The West Wing S01E16: 20 Hours in LA

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This one’s my favourite episode for season one, but for reasons that have changed a little bit over time. Initially it was the Zoey Bartlet secret service bodyguard Gina Toscano interview on Air Force One, and the private Ted Marcus conversation at the fundraiser. Today it is probably more the almost-reconciliation between Bartlet and Hoynes over the ethanol tax credit nonsense, and the dig at producers delivered by the MBA-type hustlers at Ted Marcus’s party, who are unable to explain what Hollywood ‘developers’ actually do, and what ‘development’ actually involves. Not that the other events aren’t also important for the overall impact of the show.

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The West Wing S01E15: Celestial Navigation

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I always thought of this episode as just well written and executed tragicomedy. It made me smirk along with the verbal pratfalls, and gnash my teeth at the injustices of circumstances, much in the way I imagine Sorkin wanted me to. But last night, on my fifth or sixth viewing, I thought there was something more to it than the laughs.

It reminded of my first acquaintances with Shakespeare plays in the 1970s, where some amateur directors used a narrator to explain what settings we should imagine for the mostly bare stage that an amateur budget stretched to. And that made me think of Josh Lyman delivering his speech about being the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Lyman on stage became an anchor point for disparate narratives that would otherwise have required a more complex focal point, and less sketchy exposition.

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The West Wing S01E14: Take This Sabbath Day

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You know it’s an unusual episode when there’s no ‘previously on The West Wing’ introduction summarising previous events. Everything that happens in this episode requires no knowledge of continuing sub-plots.

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The West Wing S01E13: Take Out the Trash Day

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Although the news cycle frequently referred to in The West Wing, and on which many of CJ’s dilemmas are based, no longer exists in its 1990s form, the title of the episode is still topical. It refers to the practice of burying information no one wants to see too much of again on a day, and at a time, which ensures minimal press coverage. Friday afternoon is still a preferred time slot for this practice. As Josh Lyman explains to Donna Moss – and the audience – there are only so many column centimetres ‘above the fold’ of a broadsheet newspaper (meaning attention-grabbing headlines immediately on display). If important news is mixed in with potentially embarrassing or uncomfortable news, the bet is that no one will spend too much time investigating the discomforting items, and even if they do, ‘no one reads the papers on Saturday’.

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The West Wing S01E12: He Shall, From Time to Time …

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The first time I saw this episode the entire lead-in of State of the Union prep, Josh Lyman and CJ Cregg observing that the President looked clammy and drawn, and the spectacular Oval Office collapse seemed designed to draw attention to the brutal schedule a president keeps. I would not have guessed that writer Aaron Sorkin would drop the bombshell of multiple sclerosis, relapsing remitting or not.

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The West Wing S01E10: In Excelsis Deo

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Words fail me in describing the gut-wrenching awfulness of holiday-themed television show episodes. At Christmas and Easter we are forced to endure bullshit about touchy-feely Christian ethics that don’t exist. There is no charity or goodwill on those holidays anymore than there is on any other day of the year.

But we endure it because the alternative is to switch off the box, and miss all the commercial breaks reinforcing what a disgusting orgy of consumerist gluttony the whole thing has become. It is, in snapshot, the perfect rebuttal of any argument that the ‘markets’ are the best possible regulator of human desires and needs.
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The West Wing S01E09: The Short List

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Watching the antics of the team in celebrating the assumed nomination of Harrison Peyton III to a coming Supreme Court vacancy seemed hubristic when I first watched the episode, and downright juvenile today. Nevertheless, it conveys something of the harrowingly difficult process associated with Supreme Court appointments.

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The West Wing S01E08: Enemies

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On the first pass I hadn’t noticed it as much as later on. Episode eight seemed a little like a caricature of what Sorkin had written before. All the lines and characters were less subtle. Because Sorkin didn’t write this episode. Time Matheson and Dulé Hill were cited in an online TV guide that no longer exists to the effect that the script was unusually late. I wondered whether that meant Sorkin had problems. Maybe arising from drug abuse, which was a real problem for him in those years. I can’t find any evidence to that effect in print, but a year or so later he was busted and apologised to the cast and crew for the embarrassment he had caused the show. What a crock. All that hypocrisy about drugs in an industry laced with, at a time the entire country was awash in cocaine, and with coke dollars.

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The West Wing S01E07: The State Dinner

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Storms and ships …

The storm drama, with a hurricane catching an entire battle group at sea was genuinely poignant. I wonder though whether the senior admiral wouldn’t have known that sailing away from a storm trajectory involves the risk of a change in the path of the storm. That’s pretty elementary meteorology. And even more basic risk management.

As a dramatic device I guess it worked. It was not a presidential mistake, but his responsibility all the same, and the ending, during which he stays on the radio with a dying sailor, is perfect. It is indeed the most unpleasant responsibility of high office to accept responsibility for deaths that occur ‘on my watch’.
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