[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 09/22/1999]
“Tell your friend POTUS he’s got a funny name.”
Good pilot episodes are hard to come by.
It’s quite a task for a writer to introduce a group of characters, outline their personalities and ambitions, set up a story which is neither too complicated to alienate the viewership nor too simplistic to dissuade their interest, and set a convincing tone for the series as a whole.
When you’re crafting a pilot for a workplace drama, the task is understandably difficult. With the countless crime/legal/medical dramas that have dominated primetime in the last two or three decades, you need to do something bold and different to distinguish yourself from the pack. Something that’ll make the average viewer stop in his channel-surfing tracks and choose to stay with your program for the next hour.
But what if, say, your show tackles a genre rarely seen on network television? Say, politics, for example. If your show has a political setting, the problem becomes not so much a case of separating yourself from the rest, but from carving a new niche for yourself entirely. That’s a pretty sizable undertaking for even the sharpest of minds.
So there’s little surprise in the fact that in the weeks before The West Wing first premiered, critics were apprehensive about whether it would succeed in breaking the new ground it was treading upon. Could a show really illustrate the backdoor goings-on of the White House without feeling ham-fisted or unrealistic? Without turning the concept of American liberty into an artificial commodity, or worse, a cheap joke?
As the pilot episode most entertainingly proved – yeah. It could.
Start with the smooth, skillful way that the show introduces all of its major players. A common trap of television pilots is to feature viewer-friendly exposition when setting up its characters, which feel awkward and heavy-handed by real-life standards. The West Wing doesn’t dwell on these formalities. The characters are introduced briskly and fluidly within the first five minutes of the episode, and already you get the feeling that you’ll enjoy spending time with them.
We have Toby (the humorously morose Richard Schiff), the man who challenges an airline’s fear that his cell phone will interfere with their navigational system. CJ (a plucky and delightful Allison Janney), who takes an hour every morning for personal time, to “be her own man”. Leo (the late, great John Spencer), who obsesses over a crossword puzzle misspelling which interrupted his daily morning routine.
In each of these cases, the characters are set up with little details that will become crucial in their respective developments over the show’s seven seasons. Toby will bring his own personal philosophy to the political table many times over the course of the series, both with good and bad results. CJ will struggle to balance her personal life with her business one, and will have further conflicts in trying to make it as a woman in a “man’s” world. Leo’s fixation with the crossword error is a bit flighty compared to the more grounded perspective he will display once the series gets rolling, but it paints him as a man who wants to set the little things in life straight, even as he recognizes that he can’t always change the big ones. (Note the relative serious-minded, comparatively pessimistic attitude Leo displays even in his early scenes – when a security guard greets him with a “Good morning,” he off-handedly replies, “We’ll fix that in a hurry, won’t we?”
The two characters on which the pilot mainly centers on are Sam (a sharp, charismatic Rob Lowe) and Josh (the energetic and entertaining Bradley Whitford). Both of these two have made some kind of large screw-up by the time the episode begins building momentum, though their respective mistakes are quite different – in fact, the only in-episode connection between them comes during a humorous moment when each notices that the other is wearing the same clothes as the day before.
Sam’s conflict is built upon more slowly, the better to develop in later episodes. Following an evening talk with a journalist, during which he was careful to remain tight-lipped about the details of his job, Sam makes an extra-large slip-up by sleeping with Laurie, a woman who turns out to be a call girl. This turn of events allows us to see a few different sides of Sam. In early scenes, he’s suave and confident, radiating with the air of a skilled ladies’ man. But once he learns of Laurie’s “other” occupation, he becomes tongue-tied and nervous, a teenage boy who’s too embarrassed to communicate with his pretty date.
The setup of the episode also cleverly turns the “one-night stand” concept on its head. Rather than having the guy sleep with a woman and then never call her again, leaving her to pine woefully for the one true love of her life, Sam ends up phoning her – thanks to an unfortunate beeper mix-up – in order to meet up and break things off between the two of them. His attempts at communication, as well as the sincerity of his sorrow, craft Sam as a likable and sympathetic character. (I’ll go more into detail in later reviews, but it’s also great to see that Laurie – whose profession is usually treated with contempt in most mediums – is written as a rather sensitive character herself.)
Sam’s girl troubles don’t stop with Laurie, though. They continue when he acts as a tour guide to a fourth-grade class of students, intent on impressing Leo McGarry’s daughter. In one of the episode’s most memorable moments, he unloads all his troubles – call girl incident included, on Mallory, the class teacher, before demanding that she tell him who Leo’s daughter is. Mallory’s response: “That would be me.” Faced with another woman suddenly revealed to be something very different than his initial perception, Sam can only stammer out, “Well, this is bad on so many levels.” (Given the romantic turn Sam and Mallory’s relationship will soon take, this whole exchange is made all the funnier.)
Josh, meanwhile, is given a more dramatic focus in the episode. Much of the episode involves the White House staffers fretting over an insulting statement he made to a Christian activist on television. Josh’s actions over the course of this episode pinpoint him as brash, arrogant, and highly opinionated – traits which wouldn’t seem to make for a very likable character. But Josh is not written as hateful – he made a statement which he fully supports and adheres to, so whose right is it to tell him to retract it? His stick-to-his-guns attitude is one that many Americans share, and this factor makes Josh not only a likable character, but a relatable one as well. And when he finally relents and chooses to apologize, he successfully maintains audience sympathy, even if he’s only doing it to save his own job.
Now, the idea of Josh being fired for making a single petty remark might seem ludicrous by ordinary White House standards. But it works by being skillfully integrated into the episode itself and the series it’s trying to set up. The new administration has only been running the country for a few months, so there’s a decidedly uneasy air circulating when one of their own fudges things up. The constant debates between Josh and Leo, Toby, and CJ are the arguments of a new government attempting to find their feet. Even when faced up against bigger issues, the staffers are first concerned with the image they’re projecting on the country – compare the large amount of screentime the Josh story gets to the internationally more important concern regarding the Cuban refugees.
The underlying theme which runs through the bloodlines of all seven seasons of The West Wing is power. Each season examines a different facet of this theme, exploring every one of them with remarkable depth and clarity. The first season’s sub-theme revolves around coming to grips with this power. At this early point in the game, the characters have yet to realize the full potential of their occupations, and to find the right balance of concern between the major issues they must face and the minor ones. It will take a while – the administration will not latch onto a clear direction until “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19] – but the journey is pretty fascinating in its own right.
One of the most commendable things about The West Wing‘s premiere episode is its pace. Things keep happening, in a daisy-chain of events that rarely pauses for a breath. You hardly have a chance to stop and notice that, through everything that’s going on, we never actually get a glimpse of the President.
But when Jed Bartlet (played to epic levels by Martin Sheen) finally appears on the screen, he takes the already-strong premiere to a new level. Throughout the episode, Bartlet could be perceived as something of a joke – several points throughout the episode do characters crack wise about him falling off his bike. But the moment Bartlet walks through the door – hobbling on crutches, no less – he throws all ridiculous perceptions right out the window. Bartlet delivers a passionate speech to the demanding Christian activists about an extremist organization which harassed his daughter, before telling them to announce the group and dismisses them from his White House.
It’s one of the most powerful introductions to any series character I’ve ever seen, and not just due to Sheen’s incredible performance (though that certainly doesn’t hurt). Through his speech, Bartlet is established as a strong moral figure, a caring grandfather, and a staunch believer in his own religious upbringing, having little patience for those who disagree with him. And in the follow-up talk he has with his staff, he’s shown to be a pretty caring boss, too. Josh may have slipped up, but the most powerful administration in the country has bigger fish to fry.
It’s a strong finish to a strategically-made pilot, as the staffers, who have spent the whole episode hurrying from this place to that, are finally corralled into one spot by their leader. Given the lack of screentime he’s given, Bartlet’s character is not fully set up or developed – a concern the next two episodes will be quick to rectify – but his position is fittingly established, and it leaves us yearning to see more.
Even with all the confidence and bravura this episode premieres with, there are moments when you get the sense that the series is still testing the waters, and there are still a few kinks to be ironed out. Sorkin’s dialogue, while often quite funny, feels a little too attached to a specific rhythmic motif, and it will take a few episodes to feel more grounded. The right-wing Christian activists come off as a little cruel and one-note during their scenes, and later episodes and seasons will craft more rounded and admirable Republican characters. (Mary Marsh and Al Caldwell have softened considerably by the time they return in “Shibboleth”.) But these flaws only come into real perspective once you take a step back and view the whole series as a retrospective tale.
Which I, as you may have caught on, am about to do. A series like this – at times riveting, suspenseful, heartbreaking, and awesome – begs to be reviewed and dissected and analyzed to reveal the many layers of greatness it yields. If you enjoy discussing quality television and figuring out what makes it so masterful, then I hope you’ll join me for the ride. And even if you’re just a casual observer… stick around. We’re still going to have plenty of fun.
The premiere of The West Wing is a joy to watch, and it sets a bright, optimistic, mildly screwball tone that will be built upon, tested, and subverted many times over the next seven years. It maintains a strong bond on the characters it creates, and many of them will go through important journeys over the course of the series. And we’ll be travelling right alongside them. Let’s begin!
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The incredible long shot of Leo first entering the White House. Really gives you a feel that this is a vast, bustling place.
+ CJ making the first of the show’s many pratfalls. Who says primetime TV is too sophisticated for slapstick?
+ Leo telling Donna to call Josh, prompting her to simply scream “JOSH!”
+ Josh agreeing to wear a new suit because “the girls all think you look hot in it”.
– Mandy’s introductory scene feels out-of-place with the rest of the episode, not to mention a little irritating. Sort of like Mandy herself.
– I find it difficult to believe that a Reverend wouldn’t know what Commandment “Honor thy father and mother” is. Although Toby not knowing it either makes it a little amusing.
* Toby takes offense at Mary Marsh’s implied (though possibly unintentional) anti-Semitic comment regarding Josh’s “New York sense of humor”, while Josh doesn’t think much of it. This implies that Toby is more tethered to the religion than Josh is, a fact which sparks occasional animosity between them, most notably their religious argument in “20 Hours in America (Part II)”.
* Bartlet’s manner of chewing out the religious right displays his fervent devotion to his own perception of religion, another key aspect of his character that will be developed upon in later episodes. (He tells off Dr. Jenna Jacobs in a similar manner in “The Midterms”.)