" He would continue to question the merits of a response that is anticipated by the enemy, that has been factored into the equation, and thus is nothing more than the "cost of doing business," as he calls it. In that episode, Bartlet ultimately relents to the advice of his national security team, who advocate a more pragmatic response than the "overreaction" he prefers because of the political and military implications. However, this begs the critical question: is "proportionality" a rule of strategy or morality? It is through both of these lenses that the Israeli campaign in Gaza must be examined.

In terms of morality, anyone who cannot distinguish between Hamas, who target civilians, and Israel, who targets military leaders and terrorists, is either intellectually dishonest, biased, or both. That being said, Israel's attacks, although targeted at guilty parties, result in massive collateral damage in the form of many innocent civilians. The problem with these attacks is that the resulting collateral damage is not a possible byproduct of Israel's actions, but rather a certain one. They remind me of the famous Talmudic expression in the realm of the laws of the Sabbath that alludes to a man who cuts off the head of a chicken and is then surprised at its death ("psik reishe v'lo yamut.") The death of innocent civilians is a definite result of Israel's air attacks and must be factored in accordingly; the fact that they were not intended is only slight relevant. And make no mistake about it: the loss of human life is a moral tragedy, no matter which side you're on. I think the distinction between Hamas's terrorist attacks and Israel's response can be analogized to the difference between the "intentional" and "knowing" standards in criminal law. Shooting a person without an intent to kill but with the knowledge that it inevitably will is surely better than shooting him with the intent to kill, but not much better; both are murder under the law. Still, the law provides justifications for murder, and self-defense and defense of others are chief among them. It is these defenses that lie at the heart of Israel's justifications for their attacks (as they are acting both responsively and preemptively to defend the lives of its citizens) and give them a firm moral ground to stand upon. I think.

The more pressing question about Israel's military response is with respect to its wisdom. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can discern a very clear formulaic pattern to the way it consistently plays out. It is a pattern that time and time again triggers a "cycle of violence," claims hundreds of human lives, and leads nowhere except right back to the status quo. If that is all this campaign accomplishes -- and history suggests that might be the case -- it will be a monumental failure. Thus, questioning the strategic wisdom of the campaign presents a far more compelling criticism than questioning its moral legitimacy.

So yes, there are potential moral (albeit, I think, shaky ones) objections and strategic objections (likely more compelling ones) to what Israel is doing. The main problem with Israel's critics - and I have read many of their writings the last couple of weeks - is that they have failed to articulate what would be an appropriate alternative response that would be effective in deterring Hamas, yet fall within the range of their moral compass. Diplomacy is a lost cause when the guy on the other side of the table rejects your right to exist and allowing Israeli citizens to live indefinitely with the fear that a Hamas rocket could strike its homes, school buses, and restaurants at any moment was simply no longer acceptable. So what else could Israel have reasonably done? This is the question I have yet to receive a good answer to. Perhaps people should spend more time answering questions than asking them of Israel. It is the Israeli generals' jobs to protect the lives of its citizens, not mine. So, given my very limited moral qualms to the campaign and the lack of a better alternative, I will defer to the wisdom and judgment of the Israeli generals. I think.

More and more, I have realized that the questions that this conflict presents have few concrete answers. How many civilian deaths are an acceptable byproduct of each terrorist death? Do the rules of proportionality and just war still apply when the enemy has launched what is by any objective standard a war that falls well outside the normal rules? How does a nation properly balance the lives of its citizens against the lives of its enemies' citizens? These are questions that pass way above the confines of my mind. The only conclusion that I have reached is that when it comes to this conflict, clarity is a vice: there are no clear answers here and anyone (on either side) that is able to achieve full lucidity on these issues is probably missing something.

Left without any true guidance from my brain, I turn to my heart: "He who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land." May this violence come to a swift end and claim as few human lives as possible.

-- Av