The best episodes of the West Wing expertly balance its lightweight and heavyweight elements. Both aspects can be prone to problems: the lightweight can be annoying fluff, and the heavyweight can be overwrought (never more so than when Latin and/or biblical). At their best, the lightweight banter sparkles as brightly any writing on any television show, and the heavyweight brings the show’s formidable intelligence to bear on issues of real import.
This particular episode doesn’t execute that balance particularly brilliantly, but it certainly hints at the show’s potential. The lightweight worked for the most part. Where it didn’t, like Josh proclaiming ‘victory is mine’ and then being applauded for his insufferable smugness, at least it was recognised as ‘unbearable’ by Donna. Where it did, the wit was gentle as a breeze and much more effusive for it (Leo showing Margaret the baby picture, the snappy morning staff meeting, etc.).
This episode also set up one of the seams of comedy the writers would mine most often. Thus, the assertion that ‘very serious men and women’ work in the White House segued into Josh gloating, and the insistence that the new media consultant be ‘anyone but Mandy’ inevitably led to her appointment. It’s not a bad construction and the payoff usually comes quickly enough for it not to grate. It also neatly defuses the arrogance of the staff, supplanting it with a tender sweetness. It had this effect when Sam repeatedly denied the accusation that he was going to try to reform the call girl, elucidating the character’s relationship with her and with his colleagues without fuss. The charm of their flirting later in the episode underlined how well the show can portray relationships when it calms the pace.
We were permitted a peek at the heavyweight for the first time when Leo confronted the vice president. There was no humour here, no clear-cut villain or hero, and no cheap resolution. The conflict was introduced smartly, staking out the capacity of the parties to harm each other. The prize wasn’t specified, but it’s suitably well established that politics is most vicious when little is at stake, and so we can concentrate on the characters without any external issues to dilute the conflict. Lower down the divisions, CJ’s interaction with the vice president quietly reaffirmed her dignity, in stark contrast to Mandy moaning about how ‘accomplished, brilliant, young and cute’ she is.
One aspect of the show that’s a constant disappointment is its amateur use of exposition. This recurs throughout the series (Donna in particular frequently occupies this role), but here the trait was best exemplified by Mandy’s lame summation of her life story minutes after the ‘previously on’ opening. The subsequent work put into establishing that the president is disinclined from violence and that his doctor is a nice guy was understandable given that this is only the second episode. However, more could have been said more powerfully with less recounting. Leo’s introductory chat with the doctor and some of the president’s playfulness would have sufficed, without worrying about the doctor’s family history. The character just had to be a nice person and a new father, not the embodiment of black hope. Equally, it would have been better to see rather than hear about Bartlet’s discomfort with the generals. Even if this was just an imagined insecurity dating from his father, Martin Sheen is a fine enough actor to convey it.
His final promise to blow the Syrians ‘off the face of the world with the fury of god’s own thunder’ was another case in point. Now, few do Old Testament bombast like Bartlet and it is genuinely affecting, but it only really makes sense if the idea is that he is trying to convince himself of a course of action (somewhat acknowledged by his declaration that he was not frightened). This doesn’t seem to be a major theme of the show, though. I don’t think we’re expected to doubt Bartlet’s willingness to exercise power (after all, one of the big messages is that a liberal president does not equate to a weak president), in which case I would prefer simply to see the weight of his decisions communicated through his face and shoulders.
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