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Two Questions About The West Wing: “20 Hours in America”

Everything changes in Season Four.

Text reads "Two Questions about The West Wing."Season Four of The West Wing is a bit of a departure from previous seasons, and “20 Hours in America” was the first time I remember being completely pissed at Aaron Sorkin. The episode pair is set in my home state of Indiana, and it does a great job of making my Hoosier neighbors look like corn-fed, closed-minded, Republican assholes. INDIANAPOLIS ALWAYS VOTES BLUE, SO DOES GARY, SO DOES BLOOMINGTON.


Sally J. is on a brief hiatus, her daughter recently had surgery. (Which reminds me: Get better quick Sally J. Wee!) Joining me for a couple of weeks is Neil, the spouse of one of my fellow editors. All twelve of our regular readers, please give him a warm welcome.

Neil: The episode is called “20 hours in America,” and it takes Toby, Josh and Donna throughout middle America. It takes them 20 hours to get home. During this time, we meet a Young Amy Adams as a farmer’s daughter, a gas station attendant, Danielle Harris (from Halloween fame), and a diner. In every stop people are hostile to Josh and Toby. The entire episode is to show Republicans and people who vote for Republicans as uneducated with the climax of this episode being a whole new education plan. Why does Sorkin believe that Republicans and people who vote for Republicans are uneducated instead of just portraying them as having a different opinion?

Selena: Because Sorkin is an asshole. I can make peace with his assholery frequently, because he writes so well and I am weak, but he’s the poster boy for liberal elitism. To a point, his arguments are justified. When we’re talking about the leader of the free world, I’m 111% in favor of that leader being one of the smartest people in the room, if not the entire hemisphere. But like Sorkin himself wrote in the very first episode, “We do not gloat.” Assuming your opponents are stupid is lazy. I suppose it’s as easy for our friends on the coasts to make sweeping generalizations about those of us in the middle of the country as it is for us to make sweeping generalizations about them.

I do think he turned it around a bit in the second episode. The American heroes referenced in Bartlet’s “streets of heaven” speech were also from the middle of the country. The people who derided Toby, Josh, and Donna are also the people who helped them (eventually) get home.

Neil: The start of the season once again begins with Sorkin’s sexism rearing its ugly head. He brings up in the episode that the biggest nonsense issue of the campaign will be brought by the women. This was with regard to Abby Bartlet; in response to her losing her medical license, she responds with, “I am just a wife and a mother.” Why do you think Sorkin has such little regard for women and their issues?

Selena: I rolled my eyes so hard while watching that scene I think I’ve cause permanent damage. Bruno is Sorkin’s Tyler Durden.

I have a theory that Sorkin can only write two women, The Donna and The CJ. While both of these characters are complex, nuanced, and strong women, in their original flavors, he can’t seem to write women who are different than those two core characters. The dreadful The Newsroom is a good example, Emily Mortimer’s character was written for CJ’s voice, the mousy assistant who finds her way is The Donna. On Sports Night, Felicity Huffman was CJ, Sabrina Lloyd was Donna. In The Social Network, Zuckerburg was CJ and Edwardo was Donna, etc. (Okay, the last part was mostly joking.) Even on TWW itself, we can split the women right down the middle; Amy, Abby, Nancy, and Joey are CJs; Zoe is a Donna.

I could be generous and say Sorkin has these issues with women because of the generation he was born into, or that we should be charitable because sexism hurts men as much as women, but I think it boils down to same over-sized ego that leads him to believe all Republicans and midwesterners are stupid. Sorkin thinks women are inferior not so much because they’re women, but because he thinks just about everyone is inferior.

Selena: Toby meets a working class man from a small town in Indiana who wants to send his daughter to Notre Dame. Back in 2002, this was still possible. In 2013, it’s most likely a pipe dream. How do you think Sorkin would write this differently if it was airing next week instead of eleven years ago?

Neil: Well, the argument back in 2002 was people being able to afford college, because this was the beginning of states cutting back on funding for colleges, thus the start of rising tuition rates. In that way Sorkin was ahead of his time. That is not the argument today, though. The argument politicians are making today is not that college should be affordable for all, it’s whether certain people in our population should be going to college in the first place. My thinking is Sorkin would address this issue from the standing of Occupy Wall Street, that America is creating a generation of debt slaves, and something tells me an Elizabeth Warren-type character would play prominently. So it would likely be not a father but a recent grad, with a lot of debt and no skills to get a job to pay it off. Similar but different.

Selena: The fourth season is most frequently touted as the season TWW started to slip, leading into the much-despised (but in my opinion under-appreciated) fifth season. Without spoiling anything, how do you think this pair of episodes sets the tone for the season as a whole?

Neil: It’s hard to answer this question without giving away things coming up. But at this point in current events no one was talking domestic policy, we were at war on two fronts, and everyone was talking presidential powers. I think “20 Hours” was Sorkin’s last hurrah in domestic affairs. One last policy issue about the future he wanted to address before turning TWW into something else. Everyone is right: “20 Hours” is when TWW changed, it slipped out of being about the relationship between the president and his staff and about current events and policies into something else”¦ you have to watch though to find out what that something else is.

By [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.

9 replies on “Two Questions About The West Wing: “20 Hours in America””

Ooo Sorkin and women’s issues. I was just talking about this on one of my WW rewatches – women’s issues are nearly always peripheral, shown as such, and treated as such by the main strategists (Leo, Josh, Toby) – the icing on the cake but the first thing to be sacrificed if shit gets tough. I don’t know how much this reflects Sorkin’s own views or actual political reality – how do we tell?

I’ve never been to Indiana (or indeed, I’ve never been out of an airport in the Midwest – not American! Call off the hounds!) but I’ve always seen this episode as making Josh and Toby look a bit ridiculous, not the people they meet.

Its weird you dislike this episode as its probably one of my favorites, if not my favorite. Two Cathedrals might be my favorite.
i agree that Sorkin can be a bit liberal elitist but i guess that’s why i like his writing. The fact that this episode uses Tori Amos’ I Don’t Like Mondays gets to me every time. That song is such an awesome and cathartic and fucked up mix of emotions.
Also I Love Amy Adams.

I was talking to Hill about this. Although Sorkin writes strong women, CJ’s and Donna’s, if you notice their is one thing the same. Neither really make decisions. Sorkin portrays women as good with details but unable to make tough decisions. If you notice CJ doesn’t get called on a lot of make the tough call. So it’s like the women handle all the details but the men ultimately make all the tough decisions. Not sure if you noticed that as well.

And you took out my other question: would Toby and Josh still be lost if Donna wasn’t there?

Well let me take a step back a sec. If you notice right at the beginning of 20hrs he is giving a campaign speech, if you listen closely, the speech is very similar to the “too many angels” speech at the end, and I believe he even uses too many angels foreshadowing how the episode will end. But I digress.

It’s a good speech, nice prose, but shouldn’t be touted out for every tragedy. A. It’s a TV show, and B. it shows that during national tragedy’s we as a county really lack true leadership, that we have to turn to a fake leader for inspiration cause our real ones suck so bad.

Just look at the Oklahoma Tornado tragedy, instead of making some unifying statement, like Barlett, Republicans within hours of the tragedy are saying they will not pay fo clean-up and construction unless we have severe cuts in social spending. I mean seriously, we haven’t even finished the bidy count, where’s the compassion.

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