Let’s Take a Break for a Minute

As you may have heard last week, The Wire, where I have been working for the last 11 months, is being shut down. I will be staying on with the company, though, and moving on over to TheAtlantic.com. But I’m still pretty wistful for the site where I hung my hat and did my work and managed some fantastic writers.

I’m a sucker for posterity too, so I wanted to just put up some links to my favorite work that I did on The Wire. 

One of the best things about working at The Wire (and being my own entertainment editor) was that I was able to indulge in any number of personal hobby-horses, almost all of which found the niche audiences to whom they were intended.

Lest you think all I ever wrote were lists, I managed to get prettttty thinky. In my own way. 

Sometimes I took my blogger’s privilege to just be a dick if the spirit moved me. 

I have never and perhaps will never consider myself the greatest at movie reviews, mostly because I read too many great ones by other people. But my time at The Wire made me so much better at them than I used to be. I felt particularly daunted by American Hustle, but pretty proud of how that review turned out. And by the time I went up to the Toronto Film Festival, I ended up so much happier with the quality of my work. 

Just a few others, which I guess fall under the category of Times I Indulged Myself Because I Could:

I guess this is what a year’s worth of work looks like. And now it’s time to start another one. 

The West Wing, One by One: “Celestial Navigation”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

Episode Title: “Celestial Navigation”

Season 1, Episode 15

This episode offers me a chance to be brief, and I have fairly recently written about this episode of television for Previously.TV. So go over and read that there, then come back here for the bullet points.

"A" Story: Via a framing device of Josh taking part in a lecture series, we flash back to a few days ago and a particular daisy-chain of events that begin with the HUD secretary calling a Republican Congressman racist, necessitating an apology (wrangled by Leo) and a good bit of public relations smoothing over, handled to varying degrees of success by C.J. and Toby.

"B" Story: Meanwhile, at present, Toby and Sam have to drive to Connecticut to bail Roberto Mendoza out of jail, after he’d been wrongly pulled over for suspicion of DUI. Toby’s irritable, Mendoza’s proud, and Sam can’t stop babbling about his navigational skills. 

"C" Story:  C.J. needs emergency root canal and this the responsibility for the day’s press briefing falls to Josh Lyman: Arrogant A-Hole, who promptly drives the entire press room off a cliff and, among other catastrophes, suggests that the President has a secret plan to fight inflation.

Runners: The President is in a particularly grouchy mood, and Charlie has a devil of a time rousing him from bed. 

Guest Stars of Note: Edward James Olmos is back as Mendoza. CCH Pounder makes her lone West Wing appearance as HUD Secretary Deborah O’Leary.

The Road to Mandyville: Very minimal Mandy this week.

Sorkinicana: Leo tells O’Leary that when she lost her cool with the congressman, she “forgot what [her] grandfather taught [her]: never argue with a fool or a drunk.” I don’t know why that line (coming at the end of an aces scene between Pounder and John Spencer) always comes across as condescending to me. Maybe because O’Leary’s grandfather likely had to impart some far more serious and tangible lessons to his granddaughter about growing up black in America.

Odds and Ends:

  • Another episode with the “hey, here’s a quick rundown of everybody and what their jobs are” version of the previouslies.
  • Big moment for reporter Katie in the press briefing, as she doxxes the President for bumming a cig off her on Air Force One two days prior.
  • It’s rather incredibly fortunate that the front-page story on the Connecticut town’s newspaper is a bill-signing with Toby visible in the background. 
  • The scene where Charlie has to wake the President really does feel like it lasts a good 90 minutes.
  • A curated list of the best phrases uttered by root-canaled C.J.: “You get hostow”; “What’s Sam doing in Faaaahy Baaaaum?”; “Twy vewy vewy hard not to destwoy us”; “Secwetawwy O’Weawy”; and of course “A Secwet Pwan to Fight Infwation.”

The Verdict: Again from my Previously piece:

"Like many of The West Wing's early-season episodes, “Celestial Navigation” offers a satisfying mix of political wonkery, interpersonal good humor, and inspirational “if only this were how the real world worked” fantasizing. I've wrestled for a while with why I tend to find Aaron Sorkin's other shows so insufferable, while The West Wing, even in retrospect, holds up so well. I think this show was the last time Sorkin allowed his writing to be tempered by other voices. Even back then, there were legendary stories about Sorkin’s control over the writing process, but even so, the characters on The West Wing are allowed to puncture holes in each other’s righteousness from time to time. Certainly, this episode allows Josh Lyman just enough self-confident rope for him to hang himself with. C.J. and Toby in particular have a fantastic air of over-it that cuts through the more wide-eyed Sorkin stand-ins like Sam.”

Go read it all.  

Next Up: "20 Hours in L.A.," which is either David Geffen’s least favorite episode of his most favorite episode.

The West Wing, One by One: “Take This Sabbath Day”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

Episode Title: “Take This Sabbath Day”

Season 1, Episode 14

"A" Story: Team Bartlet gets the bad news that the Supreme Court denied a death row appeal, setting the stage for a rare federal execution, unless the President decides to intervene. Nobody in the White House wants this issue in their laps, for a variety of reasons, but Sam is approached by an old schoolmate who’s representing the prisoner, and that leads to Toby getting approached by his local rabbi, and suddenly they’re getting backed into a corner. The President, meanwhile, gets a visit from his old parish priest. None of this, ultimately, moves the President to stick his political neck out. 

"B" Story:  After a night out boozing at a bachelor party, an ill-equipped Josh is descended upon by Joey Lucas, a deaf campaign manager who’s haranguing the White House for failing to support her Democrat congressional candidate in California. Joey harangues Josh; Josh is bewildered, then indignant (“listen, lunatic lady!”), then finally a reluctant chaperone to her meeting with the President. By the end of the day, he obviously has a crush.

Runners: Without a “C” plot, most of the runners are offshoots of the death penalty story.

  • C.J. says she’s unmoved in either direction about the death penalty debate, but she has a wonderfully performed scene with Mandy where she also details her part in the whole endeavor, when she announces to the nation that Cruz is dead, and that she wishes she didn’t know the man’s mother’s name.
  • Toby and Sam are most easily swayed to the side of pardon, but Leo holds the hard line that it would be politically disastrous for the President.
  • The President asks Charlie his thoughts, as the son of a murdered mother, and Charlie gives the standard “I’d want to kill him myself” response.

First Appearances: Enter Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as Joey Lucas, at this point a Democratic operative and small-time campaign manager, but soon to be pollster extraordinaire. She’s joined by Bill O’Brien as Joey’s stalwart interpreter, Kenny. At this early stage, Joey and Josh’s flirtations were both an indulgence for Aaron Sorkin’s celebrated fondness for screwball romantic comedy. Especially in this episode, that screwball comedy runs as a fine counterpoint to all the capital-punishment heaviness. 

Guest Stars of Note: Lots! Noah Emmerich plays Sam’s old school friend (or bully, sounds more like) who needs the ear of someone close to the President. Karl Malden shows up as Jed’s old priest, who gives the President some honest talk about how, if he was asking for guidance from God, he may have already gotten it and ignored it. Most interestingly, you get David Proval as Toby’s rabbi, which means you get Richie Aprile from The Sopranos saying things like “vengeance is not Jewish.” 

The Road to Mandyville: She’s pretty okay in the scene where C.J.’s working through her ambivalence.

Sorkinicana: 

  • Lots of hay made about how “Joey” is a boy’s name. Classic Aaron Sorkin, who seems like the kind of guy who had a crush on a girl named “Chuck” in grade school.
  • Charlie’s “I’d want to pull the trigger myself” is a focus-group-tested sentiment as reflected by Bartlet’s debate prep in season four. 
  • Donna mentions getting stuck at Dupont Circle, like it’s 1995 and Andrew Shepherd is still president.
  • Toby’s rabbi gives chapter and verse from Leviticus illustrating how the Old Testament’s dictums (in this case: an eye for an eye), similarly to when Bartlet dresses down that Dr. Laura analogue in season two.
  • C.J. returns from the Scandanavia with the President and is positively fed-up with Jed’s know-it-all-ness. This is probably the mouthiest anybody’s ever gotten about it (“drop-kick you into the fjords”), but certainly all the staffers have wriggled uner the thumb of a Jed Bartlet lecture.
  • There is a VERY well-choreographed walk-and-talk in this episode, where we follow C.J. and Carol until they cross paths with Jed, Josh, and Joey, at which point we continue on with the latter. I guess that’s more Schlamme-ana, though. 

Odds and Ends:

  • Sam gets called away from a fishing trip, which doesn’t seem incredibly Sam.
  • I’m not sure I find it as mind-blowing as Leo, but the whole thing where the government won’t execute anyone on the Sabbath is pretty ironic. 

The Verdict: 

The capital-punishment story is a solid one, if a bit overly reverent for classically defined organized religion (in a way that makes sense for the characters, granted). But it’s incredibly important as a significant drop in the bucket towards this slowly-building Do-Nothing Bartlet storyline. I think if this season were happening today, we’d be much more sharply attuned to what Sorkin is building towards here, but I admit when watching this the first time around, these small defeats accumulating one by one felt very subtly placed. Still, Sam’s frustrated “sometimes it feels like we’re absolutely nowhere” to Leo gets repeated in previouslies a lot for a reason. 

Next Up: "Celestial Navigation," which is just one of the best.

The West Wing, One By One: “Take Out the Trash Day”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "Take Out the Trash Day"

Season 1, Episode 13

"A" Story: The parents of the gay teen Matthew Shepard analogue are coming to town for a hate-crime bill signing, but Mandy worries that the father isn’t going to be supportive enough. C.J. can’t rightly imagine that a father would be embarrassed of his murdered son, no matter how gay he was, but she sets out to screen the Lydells anyway.

"B" Story:  Josh and Sam are taking a meeting up on the Hill, the purpose of which is to avoid Congressional hearings for Leo’s Valium addiction. The President instructs them to take nothing off the table. At the meeting, Congressman Bruno hollers at them for bungling this whole situation, but he ultimately offers them an out in the form of sticking a recent sex-ed report that makes a clinical case against abstinence-only education in a drawer until after the midterms.

"C" Story: A story got leaked about a member of the Veep’s advance team playing a round of golf on the taxpayers’ dime, and the assistants (Donna, Margaret, Ginger, Carol, and Cathy) think they know who leaked. Turns out, the guilty-seeming girl didn’t leak the story about the advance man … she leaked Leo’s treatment records to Lillienfield and Claypool.

Runners: 

  • Between the Lydells and tabling the sex-ed report, C.J. is feeling awfully disillusioned about how much good they’re actually doing. Once she learns that the Lydells aren’t ashamed of their son, they’re ashamed of their President for taking such a weak position on gay issues, she’s tempted to leak the Lydells’ story to Danny, but he talks her out of it.
  • C.J. also makes the command decision to stop randomly making out with Danny, after a kidding-but-maybe-not comment from Toby reminds her that fraternizing with Danny will mean she’ll always be somewhat suspect in her job.
  • Toby is meeting with Congressional aides whose bosses are holding up appointments to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Toby essentially argues for the moral good of PBS and gets his way. 
  • Zoey’s sociology professor at Georgetown is a racist or something. Literally nothing comes of it. 

Guest Stars of Note: 

  • Gilmore Girls' Liza Weil as Karen Larson, giving some of the best pout-faces of her career in a scene where Leo talks through her problems with his alcoholism … and ultimately gives her her job back. Which: not too sure how well she's going to function in that job now that everybody knows she leaked Leo's file.

  • The Gilmore Girls reunion continues as Dakin Matthews (the dean of Chilton school) plays Leo’s fair-weather friend who comes to try to convince Leo to resign, for the good of the party.

The Road to Mandyville: Mandy’s pretty much in the right in this episode. While C.J. gets very emotional after hearing that the Lydells are angry at the President’s weak support of gay rights, it’s Mandy’s job to talk C.J. off the ledge and remind her that her job is to protect the President and send the Lydells home. She also gets a funny scene where she and the President peruse the sex-ed report.

Sorkinicana: The resumption of the Lowell Lydell story is yet another opportunity for Sorkin to graft some old-school patriarchal sentiment into the story. In this case, C.J. just can’t seem to understand how a father could be ashamed of his gay son in the aftermath of his murder, even though Leo, Jed, and Danny are all lining up to patronize, all, “You really don’t understand what it’s like between fathers and sons.” C.J. turns out to be correct, of course, but there’s still this sense of received wisdom when Leo sagely talks about fathers and sons. 

Odds and Ends:

  • This episode is one of the key building blocks to the “Bartlet administration stuck in the mud” mega-storyline that will come to a head in “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” Rewatching season one, I’m still awfully impressed at how subtly Sorkin laid the groundwork for that episode. In this case, it’s C.J.’s frustration that lands, as well as her dejected admission to Danny that they’ve gotten “very good” at not doing the right thing.
  • Speaking of which, the scene where C.J. tries to convince Mandy (and really herself) that the Lydell’s have a point and deserve to have their say is really a fantastic Allison Janney moment.
  • Mrs. Landingham has a banner week for grandmotherliness, hectoring the President about eating a banana and lecturing the assistants for gossiping during work hours.

The Verdict:  Lots going on in this episode — maybe too much. The Toby runner, in particular, feels like busywork. But this puts a good cap on the arc about Leo’s scandal, and like I said above, it’s a crucial building block in the season’s dominant storyline. I’m also not going to complain about an Allison Janney acting showcase. 

Next Up: "Take This Sabbath Day," in which Karl Malden stops by with a fable for the President.

The West Wing, One By One: “He Shall, from Time to Time…”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "He Shall, from Time to Time…"

Season 1, Episode 12

"A" Story: The President is due to deliver the State of the Union in 48 hours, and what at first appears to be the flu actually turns out to be something much more serious. After watching Abbey race back to D.C. to tend to her husband, Leo presses her to level with him, and she does: the President has multiple sclerosis.

"B" Story: The story about Leo’s Valium addiction is going to break the next day (actually, CJ tells Leo it’s already on the internet, but back in Aaron Sorkin’s 1999, nothing is real until the print media picks it up the next morning). Sam wants to write a statement of support on behalf of the President, Leo forbids it (“if I go down, I’m not taking anybody with me”), Sam does it anyway, Leo flips out. But who can really blame Sam for being a good guy? Certainly not Mallory, who plants one on him by episode’s end. 

"C" Story: Toby meets with the Democratic leadership in order to haggle over SOTU language with regard to work-vs.-welfare and the idea that “the era of big government is over.” Prime “idealistic Toby” material.

Runners: 

  • Oh, right, that small matter of India and Pakistan and nuclear brinksmanship. Lord John Marbury is still around, and he advises the President to essentially buy India off by offering them assistance in building infrastructure for their tech industry.
  • CJ finds herself feeling jealous when she sees Mandy flirting with Danny, so CJ ends up working herself up to the point of a proper kiss with Danny.
  • The President’s staff needs to find a Cabinet member to hang back at the White House, so in case the State of the Union is bombed, there will be someone to pick up the line of succession. That rather grim possibility is handled with a good bit of morbid humor and leads to a heartwarming scene.

Guest Stars of Note: Besides Roger Rees, John Amos, and Stockard Channing all returning, we get Harry Groener (a.k.a. The Mayor from “Buffy”) as the cabinet secretary chosen to hang back. The scene where Bartlet puts the wide-eyed Groener at ease with some humor becomes a bit more when Jed takes the opportunity to turn a bit of subjunctive advice should Groener ever have to actually assume the presidency into a statement of love and appreciation (overheard by Leo, of course) to his chief of staff.

Also of note: Groener’s character’s last name is Tribbey, continuing Sorkin’s long tradition of recycling character names (or at least it will once John Larroquette’s Lionel Tribbey shows up).

The Road to Mandyville: The rare moment of sympathy for Mandy, as CJ starts acting like a dick to her for no good reason. Mandy’s “CJ! WTF?” reaction was pretty much the right one. 

Sorkinicana: Oh, quite a bit. We’re gonna need some bullet points.

  • It’s great that Toby’s fighting the good fight for the virtues of “big government,” of course. And this is the first of several times we’ll see Toby going to bat for the National Endowment for the Arts in particular. But we get a classic Sorkin strawman, with the DNC suits being dolts who mix up Rodgers & Hammerstein/Rodgers & Hart and mistake Arthur Murray for Arthur Miller, not to mention handing Toby a layup in that Arthur Miller used the WPA to write “Death of a Salesman.” This is exactly like how the bible-thumper in the pilot didn’t know the names of the commandments. Sometimes the other guys can still have their facts straight, Aaron.
  • I’ve already expressed my reservations about CJ and Danny. I get how it’s more of a mitigated courtship than other sexist Sorkin pairings. But even when CJ decides to take the bull by the horns and kiss Danny, she still dithers screwballishly for long enough that Danny gets to be the one who kisses her. It’s not insidious, but that aggressive old-fashioned-ness is annoying.
  • Mallory grabs Sam and makes out with him in front of everybody after she learns that he wrote the President’s statement of support for her father. A beautiful woman kissing a man just for being a great writer. It does not get more Sorkin than that.

Odds and Ends:

  • "Is it possible I’m taking something called euthanasia?" If I can’t get a good ginko biloba joke, I’ll take an echinacea joke.
  • While he’s laid up, Jed watches some “Passions” and complains about the conventions of daytime TV, placing him in the company of (among others) Spike from “Buffy” as TV characters who have watched “Passions” for comic relief.
  • Toby is the recipient of this week’s Inspiring Music Cue when he makes the case to the President for the virtues of big government.
  • Lord John actually calls Leo “Leo” as he wishes him the best of luck in weathering his scandal. Aw!

The Verdict: Even just as an episode about putting together the State of the Union and standing behind Leo and CJ and Danny’s dance of wonky seduction, this would have been a solid episode. Two scenes, and their attendant plot development, put it way over the top. The first, where Abbey ultimately confesses the President’s M.S. to Leo, is one of those indelible West Wing scenes, where we she’s barely holding her shit together and about three or four things dawn on Leo in succession. Later, the scene where Jed and Leo, the oldest of friends, come clean with each other, and Jed’s scared and sorry and crying, and Leo’s hurt but resolute, and it’s all so well acted and written and amazing. (By the time Jed gets to telling Leo he was proud of him at his press conference about the Valium thing, it’s all incredibly touching.

Moreover, the decision to throw M.S. into the mix at this stage of the series was a such a bold one. The temptation for The West Wing to hew as much as possible to events and issues that were based in history must have been huge. To introduce an angle that would take U.S. politics in a direction they’ve never gone before was a gutsy decision. Was this all a way for Sorkin to re-litigate the Clinton scandals in a far more sympathetic light? Perhaps. But The West Wing rarely, if ever, took the easy way out with M.S., taking a hard line with Bartlet on honesty and the politics of candor, and actually letting him deteriorate over the course of the series. It’s a development that both deepens and complicates the show, and it gets a great kickoff here. 

Next Up: "Take Out the Trash Day," where Aaron Sorkin gets to talk about fathers and sons, and I get to holler about gay shit. 

The West Wing, One by One: “Lord John Marbury”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

Episode Title: "Lord John Marbury"

Season 1, Episode 11

"A" Story: So there’s this small matter of a potential military conflict between India and Pakistan, the crux of which is India flexing its nuclear muscles. This is all rather troubling for the President and his State Department and Joint Chiefs, particularly once a chat with the Chinese ambassador reveals that China might intercede on Pakistan’s behalf. In order to help the young administration’s understanding of the subcontinent crisis, Bartlet calls in the eccentric Lord John Marbury, British diplomat and thorn in Leo’s side.

"B" Story: In the immediate aftermath of the troop movements in India, Leo wants to keep the story away from the press, and Toby advises him not to tell CJ about it for her briefing. So she goes in uninformed and looks like an idiot in front of the press, and later like the President doesn’t trust her with important information. This leads to a rather serious CJ/Toby fight, where he makes the argument that she’s too chummy with the reporters (i.e. Danny), and she saying that she’s either a trusted member of the team or she’s not.

"C" Story: Josh is subpoenaed by a Rep. Claypool, who is running the investigation into drug use in the White House, which is in actuality a fairly transparent witch hunt into exposing Leo’s past Valium addiction. Josh takes in one rather tense session with Claypool, followed by a second one with Sam as his attorney, which gets fantastically punchy, almost literally.

Runners: 

  • Zoey asks Charlie out on a date, leading to much comedic, paternalistic consternation from the President. Though when Leo calls him out on maybe having a racial base for his discomfort, Jed objects: “I’m Spencer Tracy at the end of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The absolute apex of race relations in American history, to be sure.
  • Mandy wants Sam to help her to convince Toby to let her take on a Republican Congressman as a client. Sam is sympathetic at first — the Congressman is a moderate, one of the “good ones” — but after accompanying Josh to the second deposition, he’s fairly well radicalized against the Republicans and shoots down Mandy’s request rather harshly.

First Appearances:

  • Roger Rees as Lord John Marbury. There’s no more problematic West Wing character that I absolutely love than Lord John Marbury. Sorkin presents him as this boozy, womanizing old cad but ultimately lovable. Even Leo’s objections to him take a weird 1950s paternalistic tilt (“You’re going to let him loose in the White House where there’s liquor and women?”). There are not a few times where it seems like Sorkin thinks he’s writing one of those screwball comedies that so inspired him, and Lord John is one of them. And yet … Roger Rees is so incredibly winning in the role! I met Roger Rees once, and he gave me a giant hug because he thought I was the boyfriend of a friend of his. I love Roger Rees. 
  • Ed and Larry! Bill Duffy and Peter James Smith make their West Wing debut as the interchangeable White House staffers, in this case trying to watch senior staff through the basics of India/Pakistan.

Guest Stars of Note: Oh, lots. Notable Hey! It’s That Guys Erick Avari, James Hong, and Iqbal Theba play the ambassadors from Pakistan, China, and India, respectively. 

The Road to Mandyville: For once, Mandy gets to be the least cynical member of the team. Too bad it comes in an episode where the audience sympathy is being heavily weighted towards those assuming partisan battle positions. When even Sam is ceding the idealistic high ground, you know Mandy picked the wrong week to quit being a ruthless operative. 

Odds and Ends:

  • Lord John constantly referring to Leo as “Gerald” and mistaking (“mistaking”) him for the butler is one of my favorite running gags in this series.
  • This episode really speaks to and more clearly defines the division of power in the staff, particularly that Toby is CJ’s direct supervisor and that when it comes to foreign policy, the need-to-know chain of command runs Leo > Josh > Toby > CJ and Sam.
  • Mrs. Landingham has a cookie jar on her desk, naturally. 

The Verdict: Lord John is a delight, but the real power of the episode comes from the senior staff. The CJ/Toby conflict is a great combination of the professional (CJ’s chumminess with the press would naturally come into question) and the personal (CJ thinks of Toby as a friend, so being lied to by him must sting). And Josh and Sam’s deposition scene with Claypool is incredibly tense and rousingly partisan. It’s tough not to come out of it hoping they crush Leo’s accusers.

Next Up: "He Shall, from Time to Time," where we learn a rather important thing. 

The West Wing, One by One: “In Excelsis Deo”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "In Excelsis Deo"

Season 1, Episode 10

"A" Story: On the day before Christmas Eve, Toby is called by D.C. police, because a homeless man died of exposure with Toby’s business card in his coat pocket (Toby had donated the coat to Goodwill). Toby spots a Marines tattoo on the man’s arm and thus begins to tumble down the rabbit hole of this man’s life. Suffused with a spirit of holiday melancholy, Toby arranges for a military funeral for the man, pulling his White House strings to do so.

"B" Story: Josh is tired of waiting for Lillienfield to drop the bomb about Leo’s former Valium problem. (We learn that said Valium problem occurred while Leo was Secretary of Labor, which: yipes.) Josh wants to approach Sam’s call-girl friend (Laurie), and despite Leo’s vociferous objections, he does, with Sam in tow. The interaction goes … rather badly, with Josh basically calling her a whore and Laurie ultimately shaming the both of them for acting like the bad guys.

"C" Story: A Matthew Shepard analogue is attacked and tortured in Minnesota, eventually dying the next day. Thus, the West Wing must gear up for a debate on hate-crime legislation, only they’re not sure where they’re ultimately going to come down on it (they have to test the political waters), so strong reactions like CJ’s have to be tamped down.

Runners:

  • It’s Christmas week, so there’s a bunch of holiday-related business to get to. Leo grumpily signs a mountain of holiday cards and bitches to an impassive Margaret. Mandy organizes a tree-lighting event that involves children wearing Dickensian costumes and/or Santa hats. The President hams it up at a photo op with school children. Also, Mrs. Landingham informs us that the President is allergic to eggnog. 
  • Toby, Sam, and CJ engage in that least tiresome of all debates: does the millennium begin in 2000 or 2001?
  • Most importantly, Mrs. Landingham tells Charlie the story of why the holidays tend to get her down: her twin sons died in Vietnam on Christmas eve. Kathryn Joosten did a lot of great work on this show, but I’d be hard pressed to find a better moment than when she tells Charlie, “It’s hard not to think that right then they needed their mother.” Of the zero guest acting Emmy nominations The West Wing received in its first season, Joosten’s snub for this episode feels the most egregious.
  • Danny continues to flirt with CJ. This time, she flirts back a bit, and when it’s the both of them flirting on equal footing, it’s really something.

Guest Stars of Note: Our old pal Lance Reddick shows up for a one-off as the D.C. cop who calls Toby.

Sorkinicana: This of course was the episode for which Sorkin and Rick Cleveland won a writing Emmy, which Sorkin accepted and filibustered and refused to even acknowledge Cleveland. This was followed by an embarrassing downward spiral for Sorkin, and ultimately ended up with him naming one of the hacky Studio 60 writers after Cleveland. Almost all of the ill feeling towards Sorkin on the internet (and eventually beyond) began here.

The Road to Mandyville: Aside from assessing the merits of santa hats versus Dickensian costumes, Mandy raises a (fairly playful) fuss over the President not allowing her to send press along on his secret Christmas shopping trip to an antique book store.

Odds and Ends: 

  • The debate over hate-crime laws that takes place was somewhat ripped from the headlines (Matthew Shepard’s death was only a year past) , and it’s interesting to see the show take a center-right position on it. CJ is vehemently for hate-crime laws, but both Leo and Danny make principled cases against thought-crime. Which is kind of a load of horseshit (premeditation is also a thought, and we certainly take that into account when prosecuting crimes), but it’s more notable when answering critiques about how allfire liberal this show was.
  • In addition to the writing Emmy, this episode was also one of two submitted (along with “Five Votes Down”) for Richard Schiff, who won Outstanding Supporting Actor that year.
  • CJ’s Secret Service code name is “Flamingo.” Sam’s is “Princeton.”
  • Toby’s discomfort with his position of power in the White House when faced with “regular” people is something of a recurring theme.
  • Josh buys Donna a book and writes a very nice inscription for her, that we are not privy to. Fine, Josh/Donna shippers, have your moment. I’ll be opening another door on my Amy Gardner Advent calendar.

The Verdict: The overt sentimentality of the Toby subplot has always kept me at arm’s length from this one, but it’s a very good episode, especially as Christmas episodes go. The Laurie scene is excruciating, but at least this time that seems to be the point. And the scene with Leo hollering at Josh and Sam for doing it, then forgiving them like a kindly dad, is pretty great.

Next Up: "Lord John Marbury," that fabulous Brit.

The West Wing, One by One: “The Short List”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "The Short List"

Season 1, Episode 9

"A" Story: The not inconsequential task for the week is to announce the President’s choice to fill a vacating seat on the Supreme Court, and all the other stories flow through this one. The choice: Peyton Cabot Harrison III, the consensus pick of the staff, mostly because his pristine credentials will make for an easy confirmation process. As you might imagine, things begin to complicate from there, starting with the grumpy outgoing Justice putting a bug in the President’s ear about him not being courageously liberal enough and specifically not giving enough consideration to one Judge Mendoza. And so, as a troubling detail emerges about Harrison (he wrote an unsigned opinion in his law school days indicating that he doesn’t believe in a Constitutional right to privacy), Bartlet asks his staff to look further into Mendoza.

"B" Story: A Congressman Lillienfield calls a press conference in order to hurl accusations that one in three White House staffers are on drugs, a wild and baseless claim that CJ nonetheless can’t categorically deny (lotta White House staffers; drugs are fun), and so the whole thing threatens to ruin the Harrison media cycle. Mandy advocates drug testing the staff in order to get the story over with; Josh in particular vehemently objects to any sort of witch hunt. But after some half-hearted interviews, Josh figures out that Lillienfield isn’t after some podunk staffers. He’s after big fish. And a conversation with Leo reveals that in addition to Leo’s past as an alcoholic, he did some time in rehab for a pill addiction. Leo insists those records are sealed, but Josh knows Lillienfield must have them.

"C" Story: Danny continues his mainsplaining-themed courtship of CJ. This is the episode where Josh gives Danny the hot tip that CJ loves goldfish, so Danny gets her a fish in a bowl (named Gail), at which point CJ cracks up, as she’s a fan of the crackers, not the fish.

Errata: During her press briefing about the Lillienfield accusations, CJ fields a question from the reporter we know as Katie and calls her Chris. Katie is the blonde one who looks like if Lisa Kudrow and Christina Applegate had a daughter. Chris (Kris?) is the somewhat flintier brunette who looks like Adrienne Barbeau’s bookish cousin. 

First Appearances: And so the dominant story of the middle section of this first season, the Leo McGarry Witch Hunt, begins. It makes sense, Leo being the father figure for the rest of the staff and a natural rallying point for the other characters. And John Spencer pretty well nails it — the terrified look on his face when he admits to Josh that his pills addiction could be coming to the fore is riveting.

Guest Stars of Note: 

  • Holmes Osborne shows up as Peter Lillienfield.
  • Lou Grant's Mason Adams plays the INCREDIBLY grouchy Justice Crouch, a character whose name is so onomatopoetically on the nose, he might as well be in Harry Potter.
  • Ken Howard plays Judge Harrison, perfectly haughty and combative in a scene where Bartlet has Sam and Toby grill him over privacy rights.
  • Edward James Olmos is Judge Mendoza. In a smart decision, Olmos is kept offscreen for 90% of the episode; the second we see it’s him playing Mendoza, we know he’ll end up as the President’s nominee. 

The Road to Mandyville: True to her character, Mandy is monstrously cynical about literally everything. She jumps all over the idea of drug-testing the staff, even tossing off the idea that staffers on drugs will simply quietly resign. She also makes a big fuss about how Mendoza’s the wrong choice, since he’ll be a difficult confirmation and “isn’t America’s idea of a Supreme Court justice,” a plainly racist statement. That it takes any of the White House staffers any time at all to imagine how they could sell a working-class-hero angle on Mendoza is, frankly, baffling. Subsequent Mendoza episodes will paint the confirmation struggle as Mendoza being a particularly prickly individual, which was the wiser course of action.

Sorkinicana: This is the first time we see a Supreme Court justice give Bartlet the business for being too moderate and unable to get a staunch liberal on the Court. It won’t be the last. And speaking of things that will recur in Sorkin’s writing, Bartlet complains to Crouch about having to deal with a “bitchy media,” the very same term he’d throw around in the Studio 60 pilot during Judd Hirsch’s big Network meltdown. 

Odds and Ends:

  • The cold-open sequence, in which Josh, Sam, and Toby hoot and holler “Who da man!” throughout the West Wing, even roping Mrs. Landingham into their shenanigans, is seriously the most obnoxious thing I have ever seen in my entire life.

  • Also, not to rain on anybody’s parade, but how difficult is it really to get a judge to accept a nomination for the Supreme Court?
  • Donna’s incredulity at the prospect of Justice Peyton Cabot Harrison III (“Jewish fella?”) is the most I’ve liked her all season.
  • Toby: “We’ve been doing this for a year, and all we’ve gotten is a year older.” Keep this in a drawer for later this season. 
  • Sam predicts that privacy will be THE judicial issue of the 21st century. Not a bad call there, Aaron.
  • Harrison recognizes Charlie from his days as a caddy at Harrison’s country club, subtly coding him as a WASPy elite. Yet another motif that will recur (much less subtly) later this very season.
  • Congratulations to Judge Mendoza, the first Latino to receive the West Wing Proud of Black People score music.

The Verdict: Good episode, tightly focused, well plotted. It’s the starting point for a few storylines, but it feels like much more than mere table setting.

Up Next: "In Excelsis Deo," which I recall liking a bit less than everybody else does.

The West Wing, One by One: “Enemies”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "Enemies"

Season 1, Episode 8

"A" Story: A slam-dunk win on an impending banking bill gets sullied at the last minute by two seemingly insignificant Congressmen, Broderick and Eaton, who have attached a land-use rider (basically, so their campaign donors can strip-mine Montana). The staff is split between those who say swallow it and take the bill (Sam, Mandy) and those who want to crush Broderick and Eaton and send a message that they’re not to be pushed around (Josh, Toby), each fighting for the President’s ear.

"B" Story: The bickery Mallory/Sam courtship really kicks in here, with Mallory inviting Sam to go to the opera with her. Leo finds out and is un-thrilled so he and the President conspire to tie Sam up writing a birthday card (birthday MESSAGE) to someone or other. (Mallory’s also been giving Leo a bit of a cold-shoulder in the wake of her parents’ separating).

"C" Story: The President and Hoynes get into a bit of a tense exchange in a cabinet meeting, the details of which are leaked to the press, and once again it’s Hoynes vs. the West Wing, this time with CJ and Jed himself having separate shouting matches with the Veep.

Runners: 

  • Toby and Sam are in writing slumps and can’t seem to stop talking about it. 
  • Danny’s courtship of CJ truly begins here, taking the shape which it will mostly maintain for the course of his time on the series: Danny tells CJ what she’s doing wrong, pats her on the head, tells her she’s gorgeous/beautiful/beguiling, asks her out on a date, gets rebuffed. This would be repeated in a more condensed fashion and even more troublesomely on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”

First Appearances: "You’ve gone ‘round the bend," says Mallory to Leo, a folksy little phrase that Sorkin was quite fond of, if memory serves.

The Road to Mandyville: Mandy’s actually fairly on point this week. When pressing Josh to swallow the land-use rider, she accuses him of getting overly competitive with his opponents and riling the President up. This kind of win-over-benefit thing with Josh is kind of one of his defining characteristics. 

Character Consistency: Okay, not to make a huge deal about it or anything, but Sam makes more than a few cracks about going to the opera with Mallory. This coming from the guy who, not one season from now, will out himself as the recording secretary for the Princeton Gilbert & Sullivan society? I know they’re not the same thing, but they’re  damn close.

Sorkinicana: i could be wrong about this, but it really feels like Sorkin’s on Bartlet’s side during the cabinet meeting when he gives Hoynes the business. Sorkin does this semi-often, writing something as a high-five moment when it really makes his characters look like jerks. Bartlet being all O RLY at Hoynes’s statement that their first order of business should be working with Congress is one thing. I can see Jed being annoyed that Hoynes is so willing to cross the aisle for the Republicans’ benefit. But retorting, “Don’t you think the first order of business should be serving the American people?” is too much. Get off the pedestal, Mr. Prez, there are no cameras around.

NOTE: Turns out I am wrong about any kind of Sorkin intention, as this is the first episode of the season without any kind of Sorkin writing credit at all. Which now makes me wonder about the Sam plot, and how he’s an insane perfectionist who passes up a date with a beautiful woman in order to get a birthday message just so. The episode doesn’t exactly demonize Sam/Aaron for his perfectionism, but it has a good bit of fun with him for it too.

Odds and Ends: 

  • We get our first look at Jed Bartlet: National Parks Buff this episode. And our first instance of the President boring one of his staffers to tears by gasbagging on about something or other. This motif persists, for sure.
  • Great Sam/Mallory moment, as she explodes at him to get on with the birthday note and he replies, “What are you, Ralph Kramden.” Also good: Mallory sighing that Sam is just so like Leo, and Sam taking it as a compliment. 
  • The source of the Bartlet/Hoynes beef revealed: Hoynes didn’t say yes to Bartlet’s offer of the VP slot right away. Jed thinks he made him beg.
  • Donna inspires Josh’s Antiquities Act-based solution to the land rider problem in her typically ass-backwards Donna way.

The Verdict: A bit of wheel-spinning in terms of the season’s greater plots, but the Sam/Mallory/Leo stuff is worth it. 

Next Up: "The Short List," wherein any number of mid-season plots get set in motion. 

The West Wing, One by One: “The State Dinner”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "The State Dinner"

Season 1, Episode 7

"A" Story: This is kind of an episode where a lot of smaller stories are the “A” story, since they contribute equally to what is the major theme of the day: that sometimes stuff happens that the President is powerless to control or make better, and that’s very frustrating and a total bummer. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that the A story is the impending state dinner with the prime minister of Indonesia, who is by all accounts a total good-time Charlie and an utter cut-up. Just kidding, he’s a humorless slog (and human-rights abuser) who is neither into cello music nor salmon. Really, the only good news about the state dinner is that the First Lady will be there.

"B" Story: There’s a Ruby Ridge-style stand-off brewing in Idaho, which crosses paths with Mandy’s yapping to a resistant Josh about getting more involved in active decisions. She convinces the President to instruct the FBI to send a mediator in, and of course it’s doomed to failure, because a) Mandy and b) look where I wrote “Ruby Ridge-style.” The mediator gets shot, and  … well, we kinda never get a resolution on that. 

"C" Story: Sam is once again at it with Laurie, having lunch with her, which in this case takes the form of bugging her about quitting hooking while she’s trying to study for her law exam. This storyline cannot go away fast enough, much as I enjoy Lisa Edelstein just fine. She ends up at the state dinner on the arm of a glad-handing DNC donor who has no idea that Sam knows his date “Brittany” is a call-girl. Sam introduces her to the First Lady (begrudgingly) and then offers to pay her not to sleep with the guy. My kingdom for an Amy Gardener to smack Sam upside the head right about now. (My kingdom for an Amy Gardener for lots of reasons.)

Runners: 

  • There’s a teamsters strike a-brewing and management is in the Roosevelt Room trying to hash it out.
  • There’s also a hurricane bearing down on the Eastern seaboard, and when it abruptly changes direction, it ends up headed straight for a group of navy ships.
  • C.J. ends up on the business end of a lot of Danny Concannon flirting, which is the first time Danny’s crush on CJ has come up.
  • There’s a whole annoying rigamarole involving Donna and finding an interpreter, all of which adds up to a non sequiter about Toby trying to get a French protester friend of his freed from an Indonesian prison. Too bad he’d just written a speech wherein the President slaps Indonesia’s P.M. on the wrist for human rights abuses. 

First Appearances: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Stockard Channing as Abbey Bartlet, one of my favorites even when she’s being written poorly (which is not un-often). She gets a nice entrance, seamlessly shifting from the personal to the professional with CJ (trying to set her up on a date, then giving her a quote for the press about a controversy over White House decorative objects). She also establishes herself as a kind of Jed Whisperer, intuiting why Jed’s taking such a hard stance in the Teamsters meeting (because he feels helpless on the hurricane and Ruby Ridge fronts) and providing a crucial bit of moral support and guidance at the end when Jed’s on the phone with the Navy signalman who’s about to die.

Guest Stars of Note: Lots in this one. John Kapelos (janitor from The Breakfast Club) and William Lucking (Piney from Sons of Anarchy) play the warring labor/trucking leaders. David Rasche (a Hey It’s That Guy of some vintage) plays Laurie’s john. Steve Rankin (Tara’s repressive dad from Buffy, among other things) plays one of the FBI guys.

The Road to Mandyville: Tough week for Mandy, sincerely. I do get a fair number of pangs of guilt when it comes to the Mandy pile-on. True, she’s written atrociously and played almost as poorly by a Moira Kelly who never seemed to realize when her character needed to preserve a modicum of steel. Still, she’s a character I very much wanted to work, both because the Bartlett inner circle should have more than one woman, and because I liked the media-advisor angle. Still and all: ugh, Mandy this week. Her angling to be a bigger part of the decision-making is reasonable, but she does it by sass-talking the Feds who are trying to run an operation, and then by making everything about how Josh is jealous of her being on the inside. Which he is, but maybe stop volunteering yourself to play the ex-girlfriend role so often? Anyway, when it all goes bad, she can’t even roll with it and instead leaves the state dinner to go barf. I don’t begrudge a character some moment of panic at the moment she first realizes that her little decisions have big-time consequences at this level, but this kind of thing also happens to Ainsley Hayes in season two, which once again brings up the tendency of Aaron Sorkin to infantilize his female characters far more than the male ones.

Sorkinicana: Speaking of which, CJ spends the whole cold open fielding questions from style reporters about the particulars about the upcoming state dinner. What food will be served, the china it will be served on, what the respective first ladies will be wearing, et cetera. She repeatedly bemoans having to do this, having to lower herself to speak with InStyle and with reporters who are, at base, just doing their jobs. I’m sure Dee Dee Meyers and Peggy Noonan had more important ways they could be serving the world than by playing advisor to The West Wing, too, Aaron, so maybe quit being so smug? (Well, maybe not Peggy Noonan.)

Odds and Ends:

  • I like the recurring bit where Leo keeps advising people to return to the party because whatever situation they’re discussing is out of everybody’s hands. It’s not glib and it’s not overly grim, it’s just … all there is to do.
  • It should be noted for the record that Donna gets the blame for fucking up the translator(s) thing, when it sure seems like Josh and Toby should have known that the Indonesian diplomat they wanted to speak to spoke English.

The Verdict: One of the essential great early West Wing episodes that contributed to The West Wing becoming what it became over the course of its first year. Obviously I love it best because it introduces Abbey, but I also thought it was by far the most structurally tight of the first seven episodes, as each storyline builds into the other, without things seemingly like a cosmically-ordained Bad Day. The President feels increasingly powerless, and most of his subordinates — Toby and Mandy in particular — feel ineffective at best, actively harmful to the process at worst. The final scene, with Bartlet on the radio with the signalman, talking him through what are likely his last moments, is powerful and incredibly well-filmed, with a wide shot (wherein Josh puts his arms around Mandy in comfort in an unshowy and kind of lovely way) pushing in on Jed, until it’s just him, with Abbey’s steading hand on his shoulder, as his voice quavers just a bit, just once. That’s your Tommy Schlamme at work there, and good on him for it.

Next Up: "Enemies," where CJ and the Veep square off, and I believe where the Leo’s-addict-past storyline kicks off in earnest.