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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: "The White House Pro-Am"/"Six Meetings Before Lunch"

Illustration for article titled The West Wing: "The White House Pro-Am"/"Six Meetings Before Lunch"
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"The White House Pro-Am"

On my flight to Montreal last week, a guy seated in the row next to me noticed me pull out my West Wing DVDs, like the exact second I dug them out of my bag. "What season is that?" he asked, to which I replied that it was only season one, and that I had never seen the show before. He nodded knowingly, paused, then replied, "That's my favorite show. I've seen it all a bunch of times." I told him I was really enjoying it so far, then went about setting up my laptop to watch this episode. About 30 seconds later, he piped up. "Can… can I borrow one of the discs?" I'm just some stranger on a plane, yet he instantly felt a connection upon seeing those DVDs, at least enough that he worked up the nerve to ask said stranger to borrow a disc—any disc, he didn't care; I immediately obliged, handing off disc 4. Just a couple of Americans, on a flight to Canada, sharing an unspoken understanding.

Good television has the power to bring people together, even if just in casual conversation. Great television can be the foundation for something more meaningful, a deep kinship. (Loving the same pieces of art for the same reasons, what could be better?) Clearly this show is the latter, but after my experience, I started to wonder if The West Wing is a distinctly American show—the kind that bleeds red, white, and blue out of every orifice. It takes place in the White House, and deals with American politics, so I guess people would probably need at least a basic understanding/appreciation of our political system to get a lot out of it; but like most great TV, it'd be hard not to care about American politics after watching. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Post-episode, I've come to the conclusion that while the show's not overtly American, it requires a distinctly American frame of reference to get the full effect. "The White House Pro-Am" is passive-aggression at the highest level of government—sending signals, dodging meetings, "staffing out" entire conversations—but this is the President of the United States. You have to understand that the stakes couldn't be higher; a tiny fuck-up can ruin the President's reputation, which means more to Americans than it does to the President himself. And as Leo told his ex-wife earlier in the season, the job comes first. Always.

Sorkin weaves a tangled web in this one. It begins with the First Lady about to go on a talk show with a boy she met, who discovered that his pen pal was a child laborer. It's a powerful person in government getting behind a terrible issue that needs solving, and she's getting the press to back it up. But within minutes, the broadcast is trumped by news that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve has passed away, and just like that the President has control over the news cycle. And while it's sad to see the First Lady's cause temporarily derailed, this is the reality of the business. News happens, and thems the breaks.

But like most things on The West Wing, we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg; it seems the President's office is regularly taking the spotlight from the First Lady, and never giving back. So like any disillusioned employee, she decides to act out. Her Chief Of Staff goes to Sam, hoping to convince him to have the President's next meeting in the White House rather than off the grounds, so the press doesn't spend time tailing the man and the First Lady can go back to talking about child labor issues. When a Congresswoman decides to introduce a child labor bill on the floor, the First Lady doesn't discourage it, even though it would mean derailing the approval of a trade bill the White House has been working on for years. And in ultimate defiance, the First Lady tells Danny she prefers Ron Erlich, the natural choice for the Federal Reserve job—a fact that blindsides CJ in the day's briefing (something that happens quite frequently, it seems). Oh Mr. President, she'll show you what she's capable of.

This isn't to say the issue is completely one-sided: The President, one of the least bullshit-type guys in the whole office, pulls some passive-aggression out as well. He asks CJ to look more into who the source was of the First Lady Erlich preference quote (before it's discovered it was the First Lady herself), rather than asking his wife directly—hell, he doesn't even ask CJ directly to do it, merely giving her a sign (which CJ almost misreads). He may be a straight-shooter with the public, but behind closed doors he wants you to work to figure out what he wants. When that doesn't pan out, he decides to go for broke, calling Danny into his office, reminding him of all the good times they had on the campaign trail, and shaking him down for the source.

It's a long time coming, then, when the President and First Lady finally have at it, and the ensuing argument blurs the line once again between domestic dispute and high-level professional disagreement. Though the two share a household and supposedly work for the same company, they have very different agendas, and by default the President’s will always overshadow the First Lady’s. It’s natural to want to root for the underdog, but what impressed me most about this scene is the way the President not only held his ground, but invaded the whole damn lot. Earlier in the episode he’d been avoiding direct conflict; earlier in the season, he’d been written often as pretty one-dimensional, especially the stuff about his daughter. (Seriously, it’s almost a cop-out on this rich show to write a man who can’t stop wisecracking about how he wishes his daughter wouldn’t date, how she’d stay home all the time, how she’d not grow up and go to college, etc.) But this “first Oval Office fight” has him peacocking his power—“You wanna see me put Congress in session?”—and screaming about the First Lady’s six-month (“it was nine months!”) stint dating Ron Erlich so many years ago. The man can crack wise and pass the buck as much as he wants, but when it comes to the things he’s truly passionate about, he gets what he wants. And in this case, he’s passionate about getting his shit done.

It’s amazing to me how the President’s style and behavior both trickle down to the rest of the staff. They all take great pride in knowing when the President is sending them signs—their little unspoken understanding. And much like the President, the ever-bumbling (in a good way) Sam has his moment in “Pro-Am”, stepping to the First Lady and telling her she doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing; his take on the situation, that the First Lady “discovered” child labor only because the boy told her about it, is one only a real pro would think about—and should worry about. They all serve the President both because they respect the hell out of the man, but also they respect the hell out of the office. And when the train derails, as it does in this episode, the stakes couldn’t be higher because—fuck—this is the President of the United States. Is The West Wing an American show? On the surface, obviously; deeper down, probably not—generalize the drama, and it’s all universal; but even at that level, it's hard to shake the feeling that everyone's motivation is rooted in American politics.

Stray observations:

  • For an episode about passive-aggression, it’s Zoey and Charlie who win for acting the most adult. First Zoey is straightforward with Charlie about the reasons he can’t attend the party—though she should be a rebellious college kid, she’s a Bartlet after all, and realizes that there are certain times you have to get in line. Then Charlie takes the advice of Danny and shows up at Zoey’s dorm room, popcorn and flowers in hand, determined to be the least maintenance boyfriend she’s ever had. Kids, they do the darndest things.
  • “When was the last time we were lucky?” “Super Tuesday.”
  • “Anything else?” “You could have been nicer to me during this conversation.”
  • “I get the basic mise-en-scene of what you’re saying.”

“Six Meetings Before Lunch”

The obvious highlight of “Six Meetings Before Lunch” takes place near the beginning. Mendoza has just been confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, and it’s time to celebrate. And when people get drunk around here, CJ busts out “The Jackal”, where she lip-syncs to the tune by jazz chameleon Ronny Jordan, who went on to enjoy great success and household namery. The event is anticipated by everyone on staff— Leo, workaholic as he is, leaves his office just to catch the act—but the scene lacks any happiness. It’s a sinister song at its core, and Sorkin treats it thusly by casting the appropriate shadows over CJ’s face and having her shoot seductive, sly glances at onlookers during the act. Toby blows a smoke ring from his cigar; Josh nods along sleepily with a completely blank expression on his face; everyone is silent. It’s almost like a dream sequence from Twin Peaks, minus the midget—and one that lends an eerie feeling right at the top.

Appropriately, “Six Meetings” has us visit some of the darker parts of America—both past and present. Josh is asked to chat with a civil-rights activist who the government wants to appoint to an office, but who has publicly demanded reparations for slavery. Mallorie, still non-dating Sam, freaks out when she finds a position paper he wrote in favor of school vouchers—which would overlook funding issues for public schools like the one where she works. Zoey discovers first-hand how desperate some journalists can be for a story, and how invasive it can be in her life. And Mandy goes to bat for the local zoo, hoping to secure a new panda to replace one who died. (It’s a black and white bear… EVIL!)

Most of these issues (meetings?) peter out before anything really interesting can happen. The reparations chat doesn’t escalate past the initial realization that, yes, this man wants $1.7 trillion to be paid to African-Americans whose ancestors were slaves and, yes, Josh finds that ridiculous. (Though it does end with Josh offering to buy the man lunch, which is pretty damn pathetic on Josh’s and Sorkin’s part.) The Mallorie stuff just serves as great fodder for Sam’s mugging—Mallorie schedules a meeting with Sam to discuss his position, since he didn’t want to talk about it when he was off the clock, and the dagger-like look Sam shoots his assistant is priceless; and, as it turns out, this was just Leo tormenting Sam by giving Mallorie a test position paper they had him write… though Sam keeping up the charade for so long is a testament to his commitment to debate. And the panda thing simply has Toby start off in a rare good mood—scaring people on staff, even—and ending in frustration with Mandy and a desire to get Josh back for sending her in his direction. Again, funny, but not much there.


The real interesting stuff takes place with Zoey, usually such an upbeat character. Her friend is busted for drug dealing at a party, and it just so happens she was at said party—not doing drugs, just there. But the media has picked up on it, and one “intrepid” reporter accosts her while on campus (at the end of a Goodfellas-like tracking shot, which makes his entrance all the more jarring). Zoey, distraught, yells that she didn’t even know the guy would be at the party; Charlie, though, later tells CJ that Zoey had attended, but only to return his car keys from the other night. This intrigues CJ, and we begin to see a more, well, sinister side of her—digging for info from Zoey’s handler, and even asking Zoey herself point-blank why she lied to the reporter. (Much like the scene in the previous episode where the President shakes down Danny, this series of events demonstrates another interesting thing about The West Wing: Information is power, and attaining it is more than half the battle.) The solution CJ comes to, which she shares with the President after “getting in his face,” is pretty tragic in nature: “Sometimes, 19 year old girls lie when they don’t have to.” Zoey freaked out and wanted to protect her father, so she said the first thing that came to mind. It’s one thing to prepare a girl to be the First Daughter in title; it’s another to have her see what that means first-hand. And like other girls her age, her father’s the only person who can put her at ease.

Stray observations:

  • Speaking of the darker side of human nature, Sorkin apparently got hate mail after showing Zoey and Charlie kissing in the hallway. Good lord, what a silly thing to be upset about.
  • Re: Washington: “What a tight ass little priss he must have been.”
  • The lighting in this show has been doing some cool things lately. CJ was entirely in shadow when asking Zoey about the lie.
  • “You never tell me you like my suspenders.”