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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: “College Kids”

Illustration for article titled The West Wing: “College Kids”
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I’ve often thought there are two types of people in the world: Those who loved high school and hated college, and those who loved college and hated high school. (I’ve also, on occasion, been totally wrong, and when I say this people angrily point out that they hated both, or they say they loved both and quip, “So, what, you think there’s something wrong with me?!” To those people I have deeply offended with my gross generalization, I’m sorry, but c’mon, it’s pretty much everyone.)

Now that the parenthetical is over, I can say, without making this story longer than it has to be, that I hated most aspects of high school, but loved almost every minute of college. It was the first time I felt like I was a part of a community, where people who also craved this in high school were eager to get to know one another. With giddy enthusiasm, those first few weeks of college involved my friends and I letting each other in on the modest gossip of my university.

I say this because “College Kids” captures a few of those moments, too: When characters are so ready to share their secrets with others—either because they have to or because they want to—they’re just about to burst. Leo decides to trust Jordan, his lawyer from the Bartlet interrogations, with the information that the United States took out Qumar’s president and buried his plane. Bartlet, having decided to hire Deborah Fiderer as the replacement for Mrs. Landingham, reads the results of a questionnaire she took at a previous job; though she gave some troublesome answers, he decides to string her along before ultimately letting her know she’s all right in his book. Meanwhile, Toby and Josh have the simultaneous idea to make college tuition tax-deductible. And when they finally, finally persuade everyone on the team to take the issue to Leo, Toby can hardly contain himself before calling Matt Kelley, the man they met at the bar in the last episode.

The West Wing often treads into wish-fulfillment, fantasy-government land, so even though the notion that one conversation with one guy would have such a ripple effect at the White House is pretty ridiculous, the plight of Matt Kelley takes center stage. Basically, during their time off after spending 20 hours in Indiana, Toby and Josh both read an article in the paper, and decided independently that they should make tuition tax-deductible. Not just a little bit, not just partially, but the entire thing. This isn’t a time for half-measures—this is an election year, the time for full-measures. (I told you this was fantasy government.) So they set off to try and convince the others that it would be in the president’s best interest, first discovering that they can close a loophole that allows fat cat executives to write off their bonuses. Paying for cheap college tuition for the 99 percent by making things only slightly more inconvenient for the one percent? It’s uncanny how much the Bartlet administration mirrors what the Obama administration should be.

People have their doubts. Sam claims it’ll be impossible to sell this as a bill because those same millionaires who will be losing their bonus write-off are the ones who fund just about everything else. CJ just has general doubts. But every time they reach an obstacle, Toby—always one to fixate on things—brings up Matt Kelley: His story, his plight, the fact that they had a beer with him. And each time, as if he were this administration’s Joe The Plumber, their hearts melt. “Of course we can do this,” they all say. For Matt Kelley. And as quickly as CJ can say, “Let’s take this to Leo,” Toby is off to a pay phone to share the good news with the man himself.

I found myself wanting this idea to be realized; after all, I’m not made of stone, and I want people to afford college, even if it’s fictional. But as much as “20 Hours In America” irked me with its “We are big-city folk flabbergasted by you small-time people” undertone, “College Kids” leans a bit too heavily on the notion that one person can make a difference in politics. Yes, it’s true. That’s why people vote. That’s why young people don’t vote. That’s why CJ hosts a “Rock The Vote” rally starring some of the early 2000s most famous musicians like Barenaked Ladies, Aimee Mann, and Single Cell Paramecium (Donna’s favorite!).


This is ostensibly the “message” of “College Kids,” but it’s everything surrounding the message that really sets it off. Leo spends a great deal of time in The Situation Room convincing Jordan that she’s the best possible person to trust with the real information about Qumar. He pulls up a map of the United States and runs a simulation that demonstrates what would happen if Asia launched a nuclear strike on our country. Jordan’s home city of Lincoln, Nebraska survives the first wave, but not the second. Then he pulls up a few screens of her background information—delving into her past working with international affairs. He orders potato salad over the phone, but only if a particular chef is making it; then he hangs up on Margaret, taking his order, because he’s the mother fucking chief of staff. This is as close to flirtation as it gets with Leo. It reminds me of the time I brought women into my dorm room to show off my high-speed VCR—it rewound so fast!

Speaking of mixing business with pleasure, the joy of watching Josh and Amy share the screen once again—they’ve got the best repartee of any couple—is immediately deflated when Josh realizes that Amy is behind getting Stackhouse (a man who was supposed to endorse the President) into the debate as a third party candidate. Stackhouse is set to be the Ralph Nader of the upcoming election, only this time pulling votes away from an incumbent president, not just a potential one. Josh is so happy to see Amy; for a few brief moments, he forgets why it was he ever had any difficulty with her. Then, as if his face-liquid is being slowly poured down a swirling drain, his expression melts away as he pieces together the facts: Amy is supporting Stackhouse, and this meant a whole lot more work for Josh. It should be noted that she says, “I miss you” almost right away, bowled over by Josh’s inquisitions as to what she’s doing at a campaign rally outside of DC. He jumps right to business; she jumps right to pleasure. And sadly, once he realizes what she said, it’s too late and they’re both in disagreeable work mode. Josh and Amy are so painfully perfect for one another that they are completely incapable of ignoring the elephant in the room, even if just for a second so they can enjoy each other’s company.


I suppose that’s what college romance is all about. Not to belabor the metaphor, but I’d venture to guess that college love is erratic and volatile (not speaking from experience or anything). It’s hot and cold in temperatures that break the Kelvin-ometer, or whatever you use to measure temperature with Kelvins because I like writing the word “Kelvin.” But most of all, college romance lacks the maturity to treat things with the proper weight. The White House has conditioned its employees poorly. They fly off the handle about the minute details of someone’s quote in the press, or the way a senator shook the president’s hand, or what it even means to have that particular senator shake the president’s hand at all. They’re obsessive, compulsive, and plagued with anxiety. Of course, the obvious counter to all this is that they work in the freakin’ White House, and are legitimately making important decisions. But I find it fascinating that Josh freaks out about what Amy’s been up to and the ramifications of including Stackhouse in the debate, whereas Leo, with supreme confidence, flaunts his cool for Jordan over an international issue that could legitimately threaten our national security.

No one is more obsessive than Bartlet, though. And for Fiderer, that’s a very good thing. Charlie is worried that her remarks on that old questionnaire are going to cost her the job. After all, she suggested the President drink arsenic, and Bartlet is quick to throw that back in her face when they finally meet to talk. But he also says she can keep her job. Because, of all things, she wrote that President Bartlet should drink arsenic. “You referred to me and the office with respect. You’re a class act,” he says.


To which he follows up with, “Whack job.”

I bet he’d been waiting a long time to say that.

Stray observations:

  • Hey, look—it’s that guy from SHIELD!