The West Wing S01E03: A Proportional Response

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Charlie

For the longest time I thought that the addition of Charlie (Dulé Hill) was merely a belated and unseemly addition of a token black guy to the cast for a show supposedly taking place in Washington – a city with a pretty high African American population. But now I’m not so sure. Unless overt racism was even more pronounced in the later 1990s than now, with Jim Crow racists in the ascendant once more in the Republican Party.

From the opening credits.
From the opening credits.

Charlie is introduced after the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – John Amos as Admiral Percy Fitzwallace – a black and very senior recurring character. The point was made on camera as well: an old and senior black man in the White House. If Charlie is supposed to be a token, wouldn’t Sorkin have written him in as a senior staff member instead of a junior gopher? Or would the producers not have sought the addition of a black recurring cast member in a more senior rôle?

In any case, I didn’t have much time for Charlie as the shy and retiring type, but he did grow on me as the character’s confidence grew in the ensuing episodes. Certainly the Charlie character was shamelessly exploited to pose race questions, but he also developed a certain chemistry with the rest of the ensemble that often made me forget he is black, and what the politics of that were in the USA at the time.

Curiously, though, in the opening credits Dulé Hill jumped straight to the number three billing, after Moira Kelly. That’s not bad work for a 24-year-old tap dancer and television occasional with a very short résumé. Nor was Hill really representative of Washington blacks; his parents were both Jamaicans, while he was born in New Jersey and pursued ballet from an early age to aspire to Broadway.

It was a neat trick to turn Josh’s interview of Charlie for presidential bodyman also into advocacy for Sam’s position on his friendship with Laurie, whose night job, he argued, should not be seen as a liability just because he works in the White House. That’s probably true in an ethical sense, but pretty naïve in a context in which the worst sexual perverts in the known universe congregate in Washington and still find time to hypocritise public support for Puritan sexual denialism.

The way Laurie is presented, as a high class prostitute, makes her no worse than any wife of Donald Trump, or Rupert Murdoch’s latest accessories, albeit on a temporary basis and for many more men than most trophy wives recycle. It is a commercial relationship that creates a victimless crime, and an even worse social stigma based on hypocrisy: high class hookers earn because the very people who decry prostitution most loudly are their clientèle, or, in the case of poe-faced, tight-arsed wives, their best marketing agents.

Power politics

I remain unconvinced about Leo’s advocacy for the titular ‘proportional response’. I can see how people might like to think this is how things go down. I suspect, though, that American military adventurism are motivated mostly by greed and the cascading incompetence of intelligence and military agencies refusing to cooperate and undertake course-corrections when new information would make rational people act conscientiously.

Nevertheless, I could not help but think President Obama was absolutely right to order Seal Team 9 to shoot Somali pirates rather than accede to their demands, and to assassinate Osama bin Laden. I’m just not too sure how comfortable I feel about the corollary: the presidential power to assassinate anyone anywhere in the world regardless of the murder of innocent bystanders that often goes along with remote strikes and full frontal assaults.

CJ's first onscreen meeting with Danny Concannon.
CJ’s first onscreen meeting with Danny Concannon.

The most enjoyable sub-plot was Toby’s subterfuge in implying, in front of journalists, that Democrat congressman Bertram Coles, who had made some silly remarks about the president not being safe in his southern electorate, was under criminal investigation by the secret service for threatening the president’s life. It was the kind of skulduggery I remember being partial to myself. It certainly made me more fond of the Toby Ziegler character.

By episode three, it started to come together that this was a talking show, with not much action or change of scenery. But the talking was quick and witty compared to other TV offerings of the time. The audience was treated as adult, and mostly not pandered to or patronised.

For most new shows I think the creators deserve a four-to-six episode period of grace to find their feet. I think Sorkin hit that mark in episode three, after which I was left feeling like I wanted to see the next one when I first came to it. Watching again today I suppose this was about having sufficiently established the principal characters to want to see more of how they would react and respond to political and other issues the scriptwriters could throw at them.

As far as I can tell, it was the first time that Timothy Busfield appeared as journalist Danny Concannon, but as an uncredited extra. He would become not just a romantic interest for CJ, but also a narrative conscience of sorts to add to Sorkin’s Socratic dialogues about spin doctoring.

Cast

  • Writer: Aaron Sorkin; Director: Marc Buckland; first aired: 6 October 1999.

  • Dulé Hill joined the regular cast in the opening credits.

  • John Amos as Percival Fizwallace was special guest star for the episode. Janel Moloney rose up the credits list to second guest star behind Renée Estevez (Martin Sheen’s daughter) as Nancy, and ahead of Suzy Nakamura as Kathy.

  • Co-stars included Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham, NiCole Robinson as Margaret, Rose Rollins as Suzanne, Kim Webster as Kim, Devika Parikh as Bonnie.

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.