The West Wing S01E18: Six Meetings Before Lunch

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A legendary episode among afficionados, for Allison Janney’s lip-synching of ‘The Jackal’ (Ronny Jordan, The Quiet Revolution, 1993). An act so out of character for CJ Cregg, and yet so naturally Janney, that Sorkin wrote it into the script after seeing her do it on-set during down-time. It’s an ingenious device to build Cregg’s character without taxing Janney to adopt alien characteristics.

Building up the scene to have the rest of the cast treasure the moment is part of the mythos; it’s okay to ham it up in celebration, like the self-humiliation of Karaoke, except better, because it’s not humiliating when Janney does it.

Cregg does The Jackal.
Cregg does The Jackal.

The rest of the episode is almost incidental to this — one — ‘legendary’ moment. It has its imitators. One of my favourite scenes in Supernatural is Jensen Ackles’s hamming up lip-synching Air Supply’s Eye of Tiger (included in S04E05: Yellow Fever). They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Reading that shooting had begun before Sorkin had finished his script, it seems difficult now to imagine how fly-by-night the production for this episode actually was.

Introducing the show with Toby Ziegler playing killjoy to a pre-emptive celebration of Judge Mendoza’s confirmation as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court is a highly entertaining illustration of the character’s stickling for detail. Letting the votes be counted officially before confirming the win, and before permitting the celebration to begin. It was a joy, though, to see Ziegler happy, much to the suprise, and then alarm, of his colleagues. Until Mandy Hampton bursts that bubble.

Not so much fun was the Hampton sub-plot, once again pitched so low and silly that the simmering dislike of the character is instantly brought to the boil again. Banana bars or panda bears. Who really cares? But is it worth seeing Ziegler and Hampton conspire against Josh Lyman? Probably. Who doesn’t like a good family fight seen from an aloof distance? Yet that isn’t served up in this episode. Nor in the next one. A set-up never followed up? Or maybe I missed something.

Advancing the Zoey Bartlet and Charlie Young romance is a White House kiss and a storm in a teacup about a party the presidential daughter attended, at which some rich kid got busted for drugs. The issue is that Zoey lied to a reporter for an anti-Bartlet smear newsletter, and CJ Cregg has to lean on the President to prevent him from intervening by thundering a warning to the press corps that his daughter is off limits while on her college campus. The set-up is kind of silly now, but the premiss is pretty real: sometimes a spin doctor has to tell the boss to shut up to prevent an unfortunate incident from becoming a story just for the reaction to it.

The White House kiss.
The White House kiss.

Looking back on the series now, the focus on Zoey’s bodyguard, Secret Service Agent Toscano, with the references to teenage skinheads and death threats, sets the stage for the second season. By this time The West Wing had become a talked about novelty, even if it was still only a top 30 show. It was nominated 18 times for the 52nd Emmy Awards, winning nine in September 2000, about six months after this episode aired.

Years ago I was enthralled by Sam Seaborn’s advocacy of a contrary education policy to Mallory O’Brien (Leo McGarry’s daughter), who happens to be a schoolteacher, appalled by a position paper Seaborn wrote. We (the audience) should have been instantly aware that something was off when O’Brien tells Seaborn her father gave her the paper. It is more of the inexplicably adolescent conception of romantic relationships, with Seaborn and O’Brien fighting like two children. Until McGarry explains that Seaborn is doing opposition prep — playing devil’s advocate to test the strength of the real White House education policy.

I remember distinctly that in 2007 I agreed completely with Seaborn’s little speech to O’Brien:

Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. School should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

McGarry sets up Seaborn for a fall with his daughter ... again.
McGarry sets up Seaborn for a fall with his daughter … again.

My reaction this time around was a little more jaded. The scene seemed staged, and stiff. I am less idealistic and hopeful. It’s less than ten years between viewings, but I am more cynical about idiot policy gurus, political barbarians, self-serving teacher unions, spilt brat kids, and apathetic parents. The almost doctrinaire focus on STEM subjects, and the almost complete eclipse of the humanities, has given us a world in which Donald Trump and Michelle Bachman are taken seriously by some people, and no one cares about human lives more than getting their hands on the latest hand-held. But you can’t really blame the show for that. The fictional overture just didn’t age as well as some others.

Josh Lyman’s assignment to talk down an activist candidate to become Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights (Carl Lumbly as Jeff Breckenridge) from demanding trillion dollar compensation for descendants of the slaves is well intentioned, but it falls flat. It was an idea so unrealistic back then that it seems odd we are confronted with it at all, and it is such a remote fantasy now, that it sits oddly, like a complacent armchair view of black lives in the USA, which revolve more around not being killed or gaoled than being compensated.

Breckenridge argues trillion dollar compensation for slavery with Lyman.
Breckenridge argues trillion dollar compensation for slavery with Lyman.

Between them, the idealistic mentions of education and civil rights policies serve as a bitter reminder how far backwards the USA has travelled in both domains. How far the nation has slipped towards a bigoted autocracy. When I remember how I felt, in the 2000s, about the damage done to American democracy since the 1980s, that is a a depressing reminder of how fragile democratic idealism really is.

These matters aside, I think ‘The Jackal’ and Toscano’s association of death threats against Zoey Bartlet and Charlie Young with teenage skinheads makes this a pivotal episode. I think sometimes, today, particularly while watching drunken young professionals murder pop songs at Karaoke bars, that anyone who has not seen Janney do Jordan is not quite on the same page as a previous generation. That, of course, is the indignity and privilege of growing older than the characters in a fiction, and the people who don’t know what you’re talking about when you mention that fiction.

Credits

  • Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Clark Johnson. First aired on 5 April 2000.

  • Headline cast in opening credits: Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn; Moira Kelly as Mandy Hampton; Allison Janney as CJ Cregg; Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler; John Spencer as Leo McGarry; Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman; and Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet.

  • Special guest star: Carl Lumbly as Jeff Breckenridge.

  • Guest starring Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, Jorja Fox as Agent Gina Toscano, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet, Suzy Nakamura as Kathy, Allison Smith as Mallory O’Brien, Lindsay Sloane as Stacy, Christopher Wynne as Edgar Drumm.

  • Co-starring NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper, Kim Webster as Ginger, Devika Parikh as Bonnie, Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick.

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