[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Peter Parnell & Allison Abner | Director: Ken Olin | Aired: 10/25/2000]
“Don’t call them worthless.” – Ainsley
Every once in a while, I get into an argument with a relative or acquaintance of mine about The West Wing, and why they don’t like it. The reason I’m most commonly given is not that it’s poorly written or acted, but rather, that “it’s too liberal.” (The majority of my relatives and acquaintances fall under the conservative side of the banner, whereas I settle somewhere in the middle.)
Now, I’m certainly not going to say that The West Wing is not overtly a liberal show, because it certainly is. However, I’m a bit perplexed by this reasoning. For a variety of reasons that are simultaneously too vague and complicated to explain here, the majority of television in some way skews toward a liberal perspective. In fact, with the exception of 24, it’s difficult to find a popular 21st-century network drama that doesn’t lean toward the left.
My support of the liberalism on The West Wing is for the way that series executes it. Shows like Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife, and Grey’s Anatomy often feature liberal messages, but they’re usually buried beneath the overall storylines. The West Wing, on the other hand, lays down its weapons right from the start – it’s a show centered on a Democratic President. It knows it’s a liberal show, and it knows the viewers know it. There’s no case to be made for shifty, underhanded messages, because the means for these messages forms the backbone to the show.
The truth is, I don’t believe the complaint fully lies in the show’s portrayal of liberalism. Rather, it comes from the way it portrays conservatism. The opposite party, as we’ve so far seen it on the show, has consisted of little more than paper-thin human targets for our protagonists to aim at, from the naïve right-wing religious pundits in the “Pilot” [1×01] to the hapless Dr. Schlesinger caricature in “The Midterms” [2×03]. Characters like these tend to inspire the most vehemence in conservative viewers, who see them as mockeries of their beliefs.
And it was this vehemence that pushed Sorkin to create Ainsley Hayes, a Republican character who proves to be intelligent, thoughtful, and a worthy addition to the Bartlet Administration. “In This White House” serves as her introductory episode – and, regrettably, it’s nothing short of problematic.
The idea behind Ainsley’s introduction fits easily with the theme of the season – Bartlet’s new, more open-minded policy has inspired him to bring in a member of the opposite party, not in order to be “politically correct”, but because he honestly believes that she would be a strong addition to the administration. Bartlet’s policy may veer on bipartisan, but in hiring her, he aims to show that focusing on the similarities between the two major parties can be more beneficial than focusing on the differences.
The problem with the episode’s execution, however, is that it’s all simply too pat. Every action regarding Ainsley’s interview and subsequent hiring is pointedly punctuated to make us clearly understand how incredibly groundbreaking the idea of a Democratic President hiring a Republican is. And each of these overbaked ideas serves only to undercut the personal aspect of the event, as they’re all set up so ham-handedly and predictably. Sam at first finds the idea of going toe-to-toe with “a leggy blonde Republican” ludicrous… only for her to trounce him on live television. CJ is outraged at the idea of a Republican being hired onto the White House legal counsel… only to soften once Ainsley gives her some applicable legal advice. And Ainsley herself initially rolls her eyes at the idea of working for the administration so often that you expect her pupils to launch into orbit… only to come to the alarming conclusion that the White House is in fact filled with thoughtful and caring people, a fact she unsubtly speechifies over dinner to her two one-note, sarcastic Republican friends. (Incidentally, I don’t think the conservative viewers who complained about the series were particularly happy with the way the non-Ainsley Republicans in this episode were portrayed.)
Buried somewhere beneath the manipulative, ham-fisted writing is a story about how bipartisanship can be a positive if handled correctly, but the message collapses beneath its heavy-handed surface. Even when writing strong Republican characters, Sorkin always seems a little too self-conscious, and his fallacies are particularly evident in this early attempt. (Team Wells would do a far better job of balancing the two parties when the need arose, most notably in “The Supremes” [5×17] and “The Last Hurrah” [7×20].) Even the follow-up to this episode, “And It’s Surely to Their Credit” [2×05], is a marked improvement, equipping itself with a sense of humor in showing the integration of Ainsley into the staff, and avoiding the self-serious execution that bogs down this episode.
Fortunately, “In This White House” is not a complete loss, as the episode’s other running storyline proves to be both emotionally compelling and thematically relevant. President Nimbala, the leader of a small third-world country, is the latest leader to come seeking Bartlet’s assistance, and he certainly has reason. Equatorial Kundu (a fictional African nation, though sadly not very far off from some real ones) is in desperate need of medical aid, and the US is the most reliable candidate to provide it. And Bartlet’s staff is only too determined to break through the barriers set up by the FDA in order to help Nimbala’s country. Unfortunately, as debates and discussions progress, it becomes clear that Kundu is simply too third-world to be helped. Between their relatively brief life expectancies and the fact that most of them haven’t the means to know the specific times they should take their pills, the people of Kundu are simply too far down the worldly ladder to be helped by the US. (Tidily, this continues the theme of “too much power” from “The Midterms” [2×03].)
It’s not easy to watch as Josh and Toby are stonewalled at their every attempt to send aid to Kundu. But even more difficult to view is Nimbala himself. As he implies to the staffers in his own broken English, Nimbala is not a begging man, and it hurts him to solicit assistance from another country. We also get the sense of the clear bond he has to his people – even after civil war (reminiscent of the 1994 Rwandan genocide) breaks out in his country, he still believes he can reason with those responsible, ands help his country through this most difficult time.
This glint of idealistic thinking parallels Nimbala with another President we’ve come to know. And indeed, the drama of this story is especially potent because of the similarities between Nimbala and Bartlet. Nimbala’s attitude – that if he pushes hard enough, he can right even the most insuperable of his country’s issues – alludes to Bartlet’s adoptive policy in Season Two, and his uneasiness at asking for assistance mirrors Bartlet’s staunchness in the face of peril. Perhaps most subtly, Nimbala is shown to be concerned about what his father would think of his pleading for help – hinting at Bartlet’s own personal father issues, which are brought to the forefront in “Two Cathedrals” [2×22].
Bartlet and Nimbala are similar men, but they come from very different backgrounds, as evidenced by the final scene of the episode. The news that Nimbala was executed by a group of his own people is heartbreaking, and it leaves Bartlet in distress, despite the fact that he all but knew it would happen. He and his administration could only sit by with their hands tied as they watched another President try and ultimately fail to help his country, despite the best of intentions. Idealistic thinking, though admirable in many respects, is not an objective suited for everyone. Bartlet recognizes this, and on top of being saddened by the death of a man who shared his ideals, he is given just the faintest bit of doubt about his new policy.
Between this moving, thoughtful story about Nimbala and the heavy-handed, self-conscious story about Ainsley, “In This White House” is a decidedly mixed bag. Its relevance to the season’s themes pushes it into above-average territory, but just barely. Above all, we can find merit even in the episode’s faults, which serve as a cautionary tale – try to end up pleasing both the reds and the blues, and you may just end up with a whole lot of purple prose.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Josh and Toby reacting to Sam’s on-air debate with Ainsley.
+ CJ clucking at Sam. (Between this and Donna in “20 Hours in LA” [1×16], the White House women certainly know their way around a chicken impression.)
+ There is an elephant in Gail’s fishbowl, alluding to the Republican angle of this episode. Oh, you awesome Gail, you.
+ CJ screaming where there are people.
+ Leo banging on his door while Margaret stands right on the other side.
+ Ainsley, despite her better nature, accepting a Scotch with Leo.
– Godfrey: “Sam, this one might know something.” Ouch.
– Leo: “You go, girl.” Double ouch.
– Sam’s insecurity around the women in the White House is initially funny, but quickly grows tiring.
* CJ is deeply concerned when she accidentally leaks covert information to a reporter, only to finally learn that she has nothing to worry about. This quietly sets up a major facet of her arc the season, in which she will go to great lengths to preserve her position in the White House, often too concerned to see the big picture for herself.
* In the teaser, Sam makes a brief reference to a politician named “Stackhouse”. This could easily refer to Senator Howard Stackhouse, the obstinate official who plays important roles in “The Stackhouse Filibuster” [2×17] and “The Red Mass” [4×04].