When I first started watching The West Wing, I paid attention to every little plot detail. "This guy was trying to talk to this other guy before another guy had the chance to speak to a stray guy about an issue involving a guy," is a conversation I remember cropping up just about every episode. I was new to the show—and I was writing about it—so I didn't want to miss anything. What if the President of the Republic Of Made-Up Country traveled back in time in the season finale and fought Sylar as a little kid? How could I miss such a callback?
I've stopped trying, though, to catch the intricacies of the daily dilemmas. There's the obvious reason, that the show is more about the characters than the situations those characters get into, blah blah TV writerly speak. You all know that already. But I guess I stopped caring because I realized it didn't matter what was happening on The West Wing, so much as that there was something happening at all. The conventional wisdom of an awesome TV drama is that the show's about whatever it's about, but not really. Battlestar Galactica is about sci-fi things, but really the world is merely a backdrop from which to create a rich, compelling, human drama.
The West Wing does that too, but politics isn't just in the background. It's a workplace-set show that feels like it's in an actual workplace, instead of a TV version of what a workplace should be. There are decisions that need to be made, conversations and meetings that need to be had, paperwork to be filed. And all the characters want is to get it done, to simply do their jobs. The genius of Aaron Sorkin is that he could write an episode where the characters talk about diplomacy issues the entire time, and it would be one of the most personal and revealing episodes of the show's run.
That's not to say situations aren't heightened somewhat. With the tragedy of the season one finale now a healthy distance away, these two episodes feel back to business as usual—meaning much more shop talk and people trying to get some work done despite themselves. "And It's Surely To Their Credit" is perhaps as straightforward an office-centric drama as The West Wing is going to get, telling the story of Ainsley Hayes and her introduction to the White House. Leo brings her to meet new boss Lionel Tribbey (John Larroquette), who storms in brandishing a cricket bat with anger in his eyes—just as Leo admits he hasn't told Tribbey about Hayes' hiring. The sparks: They fly.
Later Hayes, relegated to a subterranean boiler room of an office, is tasked to tell off two staffers who went off book during a press briefing, and they're none to happy to take orders from someone they despise. Sam gets wind of this, and though he has his own problems with Hayes, storms in and fires the staffers immediately. The rules of the workplace are cut and dry: Even the smallest subordination means the direst of consequences. Same goes for CJ, who impressively stands up to a general about to go rogue, threatening to expose the medal he proudly displays as one earned under false pretenses. She represents the President's office, and how dare he not recognize, fool.
(Another rule of the office: Sex trumps everything.)
"The Lame Duck Congress" is similarly straightforward in its set-up and pay-off. Donna becomes a champion for ergonomics, and when Leo refuses to give her the time of day, positing that everyone should simply "type slower", she orchestrates a secretary-wide campaign to do just that. Sam is forced to turn a 22 page memo into a 2 pager, to which he quips, "A two-page summary is gonna cramp our style." At another point, Leo is so slammed with work he asks the staffers what's on the agenda, they reply, he says "not now" to everything, then asks, "Anything else?"; later, he leaves his office to do something, and is interrupted so many times he finds himself walking in a circle. Offices have a way of letting some minor annoyances fester and others seem beyond important, and Sorkin mines this typical office passive-aggression for ripe comedy.
I'm still not totally sold on Ainsley Hayes, both as a character and in Emily Procter as an actress. For whatever reason, it still feels to me like she's reading the lines off some teleprompter, having not spent any time investing herself in the dialogue. (Same went for Amanda Peet in Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.) But her presence on the show is providing some nice outside perspective on the Bartlet administration. They were go-getters in season one, fighting for the best interest of the country even though the country fought them back at every turn. As we learn from Hayes' Republican cohorts, Bartlet and his team are viewed as hot-headed, not champions for underdog causes. The shooting was a major hindrance, and now largely via Ainsley Hayes, the show is chipping away at the administration's armor. Quite simply, there are other ways to do things, and she's finding ways to demonstrate that to Sam (in summary form), to Leo, to everyone around.
The message is also coming from inside the house! (of representatives). There's a telling moment in this second episode where Toby meets with a Democratic congressman, a lame duck, about pushing a bill forward in his remaining days in office. He refuses: The people of his state voted him out because he didn't follow what they wanted, and the least he can do is try and serve their best interests in this home stretch. Having been swept up in the show, it's easy to forget that a huge chunk of the country likely disproves of Bartlet, and he's forced to serve them as well. And, frankly, he doesn't always do a good job.
But it's as Bartlet says at the end of "The Lame Duck Congress": We don't live in a Democracy, we live in a Republic. These are the people we've elected to do the job, for better or worse. And as they do that job, shenanigans will ensue.
"And It's Surely To His Credit": A-
"Lame Duck Congress": B+
- You know, I'm sure Ainsley Hayes likes Gilbert & Sullivan and all, but I hope she's alright being permanently married to that theme.
- I get a kick out of how much Sorkin loves them, too. Making Sam the recording secretary for Princeton's Gilbert & Sullivan society? Sounds like someone wanted to retroactively justify his choice of affiliation.
- Not sure how I feel about the whole Josh-demands-retribution subplot. I guess it's necessary to wrap up more of that story, but it wasn't doing much good to help the episodes.
- Best firing line: "It's time for both of you to write your book now."
- I love Donna, but they have to stop using her simply as a policy-summary device.
- "I'm a politican: Of course I lied to you just then."
- "I feel like I wanna die." "It's the White House, get used to that feeling."
- "Hooker…different hooker, Sam."
- So Sam and Ainsley are totally going to doink, yes?