[Writer: Aaron Sorkin & Paul Redford | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 11/10/1999]
Whenever asked why I don’t put The West Wing’s first season on as high a pedestal as many fans do, I tend to cite “The State Dinner” more than any other episode. Not because it’s bad – it’s actually superior to the weakest episodes of most other seasons – but because it encompasses pretty much every major flaw of Season One.
The underlying theme of the episode is not as optimistic as the ones of those preceding it, but it serves a function in the series nonetheless. No matter how hard Jed Bartlet and his administrative team try, they can’t always win. Sometimes their opponents will simply find a loophole around their loophole, sometimes nature will intervene, and sometimes, to borrow a phrase used in “The Stormy Present”, they will be hoist by their own petard.
The concept is intriguing, but the execution here is limp, in part because the individual storylines don’t reveal much that we don’t already know about the characters or the story. Take Sam’s unlucky attempts to turn Laurie into a model citizen, for example. We’re only seven episodes in, and already this storyline is starting to feel like day-old popcorn. It doesn’t help that their screentime in this episode does nothing but reiterate the status quo of their relationship – Sam wants to do the “right thing” by helping Laurie, and she just wants him to leave her nighttime activities alone.
On the plus side, we’re shown a more professional side of Laurie in the scene where she pores over law books while dining with Sam, giving her character greater gravitas, if not greater dimension. But in a series this quickly-paced, their storyline should have been wrapped up – or at least significantly advanced – by now. (Fortunately, “In Excelsis Deo” will rectify this problem quite nicely.)
Toby’s attempts to get in good graces with an Indonesian senior aide fare a little better, but that story too could have benefited from some more depth. As it is, the sting of Toby’s overzealous toast and the berating Bambang gives him for writing it are overshadowed by the scene of awkward conversation between both of them and their two translators. (The scene itself is pretty funny, but a pity that it distracts from the emotional payoff.)
But the biggest problem of the episode – and by turn, of the season – is Mandy. Put simply, Mandy just doesn’t work. She never achieves a real chemistry with the other characters, and barely develops beyond her initial cavalier attitude, which comes off as irritating rather than fun. This episode features Mandy attempting to join the “big leagues” at the White House, and screwing something up in the process. It’s not the last time she’ll cause a major blunder, which further trivializes her role in the series – in addition to being one-dimensional and irritating, why do her superiors keep her around at all?
Where this episode succeeds, unsurprisingly, is with Bartlet. Much of Jed’s time in this episode is spent welcoming the Indonesian President to the White House and preparing the titular state dinner in his honor – a mundane act designed to promote relations between the two countries. Less time is spent worrying about an impending hurricane, as most civilians have been safely evacuated. (CJ’s dialogue in the teaser scene hints at this ironic juxtaposition, as the reporters she speaks to forgo the usual newsworthy questions in favor of inquiring what the First Lady will be wearing to the affair.) So when the hurricane changes course and bears down on a heavily-manned carrier ship, the White House is caught completely unprepared – political gaming is one matter, but in the face of a natural disaster, how do they – how can they – react?
Even as Bartlet worries over the hurricane threat, as well as the tragic outcome of a hostage situation in Idaho, it is Leo who puts every effort into keeping the building’s motor purring smoothly. His repeated response to the concerns of his employees – “Let’s get back to the party” – is proof plain that he recognizes the gala event not only as a melding of cultures, but as an effective antidote to the threat of failure. In the course to do right, things will often go wrong. Leo recognizes this, and takes pains in assuring that his friends do, too.
And while Leo burdens himself with the emotional concerns of the White House, the arguably even more difficult task of shouldering the concerns of Bartlet himself falls to Abby. Making a bold first appearance – and showing herself as a strong maternal figure for several of the staffers – Abby displays her love for Jed by putting into words what he himself has tried to avoid thinking about: Not even the President can solve every problem in the world.
But if Jed can’t accomplish the impossible, he makes sure those who put their faith in him know that he’ll try. He’ll talk with a young mariner until the radio gives out, offering comfort where nothing else can be given. (And as we later see from his passionate verbal tirade against God in “Two Cathedrals”, the loss of the ship’s crew weighs heavily on his soul.) Bartlet’s conversation with the young skipper – beautifully captured and acted in the episode’s finale – is a small act of kindness, but it tells us more about him than any large-scale feats ever could.
It’s this touching final scene which raises “The State Dinner” into above-average territory, even if it doesn’t stand among the likes of “In Excelsis Deo” or “He Shall, From Time to Time…”. The episode in question contains some pretty solid material, and remains steadily entertaining all the while. But like the press reporters in the aforementioned teaser scene, it would do well to spend less time focusing on the accessories.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The whole three-language translation scene, right up to the moment where we learn that Bambang speaks English.
+ Donna + Sorcerers = Hilarity
+ Abby playing matchmaker for CJ.
+ “Fred Astaire!”
– Just how high up is Laurie in her “profession” that she can attend White House events without any question? This strains credibility.
* Bartlet fails to provide more than a sympathetic vocal presence to those caught in the hurricane. In “Disaster Relief” [5×06], he makes sure to lend personal and physical support when a tornado strikes a small town in Oklahoma.