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.

Book buying and strategy discussions.
Book buying and strategy discussions.

Worse, the seasonal holiday theme also turns the president into a numbskull playing silly bastard for kids and refusing to be photographed on a book-hunting expedition. I still don’t understand the purpose of the book shop sequence; the dialogue there could have been worked into any other setting too.

Have I mentioned how much I dislike television episodes hypocritically themed for a Christian festival whose origins and intended lessons are completely drowned out by base commercialism? I guess it was too soon to defend the idea of Western traditions, Christian or not, politically correct or not. That I could have stomached.

Bookends, of sorts …

Toby Ziegler’s criminal malfeasance in arranging an honour guard burial for a homeless Korean War veteran who died of exposure, on forged presidential authority, is a touching play masking the nauseating neglect of veterans by successive administrations. It earned Richard Schiff an Emmy for ‘Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series’, as well as an Emmy and a Writers Guild of America Award for Sorkin and Rick Cleveland.

The funeral arranged fraudulently by Toby Ziegler in the president's name.  Dolores Landingham in attendance.
The funeral arranged fraudulently by Toby Ziegler in the president’s name. Dolores Landingham in attendance.

This token gesture comes nowhere close to addressing homelessness, but as a dramatic device makes us aware of Ziegler’s down-home patriotism. He denies having been in Korea, and I can remember no mention in the entire series of his service record, but it is strongly implied that he was a marine, possibly serving in Vietnam, or just ‘in the lists’. The President’s indulgence of this abuse of power, and Dolores Landingham’s scolding, followed by her request to attend the funeral (she lost two sons in Vietnam), makes us feel good about the right intentions, too. But there is no policy foray. Maybe discussing the economics of homelessness was judged as too depressing for a season in which everyone ignores the homeless.

I wonder whether Sorkin’s own charitable instincts actually extend to support for welfare policies applied to homeless people and veterans. I think this not as an indictment of Sorkin so much as a reflection on the general callousness of the American population. This public seems not just to condone such oversights, but to demand them for reasons of personal greed or callous indifference expressed as claimed WASP virtue.

… and hate-crimes …

Blowing off the death by a savage beating for being gay of the teenager Lowell Lydell seemed at first to be a homage to pragmatism. Let’s not legislate against hate crimes because it wouldn’t have popular support.

But Sorkin presents a far more sophisticated argument. Unusual for the American Left at any time, but especially since the Reagan era, after which it has been plagued by doctrinaire politically correct nonsense positions on all sorts of nonsense issues.

Sorkin enlisted journalist Danny Concannon to the cause by having him enunciate a concern that legislating against what people think is an authoritarian move. I agree with his line, too, that a crime is already a crime and doesn’t need special clothes as a hate-crime.

Adolescent romance blooms in the Bartlet White House.
Adolescent romance blooms in the Bartlet White House.

Left unsaid, though, was that many crimes that might also be considered as motivated by bigotry seem to go unpunished in the USA, and in many other places where public officials and at least significant minorities have religious motivations to act as hypocrites. And in ways that ought to attract to them charges of criminal negligence for failure to prosecute crimes as defined in statutes.

… plus crimes against romance …

The teenage silliness of the development in the romance between Danny Concannon and CJ Cregg should be regarded as a criminal offence in its own right, as an egregious insult to humanity. Or at least to the intelligence of any audience likely to watch a drama about the lives of White House staffers.

A list of reasons why a relationship between Concannon and Cregg would be ‘inappropriate’? By such logics the human race would have died out right after its emergence for lack of will to procreate or in any way enjoy its own company. There are reasons to keep such relationships at bay, and smart people find ways to avoid being kept apart against their wills for silly reasons. Concannon and Cregg both look foolish to step through such agonising teenage routines.

Again, I ask myself just how socially awkward Sorkin was about relationships, and how he managed to get laid at all.

… and sentimentality …

Donna Moss’s reaction to the Christmas gift Josh Lyman almost bought for her was charming (I think it was one of the books bought by the President that he ‘re-gifted’, as the American uglyism has it). Moss’s reaction rang true, meaning Lyman is just enough of a miserable bastard to have ignored Moss altogether, as shown by his casual trashing of Moss’s ambitious list of suggested gifts.

That said, why should Lyman actually give a shit. Christmas is a hugely disgusting consumer orgy and has nothing to do with Jewish festivals or atheist/agnostic belief systems.

As a dramatic turn, though, it served to remind Lyman that Moss is not the scarred and impersonal soul he is, and that maybe he should pay more attention to her personality needs in expecting her to bend to his own.

A bit of office psychology from Sorkin, known for being ‘difficult’ to work with?

… with the Keystone Cops thrown in

After Leo McGarry expressly forbids any intervention to save him from the Lillienfield attack, Lyman nevertheless enlists Sam Seaborn’s aid in pressuring call girl Laurie ‘Brittany’ Rollins (Lisa Edelstein) to offer up dirt on senior Republicans as counter-strike weapons.

Congressman Peter Lillienfield held a press conference in the previous episode accusing one in three White House staff of using drugs. The unsubstantiated allegations were aimed at McGarry’s undeclared history of Valium abuse on top of his known alcoholism.

Lyman and Seaborn as McGarry's Keystone Cops.
Lyman and Seaborn as McGarry’s Keystone Cops.

Seaborn might have agreed to participate in this fool’s errand for his own assessment of just how damaging it could be for McGarry if it emerged he was ‘high’ on Valium while running the Labor Department. I don’t see the problem. The country survived and prospered. Plenty of others would have done a worse job stone cold sober. But none of that matters against the assumed backdrop of an idiotic Protestant conception of propriety. Still, that is what it is in the USA. Then as now.

The ploy goes badly, ending with an incredibly insensitive insult by Lyman to Rollins, which was not adequately expunged even by his sincere apology. Instead it is Rollins who says what needs to be said: ‘You’re the good guys. You should act like it.’

That McGarry had Lyman and Seaborn tailed because he knew they would behave contrary to his wishes is not surprising. But the stupidity of Lyman and Seaborn is.

Are we treated to what McGarry dubs the ‘Keystone Cops’ to explain how scandal in Washington breaks? Or as an object lesson in how overly zealous staffers are prevented from that kind of folly?

McGarry’s line is worth emulating in all sorts of circumstances: ‘It’s not what we do, Josh.’ But it can only be used if that’s really not what we do.

Despite some important themes, the episode felt light and disposable. A filler to get the season through the Christmas break without leaving anything controversial hanging in the holiday wind. And yet this show won awards, and the last one didn’t. An inversion of reality in the domain of television. Who would have guessed such a thing was possible.

The iconic group shot, assembled for closing scenes while the protagonists watch Christmas carols.
The iconic group shot, assembled for closing scenes while the protagonists watch Christmas carols.

Postscript

A closing note on the writing. In what might have been a manufactured spat between Sorkin and Rick Cleveland, the New York Times’ Bernard Weinraub reported that writer Rick Cleveland had felt slighted by Sorkin for not letting him eulogise his Korean War veteran father at the Emmy awards ceremony. Cleveland claimed his father had been the inspiration for the Ziegler storyline in the episode.

Weinraub’s article mentioned this in closing, being largely a disapprovbing examination of greedy West Wing producers (and Sorkin) profiting handsomely from the show while seeking to cut back the salaries of writers, characterised by Weinraub as lowest on the totem pole. (Incidentally, Weinraub as a word might be mistaken for a German concatenation meaning ‘wine theft’.)

Sorkin apparently responded dismissively to the NYT story on a now defunct message board, Television Without Pity (mightybigtv.com), cited by Catrina Dirk at http://bitchkittie.blogspot.com.au/2006/02/long-back-story-of-aaron-sorkin-west.html.

If the cited ‘Benjamin’ on Television Without Pity was indeed Sorkin, he would have us believe that he dismissed the Cleveland script, about a cat and the first lady, but gave Cleveland a writer’s credit for ‘In Excelsis Deo’ as part of a deal that meant credit was assigned to the writers’ pool on rotation, not script content, to add some dollars to the writing staff’s pay packets. It seems an on-screen credit comes with more money than just sitting in the writers’ bullpen. But it also implies that that credited writers might not necessarily have had anything to do with that week’s story.

In Aaron Sorkin’s series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, he explores the politics and interactions between writers at greater length, and it’s not always a happy story. It could be argued that a couple of writers on that show are deliberate representations of one or two who contributed to The West Wing.

What interests me is what this means about the actual origins of storylines and dialogue. Was Sorkin really as instrumental as I had assumed? Or was he just good at taking the credit? A bit of both, I suspect, but after a while you get to feel the metre of Sorkin at work. He wrote as if for an anachronistic stageplay. Not quite verse, but something with a definite cadence whose beats and melodies were often harmonised by the pace of the walk-and-talk. I still feel comfortable crediting Sorkin for some of the better lines in The West Wing.

Credits

  • Written by Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland. Directed by Alex Graves. First aired on 15 december 1999.

  • Regular headline cast members are listed for episode one.

  • Guest starring Lisa Edelstein as Laurie Rollins, Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, Paul Austin as George Hufnagle, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Tom Quinn as John Noonan, Renee Estevez as Nancy, Raynor Scheine (?!?) as a homeless man.

  • Co-Starring Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham, NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper, Devika Parikh as Bonnie, Kim Webster as Ginger, Jana Lee Hamblin as Bobbi.

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

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