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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iThe West Wing/i: Celestial Navigation/20 Hours In LA
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"Celestial Navigation"
While "Take This Sabbath Day" contained no "Previously on The West Wing" segment, this one had a strange one: A run-down of simply the names of each character, presumably again for the benefit of those who hadn't been following along at the time. So now that we're caught up, Sorkin gives us the flat-out funniest West Wing I've seen; each previous episode has one or two good lines or moments, and this one has them in spades.

Josh is giving a speech to a bunch of college kids about his job, in which he's asked what a typical day is like at the White House. He counters that there's no such thing as one, so the moderator asks him to elaborate. Most of the episode is the result of that elaboration, a multifaceted story about a day gone horribly wrong, with multiple breaks so Josh can answer his phone and hear the status of the other thing happening. I don't know how long the speech was supposed to last, but it seems to go on for a while before they take a break, then continue right in the center of the tale. So Josh basically answers one question the entire time (not counting the few questions at the very end, only eluded to as the credits roll), and gets into nitty-gritty detail about the people he works with and the sorts of convoluted decisions he makes. Personally, I probably would have walked out after 15 minutes. (No offense, Lyman.)

But now I'm different; I've seen the "Previously on…", so clearly I know who these people are. As you'll recall, the White House decides to push back the day's briefing to include some news on an education bill, but CJ has a dentist's appointment; not to worry, they'll just have it after she gets back. But CJ wound up having emergency root canal surgery, so her mouth is swollen and she can barely talk. Josh tortures her by making her repeat herself. Toby's even worse: not only does he torment her, but he casually throws out, after one really bad bungle, "You shouldn't say that, CJ. You have a great body."

It should be noted that Allison Janney won Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Drama Series this year, with this episode being one of the two submitted. Her pure frustration while being antagonized is priceless, but also her smug satisfaction later, when the President tells her that, come hell or high water, she should always deliver the briefing, no exceptions.

Because this time, Josh decided to take it upon himself to deliver the day's highlights, and we all remember what happened last time he spoke to a heated audience. ("Lady, the God you pray to is being indicted for tax fraud.") But he's cocky, of course; Danny, trooper that he is, warns Josh not to go through with it, but Josh believes that, because he went to Harvard and Yale, his debate prowess is keen enough for the measly ol' White House press corp. But boy, do they let him have it. Highlights include: telling one of the reporters they asked a stupid question; failing to cover for the President's smoking; "Yeah, sure, we have a secret plan to fight inflation" (follow-up: "When are you going to reveal this secret plan?" "Does the White House have a plan to reveal the plan?"). CJ, in another moment rife with comedy, sits in her office watching the whole thing on TV, both on the verge of wringing his neck and getting up to run far, far away. Sorkin's "better than thou" verbal banter doesn't always work—but pairing Josh with the delivery of mundane information works wonderously.

We also get a great glimpse into some subconscious humor via Charlie, who according to Josh has the second hardest job in the White House, besides the President—reason being, he has to get the man up every morning. And it seems the President has some interesting dreams: Charlie to Prez, "No, it wasn't a nightmare, you really are the President."

So far, Sorkin has done a great job writing the guest stars, which we get to see more of with the return of Mendoza—incarcerated in Connecticut for swerving on the road and drinking. But really, as it's put, he's "arrested for being Hispanic." This is a man who, only recently, came out against the President for asking Secretary O'Leary—who called a Republican congressman a racist, probably rightfully so—to apologize. Sam and Toby are sent to pick him up (which happens during Josh's speech, the non-flashback part of the episode); and after the humor of two nationally recognized powerful men coming to a tiny jail dies down, Toby discovers that Mendoza is a proud, proud man—unable to face his wife and son after what happened. Edward James Olmos nails the inward-focused intensity the role requires, but it also exposes something that's been bothering me for a while: I want more of those moments for the main characters, moments where they put all their cards out on the table. I've seen some nice ones so far—Leo confronting the fired White House staffer; the President with his former pastor; etc—and the way people talk about this show (this season's finale, in particular), I've no doubt there are way more to come for the show's stars.

But meanwhile, they're all hilarious.

Stray observations:

  • Donna's advice to Josh re: his gaffe: "Go to your office, and come up with a secret plan to fight inflation…"
  • "I feel bad." "Well, I guess that's all that matters."
  • "Do you know missile codes?" "Uh, yeah."
  • "When are you going to stop running for President?" (That one's not so funny, but very true.)

"20 Hours In LA"
The West Wing is a show obsessed with details that'd fly below our radar; that's it's strength, really, exposing the nitty-gritty of politics that viewers find sexy. Power play here, swinging votes there, etc. It's a show that demonstrates how the sausage is made, yet somehow makes that sausage seem more edible (and delicious) than before. So what better way to celebrate this strength than to devote an entire episode to this wheelin' and dealin'.

This is a game of wants, and everyone wants something. Donna and CJ want to come to LA, if only to sun themselves between the hours of 2-4pm. Margaret wants to go, too, and gets snippy with Leo for staying back. Zoey, now with bodyguard in tow, just wants an "LA experience"—dining at a restaurant, with other people around who are not her father and his chief staffers (and where they make guacamole right at your table). Ted Marcus, big shot film producer guy, wants to know that he was the one that instituted change in the White House, which in this case comes in the form of moving gay rights forward. (Specifically, he wants to hear Bartlet say, on the record, that he would never sign a bill banning gays in the military.) And Hoynes, who's being tapped to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, wants badly to be let off the hook.

As is the case on The West Wing, all these wants are connected, and come to light due to much manipulation behind-the-scenes. Marcus, in particular, has worked for years to get to where he is today, a gatekeeper into the untold wealth of movie cash. And when he shakes down Josh  and barks, "I've been the President a lot longer than he has," we're meant to immediately be repulsed. These slimy Hollywood types and their fancy houses, how dare they meddle with the perfection that is the American political system.

But of course, Sorkin balances this with the other side of the coin: Hoynes goes on and on to Leo about how dare the President put him in the position he's in—where he has to cast a tie-breaking vote on ethanol tax cuts, an issue with which he actually sides with the Republicans—and at first, I'm appalled that Hoynes is so delusional that he'd think the White House could do something like that. But, in the end, it turns out leveraging Hoynes has been in the cards all along: the President had been leaning hard on some Senators, forcing a tie. And we discover this fact way at the end, after the President's whirlwind day and just before he's about to doze off. It's such a casual thing, the way the White House handles these details—but given the President's recent insomnia, those details are starting to hit heavy.

Stray observations:

  • Real nice moment between Josh and Joey Lucas, when he visits her hotel room in the morning. Marlee Matlin is killing it on screen.
  • Every time the White House brings up some frustration with Congress, in this episode and others, I wonder if the real White House ever wishes this country was just a dictatorship. It'd be so easy to pass laws!
  • Nice little call-out from the FUTURE! Donna at party: "Ooh, there's Matthew Perry."
  • Toby not getting to sit in the car because he made fun of the guacamole… ha!
  • Scratch all this, I'm going into "development."

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