I was visiting a friend last weekend who was watching Sports Night for the first time. He was just getting to the part where Dan and Rebecca begin their courtship—my favorite part of the show—so I offered to watch a few with him. The first one we popped in was “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” where Jeremy writes a letter to his sister about the goings-on behind the scenes at the show. [Very minor spoiler next] It ends with Dana handing the show over to Sally and going on a date with Gordon, setting the stage for the remaining season’s worth of drama between Dana and Casey. He simply cannot understand why she would abandon the show for personal reasons—especially to see Gordon. And when Casey finally has it out with Dana over that decision, my friend groaned. “Characters on Sorkin shows take work so seriously,” he said. “They can’t believe anyone would have a life outside of their job. Where else would missing one show be that big of a deal?”
He has a point. The stock response would probably be, “It’s not just about putting personal life over the job; it’s about the relationship between Casey and Dana.” I suppose there’s a little of that—TV, at least good TV, isn’t about what’s directly being discussed on screen. But the moments are clunky. Casey comes off as a petulant little boy, and Dana defends the deeply emotional attack by demanding she be allowed some time away from work. The moment isn't just about putting personal live over the job, but most of it is.
It dawned on me watching "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" that writing a letter to an absent person is an attempt to make the audience care more about the goings-on at the job. Details of work decisions are explained disguised as personal updates. Work is cited as the reason there hasn't been much communication up until then. Characters are reduced to the actions they accomplish at the daily grind. It's oddly distancing, and the only way to reinvest in what's happening is to figure out what this "job" is all about. Aren't jobs great?
And lo, what West Wing episode should I happen to stumble upon next? "The Stackhouse Filibuster," the letter writingest letter writing episode to ever write a lettter of writing. The episode is a CJ-centric one (which I like) and has her writing an email to her father during some major downtime. Seems Stackhouse wanted to add some funds to the Family Wellness Bill to cover children with autism, but the administration didn't want to saturate the already-pretty-much-a-sure-thing bill. So they said no. And thus Stackhouse is up there reading from a recipe book on a Friday night. Sam wants to head up to the Hamptons. Josh has an unofficial bro date with Mike Piazza. Toby needs to hit the slopes. It's one of the first times on the show that we've heard about these staffers' hobbies (Sam's certainly didn't surprise me), but CJ is keeping them from their other loves, shackling them to their desks in case this filibuster ends.
The story itself is compelling enough. Donna does some digging and discovers that Stackhouse has a grandkid with autism, and the White House dispatches fellow grandfather Senators to ask Stackhouse questions—starting an honest debate without forcing Stackhouse to give up the floor. (Plus he can sit and have water during the questions.) I guess I don't quite understand why it needed the added construct of the letters. It gave the episode the feel of a lecture, which played directly against, for example, the simple joy of seeing Stackhouse's face light up when the first Senate questioner said, "My question comes in 22 parts…you might want to sit down and have some water." The West Wing usually has such faith in its audience's ability to fall in love with the rich world it creates; to stand back and have the characters say, "This is why you should love what's happening" played directly to what seems to be The West Wing's weakest moments: a lack of clarity.
I also found it amusing that all three letters—CJ, Josh, and Sam, who groan-ingly started his with "Dear jackass" [delete] "Dear Dad"—apologized for not writing in a while and blamed the lapse on some specific thing happening in the office. I have this friend with whom for a while it was difficult to find time to hang out. I was busy but flexible, yet she always had some commitment sucking up all her time where once it was over, she promised, she would have all sorts of availability. When that thing was over, something else would crop up with the same excuse. The thing that bothered me the most, though, was that she constantly insisted we find the time, even though her schedule seemed to be the hang-up. Finally, I called her out on it, and told her that it was okay to admit we might not see each other too often, that if things were really this nuts, we didn't have to beat ourselves up over not finding the time. She apologized and blamed the most recent time sucker, to which I pointed out it had been going on for a while. She blamed the one before that, too, to which I pointed out again how long it'd been, at which point she said, "Things have been crazy for the last three years."
I'm not trying to downplay anything that was going on in this friend's life. (And I'm not trying to bore you.) It's just the experience taught me that when two people change, one person will probably see it more clearly than the other—at least at first. Last week I spoke about the characters on The West Wing who have alienated family members we've seen: Leo's ex-wife; Toby's ex-wife; Bartlet's child Ellie. I wonder how many people these characters have alienated that we haven't seen. I wonder how many people Sorkin has alienated by throwing himself into his work I wonder whether or not "The Stackhouse Filibuster" is one last attempt to make his case—to those unfortunate people and to himself—that all the work was justified.
The reason why anyone on The West Wing does anything at all is President Bartlet—not just for him, but for what he represents. So another strange thing about "The Stackhouse Filibuster" was that Bartlet is the only character to admonish anyone for working too hard. A fancy French chef is visiting the White House and Bartlet invites Leo to join him for dinner. The rest of the office is running around like chickens with their heads cut off and Bartlet is escaping to a silent corner to dine. And when Leo answers his phone for an urgent business matter, Bartlet attacks. "You work all day, then we go out to eat and you're still working," he says over saffron chicken. Leo quips back that it's probably the reason his ex-wife left him. Bartlet disagrees. When two people change, one person will see it more clearly than the other.
The remainder of "The Stackhouse Filibuster" concerns Toby (aka Sam's favorite writer) snooping out the Vice President's intentions for next term, and his search for answers continues into "17 People." It doesn't take much: Toby surmises that the VP is putting himself out in the spotlight and on the road, then throws his ball against the wall for a few days and has it all figured out. At least…he's figured out that Bartlet might not run for another term, and he's about to learn why.
"17 People" smartly condensed the amateur PI stuff and concerns itself primarily with telling Toby about Bartlet's MS, letting that information settle, and watching Toby slowly accept the truth. These rich, character-based episodes are my favorites (see also "Noël") because of how powerful tiny details can become. At one point, Toby and Bartlet are discussing how Bartlet receives the treatments, and Bartlet replies that "a" doctor administers them. Toby's on to him: Is it Bartlet's wife? Bartlet's heard enough, and insists if Toby continue to talk about his wife, he refer to her as "Mrs. Bartlet" or "The First Lady." Toby has struck a nerve, as he does later when he realizes something I would have never figured out. The President suffered an episode yet made decisions about the security of the United States—defended by insisting it was okay because Leo was around. Yet nobody elected Leo. Leo was appointed by the President. Leo represents nobody. Worse was the time the President was under general anesthesia without signing the form to give the Vice President power. "For 90 minutes there was a coup d'état in this country," Toby says.
"Not every part of me belongs to you," Bartlet shoots back. "This is personal."
How true is that, really? Doesn't becoming the President mean you have to give everything you have to your country and your people? I suppose so? A few weeks ago, I wondered if it was more comforting to think of a President who was a mindless representative of voter whims or one who goes rogue whenever possible. I guess I'm still torn, though it's clear The West Wing has set up a fantasy—or, as it may be, a window—into what that latter category looks like. Yet as much as I love Bartlet, I found myself sympathizing with Toby on this one. I think in order to be President, you really do have to give some shred of privacy up. I mean, at least as it pertains to the people who elected you. It's quite the health concern Bartlet covered up, and it's incredible how he and Leo have justified it to each other and those who are in the know—now all 18 of them. They never told anyone to lie. They've only withheld the truth for a long time, and will continue to do so as long as they can.
The simplest explanation for The West Wing I can think of is that it's a show about people who love each other but have issues with one another, and the drama is heightened because it's POTUS. I can think of no better scene to encapsulate that statement than this half of "17 People."
And the rest was in such stark contrast to the eerie darkness of Toby and Bartlet that I couldn't help but laugh every time it cut away to Josh, Sam, and Donna trying out their ridiculous material. (CJ was oddly absent.) They start with material trying to make fun of large groups of people—namely Republican bashing and multiple "dead audience jokes"—and it devolves into talk of sock puppets and zings on Sam being with a prostitute. They simply want to make Toby laugh, and when Toby emerges from the other room, sitting solemnly at the other end of the table as the sound of a ball against the wall echoes—well, it broke my heart.
If only "17 People" didn't have that stuff about Josh being angry with Donna for leaving her job briefly for a guy. I thought Sorkin learned his lesson.
"The Stackhouse Filibuster": B-
"17 People": A-
- I really can't say enough good about that opening series of scenes in "17 People." The action cuts ahead days, and Toby is still sitting there throwing the ball against the wall. Amazing how simple images can mean so much with repetition.
- Ainsley Hayes is really undergoing trial by fire, right? They sure do hate her kind.
- "It's wise to have dead audience jokes in your pocket."
- Odd homophobic comment Bartlet makes about Leo joining him for dinner. Hasn't the guy heard of a man-date?
- "I'm all for bipartisanship if we get the credit."