Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Season 1, Episode 18: "Six Meetings Before Lunch"


Plot Summary
: When Zoey attends a college fraternity party in which one of her friends is busted for using illegal drugs, C.J. struggles to keep the embarrassing story out of the press while the White House staff celebrates the confirmation of their nominee, Judge Mendoza, for the Supreme Court. An uncomfortable Josh is assigned to talk with the administration's controversial nominee for Assistant Attorney General for civil rights who advocates that African-Americans receive financial reparations for slavery. Elsewhere, Sam crosses swords with Mallory over the issue of private school vouchers while Mandy lobbies to secure two new pandas for the National Zoo.

Click here to watch "Six Meetings Before Lunch"

Av --

Though I can't speak from years of business experience, I suppose it wouldn't be too bold a statement to say that business meetings take on many forms. The first seventeen episodes of "The West Wing" have featured all kinds of meetings, so I found it interesting that the writers felt it was important to spend the entirety of an episode focusing on this one aspect of the political arena. Why do I consider it focused on one aspect? Well, for one thing, it was a pretty self-contained episode, and, well, the episode title speaks for itself. (Although try as I did to match the number of meetings I witnessed to the number referenced in the episode, it seems the title was more a literary reference than a literal count.) In any case, though I struggled with the purpose of highlighting all these discussions/confrontations/meetings, keeping the focus on one area allowed this episode to act as sort of a microcosm, highlighting the kinds of meetings we've seen thus far, and should anticipate seeing in the future.

There's the information-gathering meeting, where one person meets another to solicit information. Clearly in Washington, especially at this level, knowledge carries with it a certain power. It can be exchanged for favors, used to strengthen (or damage) relationships, and used as currency. The beauty of the piece of information at play in this episode is its essential triviality. Zoey Bartlet attended a frat party at which a possible friend of hers was arrested for drug-related charges. What exactly was she doing there? That becomes the key piece of information C.J. seeks out from whomever she can - Charlie, Danny, Agent Toscano, Zoey herself - through a series of meetings in which she is on the less powerful end. (Hold that thought.) Though the plotline involved something relatively unimportant, a "non-story," C.J.'s process throughout is representative of what the chase for information often becomes for anyone on the staff, often C.J. herself.

There's the political strategy meeting, where two people sit down and really try to figure out the right move for the administration. Here, Toby and Mandy debate the advan-- oh, who am I kidding, that was just comic relief created to bring Toby back to being Toby, and have him stop being the guy who freaks out co-workers by genially greeting them in the hallways. The only strategy at play here was the writers strategically making Mandy even less likable than previously thought possible. This is her job, really? To bother Josh and Toby about getting a panda bear from China?

Then there's the meeting where one person needs to put the other in his or her place, knowing what's best and needing to enforce it at all costs. In what was a very strong episode for Allison Janney, C.J.'s confrontation with President Bartlet towards the end of the episode was her finest work I've seen to this point. The complex relationship between president and press secretary was alluded to in the previous episode, when C.J. is tasked with picking up Bartlet's under-the-radar signals in order to carry out his wishes. Now in this case, she, the one who has not spent most of her life as a politician, is the one who needs to tell him what the right move is. Sam's advice to "get in his face" was sound, but is much easier said than done. We have yet to see any staff member truly take the "get in his face" approach with Bartlet other than Leo, who has earned that right by being a decades-old friend and, oh yeah, chief of staff. This is the same C.J. whose previous moment in the spotlight in this episode was lip-synching "The Jackal." Though only included because Sorkin had seen Janney singing that song on set and felt he had to write it in somehow, it actually gave her showdown scene more weight - C.J. Cregg: capable of acting the fool a little to entertain the office, but also not afraid to get in the face of her boss, the president of the United States. (Also - that "Jackal" scene gave us this, presented without comment.)

Finally, there are meetings involving policy debate. We've seen many before, and will see many again. (I'd think. Assuming this show stays about the White House communications staff and doesn't quickly spin off into a National Geographic series on panda bears.) The beauty of the two featured here - Josh and an Assistant Attorney General nominee debating slavery reparations, and Sam and Mallory debating school vouchers - was that while both appeared to be true debates, with each side firmly believing its argument, both were revealed to be "simply" intellectual arguments. We got to see Sam teach a lesson and Josh learn one. In Sam's case, the man who "is dumb, most of the time [he's] just playing smart" played his part perfectly, arguing the opposition's position without ever admitting to his personal belief. (Watch the scene again where Mallory grills Sam before "The Jackal" scene; she asks him if this is his position; he avoids the question entirely.) Sam was tasked with preparing the opponent's position (Mallory should have followed her instinct when she realized Sam was referring to the liberals as "the other guys"), and he scored points with a girl he likes by respecting her as an intelligent person worthy of debating the issue with, and then finally revealing himself to be on her side. Josh, meanwhile, could use the lesson he got in academic debate. His job has always been to win the fight. It's in his blood. It's the only way he knows how to debate. His life has been so dedicated to the fight that he identifies the day of his father's death as "the night of the Illinois primary"; that comes to his mind instead of a date. Jeff Breckenridge, the nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, has his own motivations for spending most of the debate with Josh arguing on a practical level; maybe by insisting on reparations as a non-theoretical discussion it's the only way he gets to discuss it with the White House at all. But once he's in he realizes he has an opportunity to educate Josh, to engage in real discourse, with the ramifications being more than reparations. His lasting message rings true about almost any discipline: "We're meant to keep discussing and debating and we're meant to read books by great historical scholars and then talk about them." I think he meant TV shows, too.

-- Binny

-------------------------------------------------

Binny --

I don't know about you, but the business meetings I have attended have all followed a similar structure: four or five other people in the room, all more important than me, and I try not to make eye contact with any of them and pray that none of them actually know my name.

The opening scene was perfectly done and supports my suspicion that many people who get into politics are professional athlete wannabes who couldn't hack it on the playing field. There are a lot of similarities in terms of the competitiveness and the focus on winning and losing. I can only imagine that the feeling of winning a political campaign is not all that different from that of winning a championship. Those who were not physically gifted enough to do the latter attempt the former. We see Toby reiterate his superstitious instructions not to "tempt fate," as if he is a pitcher 7 innings into a perfect game. And you can't really beat seeing White House senior staffers booing and shouting "loser" at a United States Senator who votes against their candidate. Toby and Josh may have ended up working in the White House, but they both really wish they were playing in the majors.

I really enjoyed the Zoey/C.J. storyline because unlike other instances where this show has given us a different perspective by offering us a behind the scenes look at a particular event, here the entire story occurs behind the scenes. As C.J. reminds the president, the two of them, Charlie, and Zoey are the only people in the world that know Zoey lied, rendering it a non-story. But it was oh-so-close to being much more, wasn't it? What if Gina hadn't neutralized Edgar Drumm so quickly and he was able to grill Zoey for longer? What if Zoey had confided in one of her friends what really happened? What if C.J. had tipped her hand to Danny that something was amiss? What if C.J. was unable to keep the president out of the briefing room? Any of these things go awry and the press has their hands on a potential bombshell. And it's entirely possible, and even likely, that Zoey had the purest of intentions and did nothing wrong here (as Gina argues), but when you have drugs and the president's daughter, it doesn't take much else to turn a non-story into the scandal of the year. This was a story that to the citizens of "The West Wing" universe didn't even exist, but to the behind-the-scenes television viewers was an exciting account of a press secretary on top of her game.

And this was a very big episode for C.J. with regard to her relationship with the president, which is a relationship I have tried to focus on more in this current trip through the series than I have in previous ones. She is able to convince the president to follow her advice by demonstrating to him that she "gets it" both on a personal level ("sometimes 19-year-old girls lie when they don't have to") and on a political one. While Sam was the one that gave her the speech about how she had to "get in the president's face," I'm not sure he (or Josh or Toby for that matter) would have been able to do so with the right balance of personal and professional to keep him at bay.

But of course the three men were busy anyways: Toby, as an unwilling participant in Josh's attempt to mess with Mandy (or was it Mandy that was an unwilling participant in Josh's attempt to mess with Toby?); Sam, having a fake argument with Mallory; and Josh, trying to "explain to a black civil rights lawyer why I don't owe him any money." Let's address those briefly in order.

The most confusing part of the Toby/Mandy meeting is how seriously Mandy seems to be taking this issue. Given her credentials and job title, I would think she would scoff at the notion of being tasked with the job of finding a new panda bear. Isn't that a job better suited to someone who works at a zoo than to someone with a doctorate in political science? Not only does she take this matter seriously, but she seems offended at the notion that Toby doesn't.

This episode was Sam being Sam: innocent, naive, idealistic. He risks his relationship with a girl that appears to be interested in him in order to engage in a serious discussion about school vouchers. At any point, he could have told her the truth - that he agrees with her and wrote the memo for opposition prep - and everything would have been fine. But Sam Seaborn can't miss out on an opportunity for a good, old-fashioned public policy debate, and he bites. And sure, it works out for him in the end, but there is no way you can convince me that that was his plan. He's not smooth enough for that.

As for Josh, his meeting was the most intense but also the most poignant of the episode. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, reparations is a topic I have considered, discussed, and debated both internally and with others over the years. It seems that Josh has as well. ("You know, Jeff... I'd love to give you the money, I really would. But I'm a little short of cash right now. It seems the S.S. officer forgot to give my grandfather his wallet back when he let him out of Birkenau.") It's an issue that doesn't have a right answer, I think, which Breckenridge ultimately admits. I'm not sure I totally buy the classic argument that since "no amount of money can make up for it," even putting a dollar value on it cheapens it and acts as a forgiveness of unforgivable crimes. Monetary payment is how a person or a country "compensates" for wrongs they can't undo; that's why we have wrongful death suits. That being said, I don't think the Germans owes me any money, which would be the comparable analogy for what Breckenridge is advocating. I didn't suffer anything at the hands of the Germans, and certainly not from their current government. It's a tricky issue, one that needs to be discussed and debated in the larger context of persecution and bigotry, which is what Breckenridge's point was all along. He got Josh's attention and mine as well.

Two other minor items that I enjoyed immensely:

  • The book the president was reading when Charlie interrupts him towards the end is "110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." In his most recent book, which I read an excerpt of this past September, A.J. Jacobs (as only A.J. Jacobs can do) attempts to live and abide by Washington's rules of social etiquette. Hilarity ensues.
  • When trying to define the boundaries of his rules for the press, the president declares that he doesn't "give a damn if it was the Bergen County Shopper's Guide." Despite having grown up in Bergen County, I never subscribed to or even heard of the Shopper's Guide, but I enjoyed the shout-out nonetheless.
-- Av

3 comments:

  1. Hello Binny and Av - one of you (Binny, I believe) left a post on TWoP's TWW board giving a link to this blog, and I immediately hopped over here. I just briefly looked at your comments on the Pilot and on this episode, but I wanted to let you know I'll be following along with you. I'm watching the Bravo reruns for what is probably the sixth or seventh time, so I get confused sometimes with those who are in a different place in the continuum, but that's fine. It'll be fun to see your reactions, Binny, as a first-time viewer. One theme that I keep running into - and this is more true now than when the series was running - is how easy it is to blur the line between reality and show, and get confused between characters and actual people.

    Nice to meet you both! - sloopie

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sloopie - It was indeed me (Binny). Thanks for the kind words, and welcome. We hope we can enhance your next round of WW viewing even a little.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The first season is very fascinating and exciting. I think that the director of this film is very gifted and qualified.

    ReplyDelete