[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Dee Dee Myers, Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 02/16/2000]
In as much as I’d like to back up these admittedly opinionated reviews with a long list of credentials and a thorough résumé, I’m afraid that just isn’t possible. Despite the professional air I attempt to imbue this site with through my words of critical analysis, the credence of these episodic evaluations relies solely on those words alone. So as you can likely expect, I try to make my words count. The bolder the assertions, the stronger the arguments, the better to make my voice heard over the general Internet din. This can be a tricky feat at times, but so far, The West Wing has proven to be a fresh and fertile ground for plowing. Even the most demanding of critics can glance at this show and find great drama, development, and depth.
And with “Celestial Navigation”, they can find humor as well. True, this is not the first notably comic episode the show has offered – “The Crackpots and These Women” showcased the sharp and sanguine nature of Season One with its hilarious grounding of a seemingly off-the-wall plot. But “Celestial Navigation” is an even better example of what this show gets so amazingly right. Here is an episode that surrounds itself with an air of humor and self-mockery – and actually improves with it as a result.
The premise, while thematically relevant, almost reads like an introductory course in the art of screw-ups. Fearing Republican alienation after a Democratic Congresswoman calls one of her right-wing constituents a racist, the White House goads the woman into apologizing. Then Roberto Mendoza, a Supreme Court hopeful who represents many of the President’s ideals, speaks his own mind and says that the Congresswoman had no need to apologize. Despite the fact that this line of thought was mirrored by the White House earlier, they now suddenly fear for Mendoza’s position. But Mendoza’s support of the racially profiled wins up gaining credibility when he himself is arrested for no apparent reason other than “being Hispanic”. It takes some goading to release him from prison, as Mendoza himself wants to stay incarcerated and prove his point. But finally, the White House staffers manage to convince him that he can be more effective while on the outside of the bars.
By typical standards, the above story would be constructed as a morality tale, and the folks at Fifth Avenue would come away with a new understanding of the hazards of racial profiling and the merits of risky stances. But the episode completely undercuts this trap, and uses this main plot to springboard itself into a comedy of errors in which the central characters endure one major fudging after another. Does CJ make her ill-advised dentist appointment right before an important briefing? Sure. Do Sam and Toby get hopelessly lost on their way to Connecticut? You bet. Does Charlie have a whale of a bad time trying to rouse the President from his early-morning slumber? Census reads “yes”. This is one of those days for the White House, and the show pulls no punches in letting us know it.
Josh causes the biggest tumult of the episode, and so the central role of this screwball masterpiece must naturally fall to him. He narrates the events of the day to a talk-show audience, entertaining them with one self-deprecating shot after another along the way. It’s worth contrasting the scene where Josh attempts to take command of the press room with the framing scenes where he chats with the audience, particularly given how the effects of the former influence his approach during the latter. Substituting for the dentally-impaired CJ, Josh attempts to bring a more disciplined air to the press room, only to have his plans boomerang as the pushy reporters knock him flat on his keister. Before long, he’s turned the state of the Bartlet administration upside-down in a way that completely outshines his on-air slipup in the “Pilot”, all thanks to his brash and cloying manner. But when he sits before the studio audience, Josh enraptures them with complete and total control. By mocking himself and his errors at every turn, he paints himself as an everyman to the crowd, the kind of ordinary guy who’s just as prone to make mistakes as any of us. Yet I don’t for a minute buy this as Josh’s ulterior motive. No, his intentions are purely selfish: By joking about his press room debacle, Josh absolves his conscience of all blame, convincing himself as well as his audience that the entire situation was one big joke.
This, we can smilingly note, is the ulterior motive of the episode as well. “Celestial Navigation” is one long joke that the writers play on the characters of the show, and no one is spared a dosage of raw indignity or discomfort. (There’s something especially wonderful in the fact that Dee Dee Myers, a former White House Press Secretary on whom the character of CJ is loosely based, is so cheerfully willing to take part in the “woot canaw” gag.) And therein lies the episode’s brilliance. “Celestial Navigation” as not as complex as “He Shall, From Time to Time…”, nor as moving as “In Excelsis Deo”. But it’s a wonderful showcase for the lighter side of the show, serving up dose after dose of good-natured humor without ever forsaking the characters in the process.
You probably expect me to offer up a weightier and more convincing argument as to why “Celestial Navigation” is such a fantastic episode, but the more playful part of my critical persona has won out. The character depth of this episode is as loose and flighty as everything else, and by watching carefully, you’ll spot several humorous little cadences which add richly to the texture of the story. Sam’s fascination with astronomy and expressways, Danny’s self-satisfying manipulation of Josh in the press room, Charlie showing his more good-humored side when waking up the President – these and many other small grin-inducing moments remind us of just how layered these characters and their personalities are. “Celestial Navigation” may be bubble-gum, but it goes off with a truly satisfying “pop”.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Bartlet getting upset over O’Leary’s use of a clichéd insult.
+ Josh getting a dentally-impaired CJ to say “Foggy Bottom”.
+ CJ’s reaction to seeing Josh flub his way through the press briefing: Take more painkillers.
+ You know what? Everything in this episode deserves a place in the “Minor Pros” section.