Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: "Pilot"

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Unlike probably every other person alive, my first experience with Aaron Sorkin came a few years ago, when I started watching Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Don't get me wrong: I knew who the man was, and had heard many a tale of the glory of The West Wing (and had even caught a stray episode or two, in passing, that my roommate would watch in reruns), but somehow I had avoided everything having to do with the man until that ill-fated show-within-a-show. And lordy lord, I found that show insufferably stuffy (at least after the first two or so episodes)—especially that Matt character, played by Matthew Perry. Here was this egomaniac on a "tortured genius" kick, bringing everyone around him into his spiral of self-indulgence and self-hate. God, what an unlikeable dick.

Then someone told me that the character of Matt was based on Sorkin himself, and I think that's where the problem started.

Just last summer, I plowed through the entire series of Sports Night, hoping it would redeem Sorkin to me. But while I absolutely fell head-over-heels for the second half of the first season—especially the heartbreaking drama between Dan and Rebecca—the second season really dragged, as well as suffered from something I had noticed on Studio 60 that bothered me. I don't know how best to put it other than to call it, "Hey, look how zippy and clever I can be" dialogue. (For an example, may I direct you to Casey and Dana's odd "date rule" that still sticks out to me as one of the show's biggest missteps.) This problem is what really made Studio 60 borderline unwatchable near the end; each line was saturated with asides and witticisms, I forgot what they were talking about.

But though I had mixed feelings about it, Sports Night did encapsulate some of the things I love most about television—specifically, that the show transcended its genre. Even if you hate sports reporting, this show at least attempted to make you care about sports reporting. This is why preemptively dismissing Battlestar Galactica or Friday Night Lights because you're not a fan of sci-fi or football is ridiculous. As always, the best art draws you into its world, and by the time you leave you'll have gained an intense understanding of where that artist was coming from. In fact, Sports Night tried so hard to convince people it wasn't just about sports reporting that they even ran posters claiming, "It's about sports, the same way Charlie's Angels was about law enforcement."

And so begins my first journey through The West Wing, a show even the fiercest Sorkin detractors claim is his finest work. I've been counting down the days until this blog begins, simply because even mentioning its existence seems to get people excited; most even go so far as to start quoting me their favorite episodes and lines, for which I have zero context right now. A friend of mine, even, started watching a mere four days before me, and is already done with season one and well on his way to completing season two. I'm expecting it to be difficult to limit myself to only a few episodes a week.

Especially after even just the first scene of the pilot, which had me hooked almost instantly. Like Mad Men (though obviously this show did it first), we open on a smoky bar—and just as Don Draper was trying to get some work done, in the form of scrawled notes on a napkin, we see Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) having a work-related chat with a reporter. It's about his coworker Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), who apparently did something pretty bad, and is about to get fired. But talk can only continue for so long before Sam needs to turn his mind elsewhere, and he starts up a flirtation with a woman staring him down from across the bar (Lisa Edelstein, pre-Cuddy). And he's not the only one who needs a distraction from the daily grind: Cut to Leo McGarry (John Spencer), who's distracted by a typo he finds in the New York Times daily crossword; then a shot of CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) jogging on a treadmill, telling her cute neighbor all about how she does have a life, just a meticulously structured one. She can, say, go for a jog from 5-6am, and pick up boys in the process. You know, like normal people do. (This one scene says so much about her character, in so little time.)

But then she gets a page that immediately springs her, and the rest of the crew, back to reality: POTUS hit a tree with his bike. POTUS, as Sam explains to his one-night-stand, isn't a stupidly named friend, but an acronym for his boss. The President Of The United States.

Just like that, we're thrown into the thick of it. These people all work in the White House. Sam, Josh, CJ, and Toby (Richard Schiff, more on him later) are part of the communications team, and Leo is the Chief Of Staff. And a matter as simple as the President getting into a minor bike accident all of a sudden becomes much more—the press is a hungry beast, and must be fed. CJ, the White House Press Secretary, has to deliver the bit of news during her morning report, and the reporters even try to ask follow-up questions (hey, those AP writers are just trying to do their jobs). "This is a slow news day, so let's actually just move right along," she says, cutting them off abruptly.

But two issues loom even larger than the POTUS bike incident. The first is the matter of a group of Cuban citizens spotted floating towards Florida—there are 2000, or maybe about 1200, no one seems to be sure. Whatever the case, it's a big deal, and the Coast Guard is anxiously awaiting the President's orders. But it keeps getting pushed back and pushed back, until even the bike accident is getting higher billing on the office priority list. Well, that, and a whole other issue: Seems that Josh appeared on a TV program to debate Mary Marsh, a high profile conservative and Christian. In the heat of the moment, Mary brought up God, to which Josh replied, "Lady, the God you pray too is being indicted for tax fraud." Millions were offended; Josh's job is in serious jeopardy.

To help smooth things over, Leo has invited Mary and two other notable Christian leaders to the White House to chat with CJ, Josh, and Toby, who right now is furious with Josh for inciting such outrage. They sit down, and Josh offers his sincerest canned apology for his remarks, adding that he hopes they can move past this. Mary, though, coldly demands for something in return. In return, they all wonder? Yes, they have insulted the Christian moral base, so how about banning some pornography, or allowing prayer in school, even getting rid of condoms in school? What's worse, when Toby—understandably shocked—asks her to clarify, she goes on to say that this "New York humor" was really to blame. Hmm. "She means Jewish," Toby says, now finally agitated. The line has been drawn: The staff of the White House wants to protect its own, and the Christians won't budge unless its in their best interest.

But then, in perhaps the most satisfying scene of the entire episode, we finally see our President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), and not even a painful hobble can cripple his power. The second he enters the room, the game changes. The White House staff cower behind their leader; the conservatives in the room snap away from the conflict, then slowly approach the man with an innocently leading question. Is it too much that any ol' kid with $5 can get porn? "No," Bartlet quickly replies, "though I think $5 is entirely too much to pay."

He goes on to tell a story about his granddaughter, who accidentally found herself giving an interview in which she talks about the woman's right to choose. Her "reward" is a bloody Raggedy Anne doll in the mail, a knife through its heart—courtesy of a fringe Christian group the leaders in the room refuse to denounce. So these people are demanding something from Bartlet… why?

This, my friends, is our President for the summer. He knows exactly what he wants, and he's not afraid to go after it. He speaks his mind fully, and people respect the hell out of him for it. And, bottom line, he loves this country, as is evidenced by his explanation of the Cuban "crisis"—these people went so far as to risk their lives for just a taste of the freedom we enjoy each and every day. Now's the place where I could insert the requisite, "If only every politician were like that," but this is The West Wing, a behind-the-scenes look at politics. For all we know, this is exactly what happens all the time. We just don't see it behind the layers and layers of PR. Let's hope it is; and needless to say, I'm ready to jump right in.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • While I didn't love the hell out of the continuation of the Sam storyline (switching pagers with the girl from the other night, discovering she was a hooker, trying to keep the whole thing hush-hush, then blurting it accidentally to Leo's daugher), I do think Sam could become one of my favorite characters. He takes his job seriously enough to warrant some serious drama, but takes it just not seriously enough to have some fun with the conventions of it.
  • Not much from Toby tonight, but again, excited to see what he'll be up to. His complete dismissal of airline cellphone policy, for one thing, won me over. (They couldn't get that guy in first class?)
  • Right now, it seems like most of the central characters are in the communcations department. (Josh is Deputy Chief Of Staff, but right now seems like he deals in PR, or at least in this specific crisis.) Wondering if there will be any recurring press people in the fold, would be a nice balance to the world of the Wing itself.
  • It's strange to write about something many of you know so well, but I have no idea about. Crazy!