West Wing 1×13: Take Out the Trash Day

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Ken Olin | Aired: 01/26/2000]

One of the most common criticisms that non-fans level at The West Wing is that the show exists primarily as a mouthpiece for creator Aaron Sorkin. Many point to the show’s democratic vibe and political messaging as proof that the show is little more than an exercise in preachiness, with some of its more vehement critics negatively dubbing the show “The Left Wing”.

The justifications and implications of these criticisms are worth discussing further (and rest assured, I will discuss them in future reviews), but for now, let’s talk about what sparks this sort of concern in the first place. The media – including television, but also newspapers and the Internet – is a major component in shaping our perceptions of the world. Fundamentally speaking, it’s very easy to have our personal opinions about certain stories swayed by the way they’re depicted in the news.

“Take Out the Trash Day” is an episode about media. And since this show is based around the most potentially newsworthy building in the country, you can bet that there’s a lot for the episode to say.

The titular Day shares the space with every Friday, when the White House chooses to pile together all its less-remarkable news stories and dump them in one go. The very concept behind this day gives us a sense of how news is treated at this place. Information in the press room is a commodity – large news stories are handled and delivered with care, while smaller stories can be bundled together and served offhandedly when the public needs no major sating.

CJ delivers the news, both large and small, with flair and finesse, dominating the press room under even the most demanding of circumstances. She has developed a unique rapport with the journalists, a sort of kind and affable teacher enchanting her class with a slick, smooth lecture. And since her relationship with Danny officially turned romantic, the point has become clearer than ever – CJ considers the reporters to be her trusted friends.

We saw in “Lord John Marbury” [1×11] how her relatively carefree attitude in the press room has led to a level of uneasiness between CJ and her colleagues. Although the issue was resolved more or less in CJ’s favor, we now wonder – was that uneasiness entirely unfounded? CJ takes pains to assure the press room that the parents of the murdered Lowell Lydell will attend and support the President’s signing of a hate-crimes bill, but we spend much of the episode wondering if she’s letting her personal ideals interfere with the reality of the situation. (Mandy plays a rare useful part in this episode, informing CJ that from an image standpoint, the Lydells’ presence may actually cause more harm than good.)

CJ at first can’t comprehend why such a thing would make for bad publicity, and because we follow the storyline from her point of view, it takes a while for us to catch on as well. But soon, the point made in “Lord John Marbury” [1×11] comes into light. Inasmuch as CJ wants to consider the press reporters her friends and confidantes, they are in fact neither of those things. While she may support the Lydells’ right to speak out, even after hearing the negative opinion Mr. Lydell has toward the President, the media could potentially turn the opportunity into a feeding frenzy, using his relatively benign statements to cast the White House in a negative light.

CJ struggles with self-doubt after sending the Lydells home, and very nearly ends up leaking the story to Danny. It is he who stops her, with the warning that she’ll end up hating herself and the assurance that he’ll eventually unearth the story anyway. (This is why Danny is such a lovable character – although he has at times tried to manipulate the usually unflappable CJ into giving him a story, he will not take advantage of her while she is in a vulnerable state.)

CJ’s response is appropriately resonant: “No, you won’t. Cause we’ve gotten very good at this.” It’s a resigned acknowledgment on her part that the Press Secretary and the Press Corps, for all the witty barbs and banter they exchange, can never grow too close together. This marks the beginning of a slow development for CJ, where she will grow less attached to the journalists, and more attached to her fellow White House staffers.

CJ’s story is but one example of the way “Take Out the Trash Day” comments on the effects of the media. But it’s far from the only example. Look at how Toby is quick to defend the Public Broadcasting Service because he was raised on Sesame Street and Julia Child. Or how Sam fears a small Georgetown newspaper could potentially cause trouble in the White House by running a story that’s just barely tangentially related to politics. Or how Bartlet chooses to push off a crucial sex-education report for fear of negative reaction, invoking the episode’s title when he tells CJ to “throw it out with the trash”. In each of these examples, the media is presented as a visible presence, and that presence forms the backbone of the respective story.

But perhaps the definitive example of the episode’s theme can be found in its most compelling storyline. The news of Leo’s alcoholism and drug addiction has been causing a media firestorm in the last few episodes, and it now culminates into a smartly satisfying resolution.

We see Josh and Sam do their best to avoid a hearing, but during their meeting with Congressman Bruno, it becomes clear that the young staffers are biting off more than they can chew. As he straightforwardly tells them, there will be a hearing no matter what, because the reporters love a good drug-related story. Bruno’s reprimand, while a little on-the-nose, pinpoints the media as the ultimate cause of the stress brought on by Leo’s admission. As much as Sam and Josh have spent the last several episodes trying to help Leo, they just can’t measure up to the city newshounds.

And neither, apparently, can Leo. When approached by Simon Blye, an old friend of his, regarding how to deal with the fallout, Leo learns that the counselor is attempting to provoke his resignation by speaking out in the papers. Simon means well, advising him that quitting is his best option, but his attempt to stir things up in the Washington Post turns Leo against him. Earlier, Leo himself showed intent to resign, but this sudden turn of events makes the idea distasteful. Leave it to an ill-formed op-ed – by a supposed friend, no less – to return the Chief of Staff to his ideals.

I’ve always been fascinated by Leo’s alcohol-and-drugs arc in Season One. As I’ve argued earlier, Leo is probably the show’s realest character, and we see him here encumbered by its realest, most relatable conflict. This arc also marks the most prominent and visible role Leo will receive in the entire series. As such, the arc fully establishes Leo as a deeply human, deeply caring character, preparing us for the quiet development he will slowly go through over the next six seasons.

And in case one still doubts how well this arc paid off in that respect, I direct them to the episode’s excellent final scene, where Leo meets to talk with the young secretary who leaked the information about his alcoholism and started the whole mess in the first place. Here we learn that the circumstances surrounding the leak were not based in political malice or sabotage, but in honest concern.

“You’re not like what I thought you would be like,” Karen tells Leo after a few minutes of conversation with him. He’s come completely honest with her, detailing his still-lingering thirst (literally and figuratively) for alcohol, telling her of a rather painful alcohol-related family background – and in the process, presenting himself as a human being. When Karen first learned of Leo’s addiction, she saw only the addict, and in turn saw a concern to the country’s safety. Now, she faces the man behind the whiskey glass, and sees him for the honest, well-intentioned soul he truly is.

There are fans who say that Leo was wrong in giving Karen a second chance, that her deeds were too inexcusable to be forgiven. But Leo’s actions are well within his noble character, and right in tune with the underlying theme of the episode. Leo is a man of understanding, the kind who can relate to the mistaken and the generalizing – just as they, in turn, discover that they can relate to him. It’s just a matter of peeling back the layers to discover a person beyond his or her initial appearance.

And if there’s one thing “Take Out the Trash Day” tells us, it’s that appearances – whether they be in a newspaper, or on a television screen, or even at direct face value – can be deceiving.

 


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Josh preferring his hamburger burnt.
+ Toby making it clear that Fozzie Bear’s name is not “Fuzzy Bear”.
+ Bartlet “editing” the sex education report.

– The scene where the secretaries stand around and gossip. Pointless and more than a little demeaning. I’m so glad Sorkin came around to writing female conversation well by the time he penned “Dead Irish Writers” [3×15].


Foreshadowing

* Bartlet refuses to share the sex education report with Mrs. Landingham, “because I’d rather not be in therapy for the rest of my life.” This hints, rather amusingly, that Mrs. Landingham is something of a maternal figure to Bartlet. This point will play a large role in “Two Cathedrals” [2×22].


[Score]

A-

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9 thoughts on “West Wing 1×13: Take Out the Trash Day”

  1. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on February 16, 2014.]

    *Wonderful* review Jeremy, as always.

    I am completely on board with your dubbing of Leo as the ‘realest’ character of the main crew, for all the reasons you outline. If I had to pick out the character who comes closest to matching this quality (or something like it), it would probably be CJ – although there is something of a difference, in my view. With Leo it comes as much from how cleverly the character is written as anything else (not wishing to slight at all John Spencer) – by comparison in the early seasons the strength of CJ’s character was buttressed by the strength of the actress to a somewhat greater degree. All told, I think that Allison Janney may have given the most commanding performance of any of the regulars on the show (excepting of course the incomparable Martin Sheen).

    I reckon that this plays crucially into a much later plot point: Leo’s replacement by CJ as Chief of Staff. The fact that this development works (IMO) largely hinges on the development of the characters up to that point – in real life it would strain credulity for a President to even consider elevating a mere Press Secretary, no matter how loyal or competent, to the role of Chief of Staff. Even in the show, the suspension of disbelief ought to be strained – but it manages to hold, and the story moves on with this taken in its stride.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 17, 2014.]

    CJ’s development is definitely enhanced by Allison Janney’s performance. (Janney has a greater range than just about any other actress I can think of.) In fact, CJ’s character arc is my favorite of the series outside of Bartlet and Toby.

    I think the most realistic non-Leo character on the show is Charlie, actually. (As of the first season, at least.) He’s a very down-to-earth, ordinary guy, and not yet fueled by the idealized goals which drive the other characters in their day-to-day assignments.

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  3. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on February 17, 2014.]

    I take your point, but to me Charlie’s character was one of the disappointments of the show, in some ways. He had some fairly promising development in the first two seasons or so, but after that increasingly dropped out of view, especially after his relationship with Zoe lapsed offscreen.

    It’s rather sad that when I try to remember what Charlie did in the later seasons, the first thing that comes to mind is that he grew a beard at one point.

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  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 18, 2014.]

    You’re right that Charlie’s arc is ultimately not as deep or satisfying as it could have been, and is probably the most disappointing of any in the series. But don’t discount his development in Season Three, particularly involving his relationship with Bartlet.

    It’s really from Season Four onwards that he becomes the Lorne of the series (without the amusing quips).

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  5. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 11, 2015.]

    Is it weird that I think this is indisputably the best episode of the season? I can’t quite put my finger on why.

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  6. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 11, 2015.]

    Actually, I’ve figured out why. There’s a lot of good stuff in this episode, obviously, so I was distracted by Bartlet’s sex ed report and Toby’s defense of the Muppets.

    But it’s CJ’s plot this episode that really punches you in the gut like nothing else this season. We spend the entire episode thinking that Mr. Lydell is going to be some caricatured bigot because this is The Left Wing (I’m totally calling it that from now on), and anyone who’s not onboard with the Bartlet administration’s hate crime legislation is obviously just homophobic. Even when CJ refuses to believe Danny’s claim that Lowell’s death won’t be enough for a change of heart from the senior Lydell, both of them still are working on the assumption that his son’s gayness is an embarrassment to his manhood.

    And then we actually meet him, and not only is he alright with his son’s sexuality, he’s arguably more progressive than anyone on Bartlet’s staff. But there’s the rub– he’s a totally sympathetic character with a bold and righteous message, which is everything Bartlet’s staff wants to be, yet that boldness is precisely why they can’t give him a voice.

    The lowest blow of all is that CJ’s declaration that the Lydells will not be speaking to the press– even as she tearfully argues they should be given that opportunity– is made in the fade-out to the end credits. It’s pushed under the rug not just in the press room, but on a meta level as well.

    This is definitely an A for me, and even if it lacks that special oomph that would push it up to a 100 it comes pretty damn close. In any case I feel it definitely is the best of season 1.

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  7. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 11, 2015.]

    Wait, never mind what I just said, I forgot about the Leo scene where he gives the staffer a second go. That’s what pushes the episode into perfection.

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  8. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on December 21, 2015.]

    I agree with Bosc, this is definitely one of the best episodes of the show to this point, and perhaps even my personal favorite. I seem to appreciate The Left Wing (seriously that’s genius…I laughed when I saw that, then slapped myself for not coming up with that myself) when it’s more self-critical of it’s own body. When the thematic outline of an episode is more cynical than idealistic, I take to it more, because it feels honest, and as a result, far more powerful. This is a perfect episode that encapsulates how you can take the idealistic roots of the show and meld it perfectly with more important thematic topics. The ending scene in which Leo rehires the staffer is optimistic and wholly earned.

    The episode serves up a biting critique of itself, gives C.J. a whole lot of character work, and closes off with a delightfully dramatic scene that actually made my eyes water a little due to sheer sweetness. It packs a narrative punch and it’s clever with it’s twist, it’s a shocking realization executed perfectly. So yeah, I think it’s probably the best of the show.

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  9. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on March 26, 2016.]

    I really think the brilliance of the episode is in not that the trash day is where the small stories are thrown out, but specifically the stories that makes the White House look bad.

    And the episode does a good job of digging into those stories and giving them a voice and an emotional attachment so we realize that the stories the media doesn’t get to dig into are ones that are just as important as anything.

    The relationship with the press is an important part to this episode, but I think the more important part is the reasoning the White House uses to throw things out with the trash, and it’s nice to see things aren’t always ideal, all the time like the show sometimes threatens.

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