[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Robert Berlinger | Aired: 05/03/2000]
Comedy and drama, for all their respective virtues, are opposite sides of the same coin. One asks the viewer to laugh at what it offers up onscreen, while the other expects him or her to take the product seriously. These are not concepts which you’d expect to automatically go hand in hand. But opposites attract, as the case may be, and some of television’s best offerings have been “dramedies” – shows which meld seriousness with humor.
It’s the humor aspect of such shows that I find especially intriguing – here is a series that has taken great pains in hopes that you’ll buy into its manufactured universe, yet also takes the time to joke about the characters and/or settings therein. The line of reasoning, I suppose, is that by adding a dosage of levity to the proceedings, the writers can put emphasis on characters’ endearing qualities, and even use the occasional lack of seriousness to tiptoe around moments when things could get a little too dramatic.
The West Wing remains one of the funniest dramedies I’ve ever seen, deftly mixing its serious storylines with the sort of witty dialogue and throwaway jokes that put most sitcoms to shame. It’s even capable of crafting episodes that weigh more heavily on the comedic side that the dramatic – the masterfully hilarious “Celestial Navigation” immediately springs to mind, as does laugh-out-loud “Mandatory Minimums”.
True, “Mandatory Minimums” isn’t as comedy-based as “Celestial Navigation”. But no other episode in the first season is packed with as much great laugh-out-loud fodder than this little gut-busting adventure. There’s one key difference, though – while “Celestial Navigation” spent its time laughing at the characters, “Mandatory Minimums” is more inclined to laugh with them.
Following the series-changing events of “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”, we find Bartlet and his administration as they begin to implement Leo’s “Run into walls at full speed” policy. And to many of the staffers, projecting an open-minded, humorous outlook on both their constituents and opponents will go a long way to proving their political mettle. Josh provides the best and bluntest example of the Administration’s newfound energy in the teaser scene, when he offhandedly tells a Republican Senator to “take your legislative agenda and shove it up your ass.”
Sounds a little harsh for a White House Deputy, even one named Josh Lyman? Well, that’s the point. Much of “Mandatory Minimums” finds the characters taking steps to make their mark on Washington, and sometimes overstepping their boundaries in the process. Although they’re intent on moving past their own set of “mandatory minimums”, they run the risk of looking like fools if they take their policy too far.
CJ’s brief slip of the tongue is a summarizing example of the position the administration now finds itself in. After mistakenly telling the press that the President was under no legal obligation to nominate both a Democrat and a Republican to the FEC (he in fact was), she worries if she hasn’t derailed the White House’s bold new policy right off the bat. It’s a side of CJ that meshes nicely with her continuing development – she has grown more assertive in the Press Room over the course of the season, but is still insecure enough about her duties that she can fall back and worry over even minor slipups. There’s also the notion that, following Danny’s obtainment of the incriminating memo in “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”, CJ has become considerably wearier about trusting herself around the reporters.
Sam also shows more of his assertive side in this episode, although his story thread is ultimately less successful. His efforts to one-up the combating Republican Senators are underdeveloped within the context of the episode, leading up to the abrupt (and, on Josh and Toby’s part, improbably deduced) fact that Sam’s opponents are trying to sabotage him through Laurie. This reveal doesn’t click, unfortunately – perhaps it’s because the Laurie plotline has been exhausted beyond reason by this point, or perhaps it’s because, in the annoying Season One tradition, the Republicans are continually portrayed as one-note, conniving, and unintelligent. (Fortunately, later seasons will right both these issues.)
Josh’s storyline is more amiable, in part because his character more naturally open to the idea of a more outgoing administration, and goes with the flow more readily. His chief problem of the day, then, lies with Joey Lucas, and his attempts to impress her without actually “impressing” her. The Josh/Joey material may not be especially deep, but it’s highly entertaining, displaying the most sensitive side we’ve seen of Josh yet. This side will be explored more fully in Season Two, but what we get here does the job quite well, and sets him and Joey up as a nicely entertaining couple.
Speaking of entertaining couples, Andy is introduced in this episode, and the relationship between her and Toby provides us with another highlight. Their relationship is maintained as an undercurrent throughout the episode, but it sets things up rather interestingly. Toby may be divorced, but he still thinks about his ex-wife, as evidenced by the fact that he still wears a wedding band. (Full disclosure here: While viewing the filmed “Pilot”, Aaron Sorkin noticed Richard Schiff was wearing a wedding band in his scenes, and decided to work it into the series.)
Always the professional, Toby is reluctant to socialize with his ex-wife, leading him to steer their conversations toward political talks. His personal awkwardness around Andy leaves him more open to hearing her thoughts on mandatory minimums, a topic he’d usually avoid. And due to the affection he still has for Andy, mixed with his ability to recognize good strategy, he winds up agreeing with her ideas. We don’t usually see Toby willing to compromise for the sake of politics, but the fact that he’s more open to it now tells us a good deal about both his admiration of his wife and the more open-minded position the White House is now developing.
Leo, the initiator of this new position, is unsurprisingly the one who embraces it the most. His culling of the seven Representatives whose relatives got off on drug charges is intriguing due to his motives. Leo could take the opportunity to impose his knowledge as a threat, and give the Congressmen who tried sending him up the river a few months ago a taste of their own medicine. But that just wouldn’t be Leo, would it? No, he uses the information to make things clear to the opposing party that the White House can’t be faulted as being soft on drugs. Moments like these cement Leo as the great character he is, one who not only avoids dirty politics, but is able to use their implements in a positive manner.
There are a lot of individual threads in this episode, as we watch each character attempt – with varying degrees of success – to adjust to their self-imposed new policy. There may seem to be a little too much going on, but that’s just a byproduct of the episode’s thematic structure. Rather than present a conflict and show the characters as they try solving it, “Mandatory Minimums” puts emphasis on the diversity of the cast, displaying each character’s individual response to the show’s adjusted scenario. This loose structure allows the episode more freedom than most Season One outings, making this quite the enjoyable experience.
And the icing on this scrumptious cake is Jed Bartlet, who, in a scene echoing that at the end of the “Pilot”, finds himself in a gathering of all his closest staffers, and quells their fears with a few words of wisdom. Bartlet finds himself comfortably setting his new objectives, as evidenced in an earlier scene where he dismisses the foreboding warnings of Al Kiefer. (Kiefer, both here and in “20 Hours in LA”, appears to exist solely to give advice to the President which he can then promptly ignore.) He’s even sleeping more comfortably now, a telling message that he and his administration are on the right track.
“Mandatory Minimums” projects this message fluidly, and with a great dose of humor. Regrettably, this asset also keeps the episode from rising to true greatness. By maintaining a flippant tone throughout its run, the episode undercuts a chance at truly effective drama, and thus it primarily works as follow-through. But as far as that goes, I admit, it works very well indeed.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Sam trying – and failing – to give Josh romantic advice.
+ Toby criticizing Sam’s writing.
+ Margaret, our most celebrated “Minor Pros” resident, lining up her stationary.
+ Josh’s regular Tuesday suit.
+ Joey (Kenny) telling Josh in a crowded hallway that she’s not sleeping with Kiefer anymore.
+ Andy taking about one of her dates, and Toby trying not to react.
– On the list of “Non-Pathetic Lines to End Arguments With”, “Girl scouts sell cookies, not cupcakes” is unsurprisingly absent.
* Josh tells Joey that the White House “is not a place for personal things”. This subtly hints at his Season Two arc, where he tries to hide his personal trauma from being shot in “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part I)” from his coworkers.