[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Paul Redford, Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr., Aaron Sorkin | Director: Ken Olin | Aired: 03/22/2000]
With “20 Hours in LA” [1×16] preening the show for new and greater possibilities, one would expect the immediate following episodes to capitalize on the momentum and continue taking the show to new heights. Unfortunately, the series hits a bit of a snag with “The White House Pro-Am” and “Six Meetings Before Lunch” [1×18], episodes that are thematically consistent with the first season, but not especially memorable or resonant. “The White House Pro-Am” is the better of these two episodes, because in addition to further exploring the themes of the season, it gives us our first genuine look at the show’s most interesting romantic relationship – that of Jed and Abby Bartlet. It’s this relationship which fuels the episode and helps it past some of its flaws. One such flaw of which, ironically, is another romantic relationship. But I’ll get to that later.
In Bartlet and Abby, we have a husband-and-wife relationship that’s not unlike many marriages. Here is a male who wants to perform his job to the best of his ability, trying to be the “man” of the house in all senses. And here is a female who puts trust and confidence in her husband, but will just as soon trust herself to perform important deeds as part of her own lifestyle.
At numerous points during this episode, characters make reference to what life was like a hundred years earlier, drawing our attention to what could be perceived as a more misguided period in Americana. During that period, the roles of husband and wife were firmly affixed in stone – the former was the breadwinner and overall boss of the household, while the latter mostly served as a pretty face to come home to after a hard day’s work. Were I a harder and more cynical critic (Who, me?) I could probably construe the juxtaposition of the Bartlet/Abby relationship with late 19th-century sensibilities as Sorkin’s ham-handed method of delivering a modern-day feminist message. But thankfully, the episode never makes a major point out of the role of women in society, and its focus on marital roles is delivered from a solidly character-driven perspective.
At this time in the season, Bartlet is starting to realize that his effectiveness is measured by the level of certitude he puts into his political decisions. However, he hasn’t yet quite learned how to harness his personal opinions for a nationwide manner, and during the point of quiet transition between “20 Hours in LA” [1×16] and “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19], he’s especially vulnerable to any factor which may upset his developing ideals. So naturally, we muse, this is the perfect time for Abby to show up.
What makes the husband/wife component of “The White House Pro-Am” work so well is the fact that the story never tries to point emphatically at either Bartlet or Abby and label one of them as right. True, in declaring her choice for the new Federal Reserve Chairman, Abby seems to have a leg up on Bartlet’s staff in terms of backbone. But she did not actually declare it publicly, and the most the White House can scrounge up about the declaration is that it came from “sources close to Mrs. Bartlet”. Just like her husband, Abby is concerned with keeping a positive image, without stirring up too much trouble on the home front.
Still, Abby’s public image feels significantly more rooted in personal ideals than Jed’s is. She’s a straight-shooter through and through, able to speak out against child labor organizations without letting her own personal emotions cloud her judgment. This can easily be traced to real-life sensibilities – the First Lady has always been more of a “public image” figure than the President. Within the fictionalized universe of The West Wing, Abby Bartlet uses the opportunity to saddle her iconic status with her own true-to-heart beliefs.
So to return to my earlier statement: Abby, like her husband, tries to avoid problems on the home front. But in her case, this refers to a literal home front. Abby does not avoid creating rifts within her own political party – late in this episode, she chews out a Congresswoman ally for trying to offer a child labor amendment to the Senate. But she will do her best to avoid personal conflict with her husband, choosing instead to blaze her own political trail.
The conflict of this episode is not actively initialized by Jed or Abby, in fact. Much of the blame falls to Sam, whose reputation as the perpetual White House screw-up takes an interesting turn. He, in essence, is Bartlet’s mouthpiece for much of this episode, a point made more plausible when you consider Bartlet’s prediction that Sam will follow in his footsteps in “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14]. The criticisms Sam levels at Abby and her Chief of Staff are indicative of the staunch respect he has toward his President, and they prime us for the reveal that Abby is in fact loyal to and trusting of her husband, even if she prefers to take matters into her own hands.
The climatic argument between Bartlet and Abby nicely highlights their differences of political opinion. “Don’t handle me, Jed!” Abby tells her husband angrily, expressing the undercurrent emotion of an aspiring figure who’s been painfully pressed under another’s thumb. Bartlet wants to prove himself as a capable leader, but his efforts to establish himself as even the dominant figure in his marriage have fallen short. Cleverly, though, the scene is actually used to enhance Bartlet’s stature rather than pick at it, as Abby makes it clear that she actually does support her husband’s ideals – it’s all just a matter of his measuring them.
The climax, and the insightful reveals that accompany it, is unfortunately bogged by a few too many late-in-the-game surprises that serve to clutter the story rather than add to it. The revelation that Bartlet had grown close to Danny Concannon during his initial campaign wobbles awkwardly in its contrivance, though I suppose it can be overlooked as plot-necessary. I’m less forgiving over the reveal that Abby once dated Ron Erlich, as it feels like a tacked-on character twist that threatens to rob the story of a large chunk of character significance and make Jed come off as a jealous husband. Still, the message comes off fairly well, and the moment where Jed and Abby leave the Oval Office as a couple feels earned in its emotion.
The relationship aspect also looks good due to the unfortunate fact that it’s riding alongside the story of another relationship that’s not nearly as entertaining or ingratiating. Yes, I’m talking about Charlie and Zoey. Now, this is not to say that either character is uninteresting on his or her own – Charlie has already proven himself to be one of the most identifiable figures in the series, and although Zoey will not receive much personal growth over the series, she’s a charming character, and will eventually become the catalyst for one of Bartlet’s most crucial character turns.
Unfortunately, their relationship proves to be one of the show’s more disappointing. Neither of the characters has received a major amount of screentime – even Charlie has been relegated to a supporting role for most of the earlier episodes – and as a result, they’ve barely developed beyond two dimensions. Their onscreen pairing hasn’t quite the spark it should, and it feels more like a writer’s conceit (setting events in place for the season finale’s cliffhanger) than a natural sign of character growth. This becomes even more apparent when you look at the lack of direction their relationship is hampered by in later seasons.
That said, I do commend the storyline for introducing Gina Toscano, a likable Secret Service agent who proves to be more than just a suit and dark glasses. Gina connects with Zoey on a human level, which not only provides the President’s daughter with a more personable outlet, but lets us empathize more with her as a real character, providing needed gravity to the ever-impending threat that someone might harm her. It’s a shame that Jorja Fox left for CSI so quickly, as I would have liked to see the bond between Zoey and Gina grow into something more genuine.
“The White House Pro-Am” is a hit-and-miss episode for much of its duration, although it ultimately leans more to the positive side. This is due in part to the way it firmly establishes Abby as a necessary component of the show’s canon, paving the way for such satisfying pieces as “Dead Irish Writers” [3×15] and “Privateers” [4×18]. Then again, it also paves the way for that episode with all the Sesame Street characters. So yeah – hit-and-miss sounds about right.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Abby kidding around with Jeffrey.
+ Sam to Lilly after learning of Dahl’s death: “You just lost your news cycle.”
+ Bartlet worried about getting a “little punishment” from Abby.
+ CJ trying to read Bartlet’s signs.
– Why do we never see Lilly again? I wouldn’t make this complaint if the show didn’t have such a constant habit of making White House employees disappear.
* Danny gives romantic advice to Charlie, telling him, “If it was me, I’d make sure I was the one guy in her life who was hassle-free.” In “Internal Displacement” [7×11], Danny makes a truly honest and personal romantic offer to CJ – immediately after assuring her that his life will be hassle-free.