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

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, it doesn't make sense in the sense that Matthew Perry shouldn't be a character in the "West Wing" world and still exist as Matthew Perry.

    My favorite example of using that type of joke was when "Scrubs" had J.D. spot Janitor in "The Fugitive" (a movie Neil Flynn, who played Janitor, was in), leading to Janitor admitting that he was once an actor, part of a deeper insight into his character.