Thursday, January 21, 2010

Season 1, Episode 21: "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics"

Plot summary
: While President Bartlet and his staff nervously await the results of a poll to determine his favorability rating, he begins a heady transfer of ambassadors and members of the Federal Election Committee designed to kickstart campaign finance reform and defuse a embarrassing incident overseas.

Specifically, wheeler-dealer Bartlet recalls the married Ambassador to Bulgaria who is discovered to be romancing the daughter of the country's prime minister, but faces another crisis at home when Sam is photographed by a newspaper giving a graduation gift to a known call girl. Meanwhile, C.J. anxiously paces the White House corridors and wonders if she is being marginalized by Leo for past mistakes. In addition, Josh clashes with opinionated pollster Joey Lucas.

Click here to watch "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics"

Av --

I had high hopes for this season's penultimate episode. With other great drama series I've come across, the episode before the finale is often as good as, or better than, the finale itself. But while sometimes a good episode of this show, or even a great one, can still maintain its quality despite one or two things that nag at me, ultimately there were too many things here I was puzzled by, combined with the fact that not a lot really happened.

For one thing, there's the polling. At first I was puzzled by the collective tension over this specific poll; approval ratings are released regularly, and I'm sure the administration cares about every single change to those numbers throughout the entire four-year term. But given the fact that the approval rating was now lower than it had ever been, I suppose it's justifiable to see hand-wringing over language used in the questions and a terrified silence in the Oval Office as C.J. announces the results. (Though isn't it usually a media outlet or professional polling group that gets these numbers? I have no doubt the administration would do their own polling, but wouldn't the media be skeptical of the results and rather trust an independent source?) And while I have nothing against a positive ending, a 9-point jump? Really? Because they came out with a drug policy that favors more treatment? I just don't buy it. If the country got to see the meeting at the end of "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" and thus had renewed faith in the president, that would be an easier sell. But the manifestations of that meeting so far wouldn't be enough to truly change the hearts of the public. Not enough people would care about FEC appointees (or appreciate the symbolism of the decision), and the drug policy is in the early stages. I guess my point is the writers sacrificed a slight bit of reality (it's a long struggle to become favorable again) in the name of convenience.

While we're on convenience, I also found it too convenient that Joey Lucas was still in town. My understanding is that Al Kiefer's job is to gauge national numbers on various issues. Joey's job is to do the same with California. But studying these numbers is done in order to advise the president on how best to proceed. Once he's proceeded, and the actual polling starts, there's nothing more he can do. There's nothing more Joey can do. They can go back to California and wait for these numbers to arrive and process them accordingly. Joey wasn't there "because Al Kiefer told her to stop by," she was there because the writers enjoy the interplay between her and Josh, and wanted to get it into another episode. Not that hearing Joey argue against English as the national language wasn't fun, of course. (As an aside, she could have used a great line on that subject from Jed Bartlet, even though it came two years after the show went off the air: "The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it.")

And then there's Sam and Laurie. What's that about? Isn't he dating Mallory? If he is, isn't this relationship with Laurie a little too much? He keeps calling her a friend, but clearly she means more to him than that. I was slightly puzzled by her sudden re-appearance, though it actually makes sense in the big picture. We know Steve Onorato knows something (actually, we don't, but we are told this is a reasonable assumption). The timing of a paparazzi photographer teaming up with Laurie's friend to trap Sam couldn't have been a coincidence. My guess is Onorato wanted this to get out without it coming back to him, so he brought the friend and the tabloid together, they worked out a deal, and created this problem for Sam. And I know Sam's right, it shouldn't matter what she does, he's naïve, etc. but come on. He has to - has to - be smarter than that. Toby and Bartlet let him off easy, though maybe it's because Bartlet was saving the best monologue of the episode for how to handle Laurie.

Finally, the C.J. story felt like it was missing something. Her frustration could be understandable, but we haven't seen a reason for it. She tells Danny she feels people still blame her for the Mandy memo. While I'm not questioning how she feels, I find this belief difficult to believe. For one thing, it's not her fault. Any intelligent person would know that, and she happens to work with some pretty intelligent people. And on another level, while the Mandy memo was bad, it created something much better - the whole administration turnaround referenced above. C.J. is bothered by the fact that Leo didn't tell the president she predicted they'd go up 5 points. She sees this as a sign that she's not equal to the others. But is it possible Leo didn't want to tell the president her prediction because he knows the president would take that a reason to be optimistic and Leo didn't want to get his hopes up? Can she say for certain that Leo would have shared a Sam prediction if it was a 5-point gain? C.J.'s feelings of frustration were more identifiable during the India/Pakistan skirmish from "Lord John Marbury": "Either I’m a trusted member of the communications staff or I’m not." In this case, we haven't really seen enough to make us understand why she's feeling the way she is.

-- Binny


Binny --

It's interesting. In my mind, this episode has always been a lot better than it actually is. I think the reason for this is because I have never really judged it by itself in a vacuum, the way we are doing now. "The West Wing" has always been a show whose episodes I have watched in bunches and, in this case, I have always seen this episode as the culmination of a three-episode-long story arc (with "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" and "Mandatory Minimums") that gives the staff and the show a momentous head of steam as it heads into the finale and next season. To me, these three episodes have always been more like one long episode that I have always labeled "great" in my mind. But this episode standing by itself, I will agree with you is probably no better than "good."

And I agree with you that not much happens in this episode. And further, there aren't enough great moments or humorous parts to counteract the lack of major plot progress. Where I part with you is with regard to the things that felt off to you in this episode.

I'll start with your questions regarding the poll itself. First of all, this was an internal poll, conducted primarily for the benefit of the White House itself to get a sense of how it's doing. That's why C.J. won't be announcing the results, but rather "leaking" them. Second, internal polls are typically considered more reliable than newspaper or most other polls because campaigns and administrations spend a lot more money and use much more professional, scientific methods to produce much more comprehensive accurate results. This is because they care much more about the results than anyone else since they use them as a guide for how to strategize. They'll usually hire an independent professional pollster to do the work for them and then leak the numbers to the press. Why does the press trust them? Well, why does the press trust anything the White House tells them? There's a certain trust that has to exist between the White House and the press or it'll all be chaos. Also, the numbers are probably authenticated somehow by the independent body that actually conducts the poll. As for the reasons for the jump, well, they don't really give us enough information to accurately explain that. What I will point out is that they have been employing a new media strategy for the last three weeks, which Josh alludes to when he speaks to C.J. If I had to guess, that media strategy entailed getting out the message that the White House has a newfound energy and a willingness to govern aggressively and stand up for the issues that matters to them. So it's probably not just drugs and the FEC that has prompted this increased popularity in the public eyes.

With Joey, I think saying that Al Kiefer was there as a national polling expert while Joey Lucas was there as a California expert is technically accurate, but doesn't tell the whole story. Kiefer was brought in to counsel the president on the drugs issue. Joey was brought in to counsel them on the Republicans' potential counter to the FEC move: the issue of English as the national language. Her expertise on California, which has a big Hispanic population, is what makes her opinion relevant. Since the president has already made his decision on drugs, while the English as the national language issue is still potentially upcoming, it makes sense that Kiefer would be gone and Joey still there. Further, I think the tone from "Mandatory Minimums" made it pretty clear that she was going to be around for a little while, so her presence in the next episode is totally consistent.

As for Sam, I think his relationship with Laurie is more than just friendship, but I think he sees her more as a little sister than a potential love interest right now. He wants to save her and protect her, not sleep with her (at least not anymore). And while that might be sincere, it's probably not smart to have that kind of relationship with one woman while you're trying to court another. And it probably wasn't smart to go there that night, but I'll give him somewhat of a pass. Watching on TV, it was easy to anticipate that something might go wrong. In real life, however, most of the time you aren't being set up and betrayed by a friend who is being paid $50,000 to do so. Her law school graduation is a place he could reasonably expect someone could be watching; late at night for a few minutes outside her friend's apartment, not as much. (And as an aside, why would the London Daily Mirror care - to the tune of $50,000 - about a potential scandal involving a staff member in the administration of a different country? Sam Seaborn shouldn't be on the radar of a British tabloid. Don't they have another princess to kill or something?) But as you pointed out, even if you didn't especially like this storyline, "It’s nice when we can do something for prostitutes once in a while, isn’t it?" made it all worthwhile.
And here's one thing that bothered me: the weird interaction between Charlie and the outgoing Bulgarian ambassador. This is the second time they've brought in someone that has crossed paths with Charlie in the past (presumptive Supreme Court nominee Peyton Cabot Harrison III in "The Short List" being the first), make you think that something significant will transpire as a result, only to have the meeting be a footnote. That I find puzzling.

On to something I liked: the way they got the majority they needed on the FEC. I found the early scene with the "in the closet" soft money opponent Barry Haskel to be very relatable because I think it captured very well how many people would react if being called to the White House. Even though he is aware of the fact that the "trappings of the White House" would be used against him, all it takes is one "Baaaaaary" from Leo and one charming "Barry, I’m Jed Bartlet. I understand you’re thinking about helping us out. It makes me so happy" from the president and it's over. As much as I disliked George W. Bush, if he summoned me to the Oval Office and asked me to do something for him, I'd probably do it. Also, while the Federated State of Micronesia are used as an example of an obscure country that nobody has ever heard of to the point of hilarity, those who support Israel and follow it closely recognize the FSM as the only country other than the United States that consistently has Israel's back in the United Nations. Naturally, I can't tell you as much about the country as the president, but the fact that I had even heard of them I felt put me ahead of the curve.

-- Av


Av --

Your explanation of the polling makes sense, as does your explanation of the trustworthiness of the poll. But the 9-point jump still doesn't feel right. I understand what you're saying about a newfound energy and aggressiveness, I just don't think these things can be recognized in three weeks. The average American doesn't usually keep track of day-to-day presidential activity, and forms opinions based on the big picture. Three weeks is not enough time to change perception that was formed over the course of a year, at least not that dramatically.

I'll bite that Joey is there to help beyond her initial polling responsibilities, but you'll have a hard time selling me on the notion that she belonged in the Oval Office waiting for the poll results with the senior staff. And while you're right that Sam should feel less concerned seeing Laurie privately on a quiet street than publicly at her law school graduation, given the fact that he was told Onorato's radar was up, he should have taken a zero-tolerance approach.

I forgot about the game of ambassador musical chairs; glad you brought it up. That one bothered me, too. Influence is a tricky thing. I liked how they got Barry Haskel on board by using the trappings of the White House, because you're right - it's completely relatable, and a great weapon at the president's disposal. But the way Bartlet and Co. basically manipulated the presidential appointee system to get their new nominee didn't sit well with me. It's not that it's underhanded - I didn't mind Leo threatening to blackmail congressmen with familial drug charges last episode - it's that it's abusing power to win. Just because Bartlet can technically change who's ambassador to where and then happily find himself in need of a new FEC commissioner doesn't mean it's right. I think what actually bothers me is not that he did it (hey, I like him and enjoy seeing him win), but that we're to believe that this would be acceptable politically. It's one thing to nominate the previous two people he did - though it was a huge shift in protocol, at least it could be defended. But how could Bartlet do all this and not have the Republicans revolt against him and frame him in the media as someone who is willing to play games with executive powers?

-- Binny


Binny --

Well, that's just how politics works sometimes. It's part of playing the game. The tactics they took were all in bounds and more importantly, realistic. As former White House Press Secretary Martin Fitzwaller pointed out, in an interview with Jim Lehrer:

They had the president fire an ambassador and then hire a person off the Federal Election Commission to be the ambassador, so they could get an open slot on the Elections Commission for somebody else they wanted. Well, the president wouldn't get involved in that in reality. He would make the decisions to do it, but no one would ever see it. But it's exactly how the White House works. I think that's the great value of this show. It shows how the presidency works.

Sure, it'll piss off Republicans. But that's kind of the point here isn't it? The pre-"Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" administration would never have thought of doing something like this. As Josh noted in that episode, "it's not what we do." That's the new White House we're seeing. The old staff was beholden to Congress and felt like they were above playing the game. The new one is committed to keeping its eye on the prize and doing what it takes to get the job done, even if it means taking advantage of a loophole in the process.

-- Av


  1. I find it interesting that both of you seem to be a little disdainful of this episode.

    This episode was actually my introduction to The West Wing - a little over two years ago, I was flipping around, discovered that TWW was on (I knew of Aaron Sorkin from Studio 60 at this point), and gave it a try.

    What I found was a delightful show that could satisfy my inner political nerd, educate me about American politics, and make me laugh while doing so (examples in this episode include any time Micronesia is mentioned, the courting of Haskel's vote by intimidating him with glitz, and the self-deprecating lines by Bartlet and the Republican congressman with the large staff).

    The other thing I noticed right away was that aside from those in the opening credits, the vast majority of the players in this episode were likely to never appear again - and consequentially I was amazed at how Sorkin had managed to make even the most routine characters into actual characters by giving them motivations, backgrounds, past histories. As I'm sure you both know, most shows don't do that.

    I ended up finding and watching the entire series, and while I'll freely admit that there are some episodes I would slot well above this one in terms of my enjoyment, this was by no means a bad episode. Or maybe it's just that a 'bad' episode of The West Wing is still better than a 'good' episode of most other dramas.

  2. American Television Serial The West Wing
    created by Aaron Sorkin that was originally broadcast from September 22, 1999 to May 14, 2006. The series is set in the West Wing of the White House—where the Oval Office and offices of presidential senior staff are located—during the fictional Democratic administration of Josiah Bartlet. The story of this show is really nice and that's why I like to watch this show online.

  3. I like how the president behaved while waiting for the election results. I think so and should behave policy