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: "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.
- 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.