Ladyghosts: The West Wing: Pilot

Forgive me for being  a day late and a dollar short on my own idea, but here is the promised post on the pilot of one of the greatest television dramas of all time, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.  The West Wing made politicians of both parties look like heroes and patriots in a time when we believed our politicians could be neither. 

Sorkin struggles, at times, to create dynamic women characters, but he was in his prime when he was penning every word of The West Wing each week.  His feminist heroes, CJ Cregg, Abby Bartlett, Nancy McNally, Joey Lucas, Ainsley Hayes, Amy Gardner, Kate Harper and even loyal, devoted Mrs. Landingham and Donna Moss, were more than two-dimensional stereotypes of women.  Each female character Sorkin created for the West Wing universe was bold, rich and deeply flawed, the way a good tragic hero should be.  In the pilot episode, we only get glimpses of CJ and Donna, both introduced to us in moments of humor that display the very best of the abilities of Alison Janney and Janel Moloney, respectively.

In the opening scene, we meet impossibly handsome Sam Seaborn (Rob “Impossibly Handsome” Lowe) being razzed at the bar by a reporter looking to snag some time from Josh.  Sam wonders if he is being scoped by an attractive woman, the reporter and the camera pan around to Dr. Cuddy.  (Ha! I totally forgot she was in several episodes of this series, Lisa Edelstein is completely gorgeous. )  We meet Leo in his ridiculous home.  I’m not kidding, this place is outrageous. See crappy screencap below.

This is seconds before Leo gets a phone call from POTUS.  Meanwhile, we meet CJ, who is chatting up the cute fella next to her on the treadmill, setting herself up to be my biggest girl crush ever.  Not only does she ramble on well past what we awkward girls know is inappropriate, she tops it by flying backwards off her treadmill.  If I either hit on people or used a treadmill, that would totally be how I’d do both.  CJ forevah.

We meet Writer Bastard with a heart of gold Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff)  on a plane arguing with the flight attendant who asks him to shut off his laptop before they land.

Flight Attendant: Sir, I’m going to have to ask that you turn off your cellular phone.

Toby: We’re flying in a Lockheed Eagle Series L-1011. Came off the line twenty months ago. Carries a Sim-5 transponder tracking system. And you’re telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?

At Dr. Cuddy’s, Dr. Cuddy is smoking a doob that was resting in a heart shaped ash tray while Sam showers in her impressive water pressure.  She gives an impressive speech about the wonders of weed as Sam looks nervous, then she relays that he got a page, (if you don’t remember pagers, don’t brag about it in the comments, whippersnappers.) “POTUS in bicycle accident” In 1999, when this show debuted, alpha-numeric pagers were actually kind of a big deal, for about 37 seconds before cell phones started exploding.  Anyway, now we have four key players in the White House senior staff looking a bit stricken as they each receive word that POTUS was struggling with a bicycle.  She notes that Sam’s pager looks exactly like hers, and you can be sure that gun’s going off before the third act.  The clever first time viewers have already guessed that POTUS stands for President of the United States, but for the not as clever, Sam explains it to the stoned Dr. Cuddy.  Opening music.

We follow Leo, in a nice long overhead shot that falls comfortably behind him as he moves through the entranceway of the White House, then rests in front of him as he makes a great entrance through a set of double doors.  Many things are thrown at him physically and verbally as he makes his way to Josh’s office, where he confers with Donna.  Donna, thank heavens, is not nearly as obnoxious in the series as she is in the pilot.  Leo goes into Josh’s actual office and learns that a group of Cuban immigrants are on their way from Havana to Miami in makeshift rafts, but the total number is unknown.  Josh wants to send the Coast Guard, or falsely tip off the DEA that the refuges are carrying drugs with the hopes the DEA will bring blankets along with the guns.  Leo goes on to berate Josh for saying something derogatory about the Christian right, and informs him that the President is justifiably pissed.  Josh is kind of adorable in the pilot, which I need to remember as the series goes on. This scene between the two of them sets up the Sorkin Walk + Talk, where two or more characters have a huge conversation while walking from one end of the White House to the the other.  As a veteran of many jobs that required almost constant movement, I’ve always respected and nodded approvingly at the walk + talk.

Leo drops Josh and keeps moving, to the vestibule of the Oval Office, where Mrs. Landingham asks if they’ve done an x-ray.  Leo tells her the only thing broken is his very expensive (What did Leo do before politics? Own a diamond mine?) bike, which he had loaned to the President against his better judgment.

Finally in his own office, Leo is met by CJ.

C.J.: Is there anything I can say other than “The President rode his bicycle into a tree?”

Leo: He hopes never to do it again.

C.J.: Seriously, they’re laughing pretty hard.

Leo: He rode his bicycle into a tree, C.J. What do you want me to ““ “The president, while riding a bicycle on his vacation in Jackson Hole, came to a sudden arboreal stop.” What do you want from me?

C.J.: A little love, Leo.

This quickly turns into a senior staff meeting with CJ, Leo, Josh, Toby and Sam discussing how to handle the Cuban refugees.  Sam is sent off to handle it, even after he protests that his day is already full.  Leo says “Now let’s talk about Josh.” This is not going to be good for Josh, we can already tell.

In the press room, the lawyer who was hounding Sam the previous evening is talking to another reporter.  They’re discussing whether or not the President will fire Josh for being mean to the evangelicals on TV.   CJ starts the briefing by being delightfully droll about the President’s arboreal stop.

Josh is watching himself insult Mary Marsh with the line “Lady, the God you pray to is too busy being indicted for tax fraud.”  You can imagine this is not a popular thing for a White House senior staffer to say. He replays it a few times before being interrupted by Donna, who brings him a cup of coffee.  Apparently this is the first time she’s ever done such a thing, and Josh doesn’t want her pity mug.  He’s prepared to face the music, or so he says.  Exit Donna, enter Toby, who reminds Josh that he told him not to get cute with Mary Marsh.  You can see a little gleam of pride in Toby’s eye through the whole scene, however.  Toby has set up a Saturday address on family values and an afternoon tea party (HA!) with Mary Marsh, Al Caldwell (we’re to assume he’s a big cheese in the religious right) and others, along with Josh, Toby and some speech writers to help smooth things over.  Josh is disgusted, but eventually relents to save his job.

Next, we meet Mandy.  After today, we will never mention her by name again, or attribute any worthwhile show moments to her horrible, awful, character.  If forced to name her by my narrative, we’re agonna call her Toe Pick. Mandy does and says horrible things and tries to kill her client with her car.  There is yelling, and it makes the neighbor’s dog start howling.  Okay, not really, those howls are in my head.

Leo, Sam and Josh discuss her in relation to Senator Lloyd Russel, a dude who is “the recently crowned prince of middle class women, middle aged black men and the teacher’s union who is no friend of the sitting President.”  Apparently ToePick is so good at her job she was making $900k at her previous job, before taking on the job of electing Russel president.  Toe Pick is just one giant ‘wait, what?’ moment after another.

At a diner with Josh and Toe Pick, two PoliSci majors approach Josh for an autograph, giggling.  They feather dust that Josh and Mandy used to be ‘a thing.’  Because that’s what all the college women talk about.  Who the White House deputy chief of staff is dating.  Sadly, neither student smothers Toe Pick with her kicky blue beret.  Josh susses up that Toe Pick is doing figure eights with Russel, and is jealous and/or disgusted.  With Josh it’s hard to tell.  Leo has a brief meeting with CJ, where she tries unsuccessfully to pump him for information about Josh’s job and what Leo predicts the President will do.  Sam walks and talks with Ed and Larry, who I believe are speech writers.  In all my many viewings of this series from start to finish, I’ve still never figured out what Ed and Larry do, or which one is which.  He is interrupted by his assistant Nancy, who tells him Leo’s wife (who Sam accidentally hit on at a Christmas party a few years before) wants him to talk to Leo’s daughter’s fourth grade class when they visit the white house.  Sam tries to back out, admitting he knows nothing about the White House, but it’s too late.  His beeper goes off and distracts him.  Sam returns a call to the number, and d’oh! It’s an escort service.  A pricey one, too, because it’s called Cashmere Escorts.  Sam puts stoned Dr. Cuddy and two together and figures out he just had sex with a hooker.  But not the paid kind.  Oh Sam.

CJ has a brief scene where she faces down a mob of press who are saving column inches above the fold for news of Josh getting the axe.  CJ honestly tells them she knows nothing, and reminds Toby, after he tells her Josh is going to the tea party, to make sure Josh keeps his cool.

Leo is meeting with Reverend Al Caldwell (aha!) who I think is a Billy Graham type of figure.  He and Leo seem friendly, and Leo is working his smoothest shmooze to win Reverend Al over to Team Josh.  Leo makes an unfresh comment about Mary Marsh going into a tizzy when Josh messed up her hair a little on TV, or some sort of lefty sexism along those lines.  Leo is and remains a bit of an enigma in this show, I’m never sure what he really feels, only what it seems like the character wants others to think he feels.

Sam goes to see Dr. Cuddy, and they have the big “so you’re a hooker” speech that’s so awkward for new couples.  Dr. Cuddy is paying her way through law school with a little Pretty Womaning, and Sam is sad because he really likes her and since he works at the White House, it’d be nothing but trouble.  Aw.  Don’t feel too bad for Sam, he’s going to bounce back in like seven minutes.

Coffee with the religious folks.  Donna insists on Josh wearing a clean shirt, he is petulant.

Sam’s tour with Leo’s daughter’s class begins.  He makes an ass of himself by making up shit about the White House.  The kids and their teacher call him on his shit, and eventually the teacher, Ms. O’Brien asks him out into the hall to give him a good talking to.

Sam: Ms. O’Brien, I understand your feelings, but please believe me when I tell you that I’m a nice guy having a bad day. I just found out the Times is publishing a poll that says a considerable portion of Americans feel the White House has lost energy and focus. A perception that’s not likely to be altered by the video footage of the President riding his bicycle into a tree. As we speak, the Coast Guard is fishing Cubans out of the Atlantic Ocean while the Governor of Florida wants to blockade the Port of Miami. A good friend of mine’s about to get fired for going on television and making sense, and it turns out I accidentally slept with a prostitute last night. Now would you please, in the name of compassion, tell me which one of those kids is my boss’s daughter?

Mallory: That would be me.

Sam: You.

Mallory: Yes.

Sam: Leo’s daughter’s fourth-grade class.

Mallory: Yes.

Sam: Well, this is bad on so many levels.

Weep not for Sam Seaborn, Sam Seaborn has game.

In the room with Mary Marsh, Reverend Al and some other religious folks.  Ms. Marsh, in particular, does not look very happy.

Josh is gracious as he apologizes and says he was not speaking for the president or the administration.  Mary Marsh is still giving him the stink eye.  She turns to Toby and asks what they’re (meaning the religious right) is going to get.  Toby gives one of his adorable incredulous looks:

Toby gets to sputter a bit when Mary requests a Sunday morning radio address on either school prayer or pornography.  Presumably for the first one and against the second one.  Toby is all, oh no you don’t, we’re not dealing. Josh tries to smooth things over, Mary accuses him and Toby of having a “New York sense of humor” which Toby clarifies means Jewish sense of humor and he is not amused.  Silent Holy Bob on the end of the row adds his beef, the White House is all about the first amendment but silent on the first commandment, which he then misidentifies as “Honor thy Father.” Toby says, that’s not the first commandment, Silent Holy Bob says “Well what is the first commandment then?” and in swoops our first glimpse of Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett.

Bartlett: I am the Lord your God.  You will put no other god before Me. Boy, those were the days, huh?

He’s Pa Ingalls and JFK and Albert Einstein all rolled into one, this Bartlett. Introductions are made, and Silent Holy Bob peeps up again.

Van Dyke: If our children can buy pornography on any street corner for five dollars, isn’t that too high a price to pay for free speech?
Bartlet: No.
Van Dyke: Really?
Bartlet: On the other hand, I do think that five dollars is too high a price to pay for pornography.
C.J.: Why don’t we all sit down?
Bartlet: No. Let’s not, C.J. These people won’t be staying that long. May I have some coffee, Mr. Lewis? Al, how many times have I asked you to denounce the practices of a fringe group that calls itself The Lambs of God?
Caldwell: Sir, it’s not up to me to–
Bartlet: Crap. It is up to you, Al. You know, my wife, Abbey, she never wants me to do anything while I’m upset. [a staffer hands him coffee] Thank you, Mr. Lewis. Twenty-eight years ago, I come home from a very bad day at the State House. I tell Abbey I’m going out for a drive. I get in the station wagon and put it in reverse, and pull out of the garage full speed. [Leo and Sam appear in the doorway and quietly enter into the room.] Except I forgot to open the garage door. Abbey told me to not drive while I was upset and she was right. She was right yesterday when she told me not to get on that damn bicycle while I was upset, but I did it anyway, and I guess I was just about as angry as I’ve ever been in my life. It seems my granddaughter, Annie, had given an interview in one of the teen magazines. And somewhere between movie stars and makeup tips, she talked about her feelings on a woman’s right to choose. Now Annie, all of 12, has always been precocious, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders and I like it when she uses it. So I couldn’t understand it when her mother called me in tears yesterday. I said, “Elizabeth, what’s wrong?” She said, “It’s Annie.” Now, I love my family and I’ve read my Bible from cover to cover. So I want you to tell me from what part of the Holy Scripture do you suppose the Lambs of God drew their Divine inspiration when they sent my 12 year-old granddaughter a Raggedy Ann doll with a knife stuck through its throat? [pause] You’ll denounce these people, Al. You’ll do it publicly. And until you do, you can all get your fat asses out of my White House. C.J., show these people out.
Mary Marsh: I believe we can find the door.
Bartlet: Find it now.

In the Oval, President Bartlett is meeting with all the senior staff.  In his kindly way, he tells all of them to get off their asses and start worrying about what’s important, not their personal lives or how to save their jobs.  He’s so moving I want to be a better blogger, a better woman, a better human being. Bless you President Bartlett, I’m forever sad that you’re imaginary.  This concludes our first traipse through the hallowed halls of the West Wing.  Join us next week, when we learn what the Latin phrase post hoc ergo propter hoc means.

Mrs. Landingham! What's next?

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[E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

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