Sunday, April 05, 2015

It's Been A Busy Day

Even by the West Wing's own often frenetic standards, the episode that first aired 15 years ago tonight was very busy. I guess you could sort of get that idea from the title of the episode, "Six Meetings Before Lunch."

It is a good thing when the title of an episode gives you an idea of what to expect — but really only becomes clear in hindsight. It shows that the writers are big–picture guys. And the West Wing's writers definitely were big–picture guys.

Anyway, after an unproductive first year for the administration, speech writer Toby (Richard Schiff) refused to let anyone celebrate the nearly certain confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee until it was in the bag; that wasn't one of the meetings, just the way the episode began, but he was also the target of some rather intense lobbying from media consultant Mandy (Moira Kelly) who wanted two new pandas from China for the Washington zoo. Josh (Bradley Whitford) was interviewing a black candidate for assistant attorney general for civil rights who had been quoted about reparations for the descendants of slaves on a bookjacket, and the White House expected some problems with the conservatives on the House committee. Sam (Rob Lowe) was meeting with his sometime girlfriend (as well as full–time teacher and daughter of Leo [John Spencer]) about a position paper he wrote on school vouchers.

The other three meetings involved press secretary C.J. (Allison Janney), who had to meet with first daughter Zooey (Elisabeth Moss) who had attended a frat party where a drug dealer had been arrested; then Zooey had a run–in with a reporter. Then C.J. had to meet with Zooey's Secret Service bodyguard Gina (Jorja Fox), who had gotten between Zooey and the reporter, to get her side of the story — and, finally, she had to meet with the president (Martin Sheen). Gina couldn't tell her much; agents aren't allowed to discuss the behavior of their clients. "I can't do my job if she thinks she has to go behind my back," Gina explained.

C.J. still found time to entertain the staff during their watch party for the Supreme Court vote with her lip synching to Ronny Jordan's "The Jackal." I later learned that Janney lip synched to songs to entertain her fellow cast members during production lulls. The writers decided to incorporate it into this episode. If you haven't seen it, watch it. Here.

In the West Wing universe, C.J. had a reputation among the staffers. Her renditions of "The Jackal" were the stuff of legend, and I gather they frequently took precedence over everything else. In fact, while she was doing it, Josh tried to approach Toby about being given the task of working with the assistant attorney general nominee. "You're talking to me during 'The Jackal?'" he asked incredulously.

The episode that aired 15 years ago tonight was a great example of one of the things I really liked about the West Wing. Even with as many story lines going on at once as the show had in this episode, even though there were moments when it seemed chaotic (as it must seem at times to the real staff of the West Wing), everything came together nicely at the end.

C.J., having gathered all the information she could about Zooey, kept the president from storming down to the press room and turning a non–story into a big story. Only four people knew what had happened, she told the president. There was no reason it couldn't stay that way.

Sam and Mallory wound up going to lunch together when Mallory learned that Sam really wasn't a supporter of school vouchers. She didn't believe it until her father told her — he also told her the paper she had seen was "opposition prep," in which the smartest guys were tapped to make the argument the opposition would make in a debate. Those guys make the president grow and improve.

And Josh learned some things about America.

The nominee for assistant attorney general essentially told him that America was meant to be a work in progress, a country always striving for but never quite reaching perfection. It seems to me that the last five or six years have shown those words to be prophetic. I can think of no comparable five–year period in my lifetime — or at any time in American history — when as many changes have been occurring in America as we have witnessed in these last five or six years.

Such a situation can bring pain and polarization, as it surely has, but it can also bear witness to good things, fragile things that need to be nurtured and encouraged to grow. It depends upon whether the people involved can rise above the pain and polarization.

The nominee for assistant attorney general showed Josh the back of the $1 bill, which shows an unfinished pyramid and the watchful eye of God hovering over it.

"We're meant to be unfinished," he said, explaining that we're meant to continue striving for — but never reaching — perfection. Then he told Josh that he would be an excellent assistant attorney general for civil rights, and he would work hard for all Americans. "Do you have any trouble with me saying that to the committee?" he asked.

"No," Josh replied.

I admired the West Wing's idealism. Like so many other works of fiction, though, it doesn't seem to translate well to the real world.