The West Wing S01E02: Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

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The Sam-slept-with-a-prostitute subplot introduced in the first episode is fleshed out a little more, in what I always thought was a rather juvenile fashion. Why would Seaborn embarrass someone he’s keen on in front of a crowd? Was that really considered acceptable behaviour in the later 1990s? It made the character seem politically more naïve than an operative like him should have been.

Nevertheless, the sub-plot turned into more credible messages later, so I guess I forgive Sorkin for his transgression into juvenalia.

A more serious turn in this episode was the apparent side-show of Navy Captain Dr Lawrence Tolliver (played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) interacting with the President as his physician. Filling in for a more senior officer, and uncomfortable with the responsibility, Leo tells him that the president likes him.

Tolliver enchants Leo, Margaret Hooper (Leo’s senior assistant, played with and astoundingly charming sociopathy by Nicole Robinson), and the president himself, with photos of his newly delivered baby.

He relays to Leo that he would need to be covered ‘next week’ because he was travelling to Amman, Jordan, to teach in a hospital there. He never reappears because his character’s plane is shot down by a missile just short of its destination, setting up the emotional content of a presidential terrorism conundrum in the next episode, ‘A Proportional Response’.

Bartlet’s immediate response to the news of Syrian responsibility for a fundamentalist attack by shoulder mounted surface to air missile is calm determination to ‘blow them off the face of the Earth’. Probably a statement about the extant propaganda stereotype of timid Democrat presidents. Whatever the scripting intent, Martin Sheen’s handling of the scene made him instantly into a phenomenon for the show. An unforgettably likable patriarch for America in an era with unforgettably mediocre pretenders (including Clinton). Taken together with his magisterial authority as wise man to idiot religionists shown in the first episode, he was and remains also my first choice for president. Unless and until Sanders succeeds.

Tim Matheson’s John Hoynes

In hindsight, though, the most significant development is an apparently minor skirmish between the presidents’ staff and Vice President John Hoynes (played by Tim Matheson). Attempting to manage his public statements gets CJ brushed off, and leads Leo to lay down the law on who’s boss in the White House.

Tim Matheson is such a talented character actor, producer, and director I wonder how he never gained more recognition. He was to go on to flesh out an incidental character very impressively on The West Wing, but he only ever directed one episode, ‘The Last Hurrah’ in 2006, during the show’s dying days.

Tim Matheson as Vice President John Hoynes.
Tim Matheson as Vice President John Hoynes.

In any case the rivalry between Bartlet and Hoynes was an inspired scripting theme: it explained to viewers how running mates might dislike each other personally, but become necessary to capture election year and Congressional votes otherwise unattainable. A gentle tuition in political realities? Was it topical at the time? I can’t remember.

Moira Kelly and Mandy bloody Hampton

Following hot on the heels of Mandy Hampton’s introduction as a dangerous phone driver, to the blare of Canadian punk princess Bif Naked, (I’m NOT making this up) this time the entire show starts with another display of reckless driving, set to the discordance of Canadian ‘alternative’ rockers Joydrop doing their ‘Fizz’, thing,
‘confused’ somewhat waggishly by someone at TuneFind as Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control Again’! I might have intervened mischievously to that effect myself. Out of control indeed.

Someone on the show’s production staff wanted desperately to present Hampton as a sort of too-cool-for-school intern/page masturbation fantasy for fat, middle-aged Capitol Hill men, but managed only to portray an increasingly ridiculous, poisonous dwarf with no sense of self-control, and no credibility as a PhD of anything, let alone political science. For the longest time I thought it was only my personal reaction, as an ex political spin doctor, looking on the Hampton character as just too ridiculous in such a rôle. But apparently I was not alone. Over time Hampton’s parts became smaller, and the character did not make it into the second season.

Looking up actress Moira Kelly, I note she was already established, and could have been expected to play a far less artless rôle. She got second billing in the opening credits after Rob Lowe. There was every reason to expect her to deliver something more valuable than what eventuated.

Whose idea was it to create the gratingly annoying motor-mouthed Hampton? Was it Dee Dee Myer’s conception of herself? A producer’s notion to groom Kelly, or to deliver eating money? Was it an astonishingly badly aimed shot at an idiot conception of ‘young women’ demographics?

And why was she not written into the script as already employed by the White House, rather than coming in as a gun-for-hire consultant when her candidate does himself out of a presidential candidacy? Dee Dee Myers’ influence? Some other colourful Washington insider well known at the time?

I remember cringing every time Hampton/Kelly was on-screen, and after all these years nothing much has changed, except for the reflex to fast-forward over her scenes. In the end I have to settle on the idea that the character was Sorkin’s’ mistake. He scripted the embarrassing moments. Yet in 2014 he was cited in The Hollywood Reporter as follows:

Moira Kelly didn’t have to audition; she was offered Mandy. Moira was a joy to work with, a total pro who understood as time went on that for whatever reasons — and those reasons had nothing to do with her considerable talent — it just wasn’t working. She was a model of graciousness.

Sorkin seems to distance himself from mis-scripting the character; as if Kelly was in charge of Hampton. It seemed, though, that Sorkin couldn’t make the character gel with the others, or the producers and directors could not establish a fit between Kelly and a remarkably durable ensemble.

The Bling

For actors, the bling of the opening credits is probably important, even if it is just a fleeting jingle-ridden annoyance for viewers.
In ‘Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc’ I noticed tow things about the opening: Snuffy Waldren’s theme debuted, albeit much slower and less compellingly than later on, and the order of the acting credits:

  • Rob Lowe
  • Moira Kelly
  • Allison Janney
  • Richard Schiff
  • John Spencer
  • Bradley Whitford
  • ‘and’ Martin Sheen

It seems that the president was to be only a marginal character in the show, whose focus was the staff. But Martin Sheen’s enthusiasm for the part blew away that idea. I still don’t quit know why he didn’t headline the cast, though the ‘and’ billing has long been an alternate to up-front top bling.

Rob Lowe was an established film star, albeit in the bad boy doldrums. Nevertheless he had a bigger name than the others. How Moira Kelly came to be second is beyond me.

At the time Janel Moloney was a failed auditioner for the part of CJ Cregg, and keen enough to offer herself as an extra. A smart move. She lasted all seven seasons as Josh’s assistant Donna Moss, but she was credited, at this stage, as a minor guest star.

With the benefit of hindsight, my assessment of character importance would have seen Sheen head the bill, followed by Whitford, Spencer, Janney, Schiff, and Molony.

Credits

The main characters are listed for episode one. Only the changing players and production staff are mentioned here for subsequent episodes.
 

Writer: Aaron Sorkin; Director: Thomas Schlamme; first aired 29 September 1999.

 

Guest stars – Ruben Santiago-Hudson: Morris Tolliver; Lisa Edelstein: Laurie; Merrin Dungey: Daisy; Renée Estevez: Nancy; John Bedford Lloyd: Lloyd Russell; Janel Moloney: Donna Moss; Suzy Nakamura: Kathy; and Tim Matheson: Vice President John Hoynes.

For discussion, see Randy Resnick’s Google Plus West Wing collection.

For a complete list of West Wing commentary see my West Wing index page.