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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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