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