Wednesday, June 02, 2004

"So help me, I'm gonna shove a motherboard so far up your ass...."

Nefarious Neddie lists some of his favorite episodes of The West Wing. So, as I cannot concede the topic to him, here are my thoughts:

First of all, he lists the episodes chosen by viewers of some marathon the other day as the best. These are all superb episodes, with one notable and shocking exception: "The Stackhouse Filibuster", which is in my opinion the worst episode of TWW to date, including the Aaron Sorkin-less fifth season. (Which was, in my opinion, a good year anyway.)

Why do I seriously dislike "Stackhouse"? Well, I do like the framing device of the episode a lot: each act is told from the point-of-view of a different character, with that character narrating from a letter to a loved one. But that's about all that I like in this episode. The main story is that some health care bill that's a slam-dunk to pass is suddenly filibustered by some elderly Senator, and this sends everyone into a massive tizzy as they try to figure out what's going on. This all grinds on and on, until finally Donna raises her hand and makes a simple suggestion that turns out to be exactly what the doctor ordered, the filibuster ends, and everyone goes home happy. That sounds good, except that it's a classic example of "the idiot plot". An "idiot plot" is a story where the characters are kept precisely as dumb as they need to be, at all times, in order to keep the story moving until the right time. (For further examples of the "idiot plot" in action, watch just about any episode of Three's Company or Seventh Heaven.)

"The Stackhouse Filibuster" also sports the single most cringe-worthy scene in the show's entire run, a horrible, horrible moment in which Sam is taken to task by some lowly intern because he is singling out annual government reports for cancellation. This scene is bad on so many levels it's hard to sort them out. First, the intern is just plain snotty, and I can't believe for one second that Sam (or any White House senior staff member) would not only put up with that kind of behavior, but praise it; and worse, this was at least the third or fourth example of a meme that Aaron Sorkin wisely quashed after its completion, namely, "A plucky intelligent woman gives Sam food for thought". After his conversations with Leo's daughter, Laurie the call-girl law student, and Republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes, the idea that Sam could be rendered speechless by some intern just made my skin itch. Bad, bad scene.

OK, with that out of my system, here are my favorite TWW episodes.

1. "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen". (Yes, a two-parter, but I consider it one episode.) There's just so much good stuff about this episode I can't even sum it all up, except one moment, which is to date the only time that The West Wing has ever made me tear up. (Oh,, there were two. See the next episode on my list.) In the teaser sequence, during the aftermath of the shooting, Toby is looking for Josh, and spots him sitting on the ground. He comes over and says something like, "There you are, come on, we gotta go"...and then he sees that Josh's chest is covered in blood. Toby hesitates for the briefest of seconds before starting to shout for help. Richard Schiff's acting here, in which he takes Toby from gruffly competent to terrified and unsure in under two seconds, is absolutely perfect.

2. 25. Aaron Sorkin's last episode, in which the White House reels from Zoey Bartlet's kidnapping. It's extremely well written and directed, and it has the other moment that makes me tear up, and again, it's courtesy Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler. He has a wonderful monologue as he talks to his baby twins, born just that day. When he tells his infant daughter that she is named for the Secret Service agent who died trying to protect Zoey, dammit, I'm tearing up right now, writing about it. (I'm going through a really sentimental phase here, folks, if you couldn't tell.) The episode's closing scene, when Speaker Walken takes the Presidency, is in my eyes a perfect scene. I've seen some conservative people grouse to the effect that "Of course they got a mean Republican", but I didn't see Walken as mean at all.

3. Twenty Hours in America. This two-parter opened the fourth season, with President Bartlet on the campaign trail and Toby, Josh and Donna stranded in Indiana when they miss the ride to the airport. The high point here is the job interview scene between Bartlet and Debra Fiderer (Lily Tomlin), and the way Bartlet only realizes afterward that she's perfect for the job, because she won't sell out the people who screwed her in the past. Plus, there's more great Toby stuff. And now, you're probably thinking I hope that when The West Wing ends, they do a spin-off called Toby in which Mr. Ziegler moves to Seattle and does a politically-focused radio call-in show.

4. Celestial Navigation. This is the episode that made me a fan. It's a perfect example of Sorkin's method of using comedic material to conceal the emotional payoff of the fourth act, so as to elevate the impact when it arrives. The episode is mostly told in flashback, with Josh telling the story of a day in which the White House screwed up one thing after another, culminating in Josh taking the press conference podium after CJ Cregg has emergency dental surgery ("I had woot canaw!"), with disastrous results ("Yeah, Danny, the President's got a secret plan to fight inflation."). Oh, and a great scene between Richard Schiff and Edward James Olmos.

5. And It's Surely To Their Credit. I love this episode because of Ainsley Hayes, because of Gilbert and Sullivan, and because it crystalizes the philosophy of The West Wing that public service is a noble and good thing, no matter one's political beliefs. Not much Toby in this one, really. Odd....I wonder why I like it so much, then....

6. 17 People. A very small-focus show, with the senior staff trying to write a funny speech for the President while the President is telling Toby that he has multiple sclerosis and concealed it on the campaign trail. A perfect mix of the profound and the banal, with some of Richard Schiff's best acting. (If they make a movie of my life, I'd cast Richard Schiff, except I'm not bald.)

(This episode provided some inadvertent commentary on real-life matters a couple of years after it aired. During a debate with Sam on the Equal Rights Amenment, Ainsley Hayes says something like, "I do not need my rights handed down to me by old, white, men." I was reminded of that line when President Bush signed the "partial birth" abortion bill into law, surrounded as he was by...old, white, men.)

7. Two Cathedrals. Another one without a lot of Richard Schiff. But Martin Sheen pretty much took over in this one, anyway.

8. The Supremes. Yes, it's from the fifth season. And it's a great episode, as I noted here when it aired.

9. The Leadership Breakfast. This episode centers on what happens when Toby colossally screws up. Good acting by the Schiff fellow.

10. The Drop-in. This episode is a meditation on the cynicism of modern politics -- much of it steered here by, you guessed it, Toby Ziegler. Comic relief is provided by Lord John Marbury, the "lunatic" who has been made Great Britain's new Ambassador to the United States.

By the way, big kudos to anyone who can name the West Wing episode from which this post's title comes from. Double-kudos to anyone who identifies the speaker (it's not Toby!), to whom the speaker is speaking, and the response given.


Laura said...

It's CJ yelling at Josh about his posting on but I can't place the episode!

I do know that it's based on a real-life case of a crew member of West Wing (Sorkin himself? I don't recall) lurking and posting on the boards at, though.

Anonymous said...

"The US Poet Laureate" from Season 3.

Fred said...

Thaks i was looking for the episode too...

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