[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Patrick Caddell, and Dee Dee Myers | Director: Bill D’Elia | Aired: 11/24/1999]
One of the joys that comes with watching the first season of The West Wing – and, I suspect, one of the things which made it so popular at the time of its premiere – is that despite the complexity of the show’s setup, the major stories are remarkably small in scale. In the follow-up years, the Bartlet administration will face such earth-shaking issues as an MS scandal, a terrorist nation, and a horrific kidnapping – but at this early stage, things are as cool as the outdoor White House fountain. This relatively light season thus serves as a smooth, breezy introduction to the characters and environment, preparing us for the bolder steps the later seasons will take.
“The Short List” is a good example of the low-key tone the season establishes. It properly introduces two of the season’s largest and most significant storylines – the administration’s quest to elect Robert Mendoza to the Supreme Court, and Leo’s former alcohol addiction. These conflicts are introduced slowly and unobtrusively, thanks to the relative simplicity of their surroundings. And with the stories pitched at such a low decibel, there’s plenty of room to focus on the characters.
This is an episode which centers on Bartlet proper, finally calling to attention the problem which has been holding him back since the beginning of the show – the fact that he’s been holding back. In a conversation he has with a retiring Chief Justice, the older man strikes a nerve with his criticisms. “You drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath,” he tells the President. “I wanted a Democrat… and instead I got you.”
One thing that becomes increasingly more noticeable over the course of the series is how well Bartlet personifies each and every season’s major theme. As you may recall, I pointed out the first season’s theme was about coming to grips with power, and Bartlet spends a great amount of time attempting to do just that. He’s held his power back up to this point, favoring a stable government over one which could potentially be shaken up by his personal views. It takes a respectable someone like Justice Crouch to point out this potential flaw in his leadership. The development is furthered in “He Shall, From Time to Time…”, and following the events of “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”, Season Two will feature a more determined President willing to stand by his values regardless of the cost, more in tune with the bold image he projected on the campaign trail. But the growth is initialized here.
It’s entirely possible that Mendoza’s name only wound up on the short list for politically correct purposes. But this tidbit adds an extra layer to the measures Bartlet takes in nominating him over the decidedly less controversial Harrison. This early on in the game, he’s still playing it somewhat safe, and an Hispanic candidate will likely have enough standout power to sway an extra few voters. This sentiment will be echoed and expounded upon much later in the series – consider Matt Santos’ “I don’t want to just be the brown candidate” statement in “Opposition Research”. For now, though, the “brown candidate” serves his purpose within those confines.
(This is not to knock the character of Mendoza, who comes off as a warm but strong-minded individual, or Edward James Olmos, who will deliver one of the standout guest performances of the season in “Celestial Navigation”.)
But I’ve just been discussing the schematics of the episode’s themes up to this point. Where “The Short List” ultimately shines is where the best of this series shines – in the character work. Bartlet’s administration is pictured here for the first time as a genuine team, and the President calls on each of his staffers whenever the need for his or her specific talents arises. Sam, with his extensive knowledge of political law, is perfect for scrutinizing Harrison and checking to see if he really is the perfect candidate. Toby, at times more of an advisor to the President than Leo is, gives the final confirmation that Mendoza would indeed be the best choice.
Josh hasn’t much of a direct role in Bartlet’s process, but his evolution during the episode is certainly interesting to behold. Over the course of forty-two minutes, Josh goes from glorifying Harrison as the perfect candidate to getting swept up in a concentrated wave of doubt to assuring himself that Mendoza is their best shot at winning the seat. His position has completely shifted by the episode’s end, but his own personal ideals and assessment of the scenario have not changed a bit. This is nail-on-the-head character writing for Josh.
CJ is sidelined by the other staffers, even as she dodges difficult questions from press reporters, and winds up rather stressed by the episode’s events. The way CJ has continually served as a mouthpiece and little else for the White House will be addressed later in the season, notably in “Take Out the Trash Day”. Her overall annoyance at the Press Corps is soothed somewhat by a single individual press reporter, whom she continues to show more signs of affection toward. CJ’s reaction when Danny presents her with a goldfish is easily her most delightful moment of the season that doesn’t involve woot canals.
In case there’s still any doubt on how well-formed and unified the Bartlet ensemble is, and of the way their own personal struggles are at this early stage interfering with their larger political agendas, the episode’s other storyline does a convincing job of driving the point home. Congressman Lillienfield’s accusation that one-third of all White House employees use drugs feels a little over-the-top ludicrous, but the brashness with which it’s delivered – not to mention its potentially devastating fallout – leave the Bartlet administration scrambling to set things straight. As with the Supreme Court plotline, this story focuses on the characters’ struggle to preserve their public image.
I won’t go much into Leo’s characterization here, because most of his participation in this episode revolves around setup. His former alcohol addiction and the fallout he may face because of it will become crucial to his development later in the season. For the moment, though, I would like to draw attention to the one scene where Josh talks to Leo and assures him that no matter what the next few days and weeks will bring, he’ll stand by his side. It’s the first of several instances (see “Noel” and “Bartlet for America”, most notably) to show just how close the bond between the Chief of Staff and his deputy really is.
So there you have it. When you get right down to things, “The Short List” is not an especially earth-shattering episode. But it makes all the right moves, with strong character development and tidy setup that will pay off handsomely in the second half of the season. Plus, it’s got Gail the goldfish, who’s worth a thumbs-up on his own.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Josh and CJ on the phone, slowly gathering excitement before the big “YES!”
+ CJ telling her associate to “set fire” to the press room.
+ The final shot of Bartlet and Mendoza exiting the Oval Office.
– The brief moment of exposition where Margaret identifies Robert Mendoza. As if we couldn’t figure that little tidbit out.
* When Crouch addresses the President as “Mr. Bartlet”, Jed quickly corrects him: “It’s Dr. Bartlet.” His wife Abby will repeat this line, referring to herself, in “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You”. It’s a nice indication that both the President and the First Lady have strong ties to their academic achievements.