[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. | Director: Lou Antonio | Aired: 01/24/2001]
“We can’t govern if we don’t win.” – Toby
Back in the early days of television, there weren’t many shows, but there were a whole lot of episodes. During the Fifties, Wagon Train and early seasons of Gunsmoke regularly churned out nearly forty episodes every season, airing with only scant summer breaks. As the years went on, however, yearly orders went down. The standard seasonal order became 26 episodes, and then 22. Around the turn of the 21st century, cable introduced the 13-episode format to the common viewing public, allowing for even tighter running storylines with less in the way of filler, and numerous recent cable shows have aired seasons with 10 episodes or fewer. (If this trend continues, I wouldn’t be surprised if we someday have a thousand TV shows on the air at once, each airing one episode per year.)
The West Wing aired concurrently with the cable revolution, and although it faced heavy competition from The Sopranos and its kin, it managed, for the most part, to sustain dramatic momentum over the course of 22 episodes each year. (I say “for the most part” because Season Five exists.) Nowhere is this more evident than in Season Two, which successfully keeps up its engrossing paces from start to finish. But with that many episodes, even the finest season can be afflicted by the occasional relative hiccup.
“The Drop-In” is an episode with some interesting concepts but an overall limp execution. Thematically, it serves as a transitional episode, contrasting the fallout from the “running into walls” policy with the methods of the Committee to Reelect the President. And if there’s a general lack of excitement surrounding the proceedings, “The Drop-In” at least creates some interest in demonstrating how similar the two are.
Watch Toby and Leo as they go about their work this episode. Toby is subconsciously dealing with the fallout from his screw-up in “The Leadership Breakfast” [2×11], an unenviable task for any White House employee. But he and Leo have realized that the nature of this screw-up is a sign that the Bartlet administration needs to change gears and start prepping to run for a second term. This is why we see Leo, despite Bartlet’s good-natured teasing, determined to prove that the military’s ICBMs work perfectly fine. Leo’s rationale boils down to “confidence” – an important distinction, as confidence has been slowly ebbing away from the Bartlet administration over these last few weeks.
Bartlet himself puts on a humorous air during the proceedings, comparing Leo to Charlie Brown and the whole situation to Lucy’s football, but Leo understands the humor to be a byproduct of the President’s current concerns. Bartlet is trying to alleviate any stress as the prospect of reelection draws nearer, and thus Leo burdens himself with the responsibility, taking on any problems that come along with it. Good sport that he is, he even tolerates Bartlet’s cheerful attempts to irritate him by way of bringing Lord John Marbury into the White House, although he needs some assistance from Josh and Donna to cope with the boisterous Briton.
Toby, though, hasn’t quite the same luck as Leo does in setting his “Reelection” footprint into the ground, mostly because he has to contend with Sam. Although Sam is never the show’s most fully developed character, there’s one thing we’ve known about him since the early days of Season One: he loves speechwriting. To an almost neurotic degree, in fact. And when he obsesses over a speech the President is scheduled to give to an environmental group, we understand his concerns to make it reflect on the administration as idealistically as possible. (While several of his coworkers have become disheartened by their stonewalled attempts at political progression, Sam still maintains an optimistic gleam in his eye – a telling sign that he, more than any other Bartlet staffer, will someday follow in the President’s footsteps.)
Toby switches out Sam’s speech in favor of one that will likely bring them more supporters come the ’02 election, feeling that they already have the environmental lobby in the bag and shouldn’t risk rocking the boat. But his actions come at the expense of his Deputy’s trust. It’s a saddening moment to see Sam betrayed not only by Toby, but CJ and Charlie as well, simply because he was trying to do what he felt was honestly right. But it’s a moment of thematic clarity as we realize that what’s right for these people isn’t always what’s best.
The point gets driven home in the episode’s final story thread, in which CJ is tasked to meet with popular stand-up comedian Corey Sykes and politely ask him not to host a dinner which the President will be attending, for fear that the press will use the opportunity to drudge up an incident from a few years back: At a Bartlet campaign fundraiser, Sykes made a potentially inappropriate joke which then-candidate Bartlet failed to disavow.
That CJ would take up this task is about the finest proof we need to realize how much the Bartlet administration has regressed since the beginning of the season, as they’re now even fearful of a minor-scale, two-year-old political event. To make matters worse, as Sykes points out, the fact that they had willfully tried covering up the fact that Bartlet enjoyed the original joke, to the point of tarnishing Sykes’ reputation, only paints their attempts to avoid a further fiasco in an increasingly negative light. Hearing Sykes’ criticisms, CJ realizes he has a point – the Bartlet administration has regressed to the state they were in at their earliest days, with none of the backbone they so baldly insisted on showing this season.
With CJ arriving at the same conclusion that Leo and Toby did only one episode earlier, it’s only a matter of time before she joins their little committee, at least in spirit. And how fitting that she, perhaps the most quietly perceptive member of Bartlet’s staff, should arrive at this conclusion through such simplistic means as a chat with a stand-up comedian.
But then, simplicity is an integral aspect of “The Drop-In”. For all its thematic depth, it never transforms into a genuinely gripping episode, instead keeping things very low-key and passively entertaining. This, we can muse, is a consequence of the seasonal size – when you’re making 22 episodes a year, not every one of them can be truly riveting. “The Drop-In” very much feels “dropped in” to the season as a whole – it comes along, does its job, and then exits stage right, leaving us ready to get back to the meatier portions of Season Two.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ As I’ve stated before, I love Lord John Marbury. He’s loopy, unpredictable, and hilariously rude. If more British people were like Marbury, the UK would be a whole lot more fun.
+ Bartlet’s entire Charlie-Brown-and-the-football comparison, up to and including Leo advising him not to refer to any of the Defense generals as “Lucy”.
+ Josh relaxing against his office wall… until Donna slams the door in his face.
+ Marbury’s best moment of the episode: Stating that he requires some amusement, right before Donna shows up.
+ On the chance that any British people are going to be reading this Minor Pros section, I’m going to take the opportunity to apologize for any potentially offensive comments it may contain.
– Boy, when it comes to off-handed continuity, events in the “Pilot” [1×01] episode get referenced a lot in the early seasons, don’t they? I mean, here we have Leo bringing up the way Bartlet chewed out Reverend Caldwell, despite the fact that it happened a year and a half ago. Wouldn’t he be more inclined to remember a more recent, similar incident (like, say, Bartlet chewing out Jenna Jacobs)? It seems as though this and the falling-off-the-bicycle incident are the only minor events brought up for long-term continuity on the show. Weak.