West Wing 1×21: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Don Scardino | Aired: 05/10/2000]

I’m about to say something that will probably shock a lot of you. There’s a good chance that it will knock your socks off. Are you wearing socks? They’re about to be knocked off. Ready? Okay, here goes: Real-life politicians are not exactly like the ones on The West Wing.

Did I just blow you mind? It’s pretty astonishing to contemplate, but… wait. Wait. Why don’t I hear any jaws dropping?

Okay, okay. It’s not exactly a secret that the characters that populate the hallowed White House halls of this TV series aren’t honest-to-goodness representations of the kind you watch on cable news. For one thing, they’re far more idealized. Unlike the politicians in real life, West Wing officials rarely embrace the thought of devious political strategy. There’s little to nothing in the way of bribing, scandals, or illicit activity. On the rare occasion that a character does do something acutely ignoble, we get the immediate sense that their actions are wrong, and must be swiftly remedied.

This, we can discern, is a key factor to the show’s appeal. By portraying strong-willed and intelligent politicians, the series crafts a world that – while a fantasy by nature – is instantly compelling to anyone who’s ever shouted a string of vulgar swear words at the talking heads on CNN. (What, you’ve never?) The West Wing distinguishes itself from the pack by offering up a fresh new world… and letting us dream of achieving it.

But there’s more to it than that. Detractors of The West Wing have criticized the show’s optimism as simplistic, even condescending, to a world filled with constant large-scale threats. But in actuality, the brightness of the series does not merely exist as an easily comforting antidote to the real world. In fact, Sorkin and his writing team have used the series’ optimism to create some of the best drama in recent television.

Allow me to elaborate. The title of the first season’s penultimate episode refers to a quote made famous by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The quote is a sardonic jab at the power of numbers in convincing people of certain arguments. Can statistics, the quote implies, be objectively trusted?

It’s a cynical quote, if you think about it, particularly taken in this context. The Bartlet administration spends the duration of the episode worrying about their polling status, only to joyfully learn at the end that their approval rating has actually gone up nine points. The story thus ends on a sharply optimistic note. So what kind of pessimism is the episode drudging up by giving itself a title that speaks pointedly about statistics being false?

No kind, actually. The title “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics” alludes to the bulk of the episode, which features a surprising number of lies. Sam lies to Toby when he agrees not to meet Laurie. Charlie lies to the President when he denies knowing Ambassador Cochran. Leo lies to Barry Haskell when he tells him that their meeting in the White House is not a form of coercion. Although their motives in each case are reasonable, it’s surprising – unsettling, even – to see the characters we’ve spent a whole season coming to know and respect as honest individuals suddenly resorting to untruth.

But lies – even damn lies – are understandable at this point in the series, when the Bartlet administration is testing the limits of its powers and trying to make their mark on the country. As evidenced by the Leo/Barry example, it’s not an easy task, as questionable means are almost inevitable in their employment.

Bartlet recognizes this, although it takes him some time. He grapples with the problem of firing the adulterous Ambassador Cochran, and searches for a back door with which to bench the man without dealing with the fallout that will come from admitting the true reason. But by episode’s end, he’s become more accustomed to resolving political disputes with honesty. This is verified by that wonderful scene where he meets with Senator Lobell, and the two reach an agreement by being honest with each other. By labeling each other, respectively, as a “lily-livered bleeding-heart liberal egghead communist” and a “gun-totin’ redneck son-of-a-#####”, Bartlet and Lobell are able to communicate amicably, addressing important issues without having things heat up.

In exchange for his support of the FEC candidates, what does Bartlet offer Lobell in return? Simply but honestly, “the thanks of a grateful President.” Rounding out the theme of the episode, Lobell smilingly replies, “Good answer, sir.”

Given the way the lies of this episode tie into its themes, we can view its use of statistics in a more positive light. The statistics in the episode are meant to be objectified, because with all the instability the administration is currently going through, they need some semblance of concrete evidence to rely upon. Statistics are thus used here as a counterpoint to lies, proving to have the final, honest word.

More tellingly, they’re used to progress the arc of CJ, who continues to grow into one of the show’s most interesting characters. CJ is at a crossroads, trying to step up and be a part of the Bartlet team, but still struggling with insecurities. She blames herself for not properly taking care of Mandy’s damaging memo, and fears the rest of the staff feels the same way. When Leo omits her polling prediction – that their approval rating will go up five points – from his briefing to Bartlet, she’s concerned, wondering whether or not she’s properly done her job.

Two things stand out about CJ in this episode, both which allude toward her future developments. The first revolves around her continuing concern of trying to keep things in line and not upset her coworkers. The other, subtler development is displayed in her notably positive outlook. Whereas Josh, Sam, and Toby all predict little to no change in their approval ratings, CJ holds out hope that the country will begin seeing the President in a better light. CJ’s optimism is on display at several points throughout the series – I’ll cite her “egg balancing theory” from “Evidence of Things Not Seen” [4×20] as a personal favorite – and will be a key functioning aspect of her long-term arc.

Amassing all the thematic resonance to be found here, it appears we’ve got a pretty solid episode. Why, then, am I not fully satisfied? Well, a large part lies with the execution. Though the episode grapples with some heady themes, it delivers them in the lightweight fancy-free manner that’s a little too common in Season One. An episode dealing with the themes of lying and its consequences has a great deal of potential, and could be more durably examined with the dramatically weighty tone of Season Two, or the uneasy, foreboding tone of Season Three.

As it stands, there are too many missed opportunities in this episode to elevate it into greatness, which is disappointing, considering its placement in the season. The episode is content to press its theme forward and provide some character progression, but with little major impact and a foregone conclusion (Did anyone out there not guess that Bartlet’s approval rating would go up?) it’s not one of the season’s more memorable episodes.

But that’s not to say it’s completely disposable, either. “Lies, Damn Les, and Statistics” is a story about the struggles to remain honest and good-willed in the face of changing policy. It takes the characters we’ve come to grow and love and pushes them into harsher positions, hinting at larger, less easily resolvable conflicts to come. The story never quite lives up to its promise, but it’s an interesting exercise in the art of political strife, and an early example of how the show’s optimism gives it an edge over its television competitors. More importantly, as we’ll see in later seasons, the positive outlook of the series adds weight to its drama, giving its more serious and damaging storylines far greater impact than those you’ll find on other TV shows. Or, for that matter, CNN.

 


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Margaret waiting… and waiting… and waiting…
+ Rodney doing that thing he was doing before.
+ Leo introducing a flustered Barry to the President.
+ Joey responding to Josh’s long-winded question about ethnic warfare in a rather… unprofessional way.

– The Sam/Laurie plot is so very, very exhausted by this point. Thankfully, this is the last time the series makes use of it, but it’s still the shallowest aspect of the episode.


Foreshadowing

* Toby acknowledges that he is feeling a “big brotherly connection” toward Sam, and hopes it will soon go away. In the very next episode, we find that Toby does not have a very strong connection with his actual younger brother.


[Score]

B-

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1 thought on “West Wing 1×21: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics”

  1. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on July 21, 2016.]

    You say there’s thematic resonance here but the issue is that the episode is a little too light-hearted in its execution.

    I kind of see it another way, that the thematic resonance is nice to make a paragraph essay about, as you did a very good job pointing out here, but not all that meaningful. Politicians lie, but the truth is found in what their constituents think of them, isn’t really the jaw-dropping thematic material that a political show can build a great episode around.

    That said, I think this episode was quite well executed for the most part, though why the Sam and Laurie thing needed to come back and give me a headache, I’m not sure.

    Like

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