[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Laura Glasser | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 03/27/2002]
“It’s the classic Washington scandal. We screwed up by telling the truth.” – CJ
Just the mentioning of Aaron Sorkin’s name in discussion of influential television scribes will raise a few eyebrows in indignation. Certainly, Sorkin has utilized television – and film as well – to leave an impression on the general viewing public, but despite his writing talents, there are many who can’t get past some of his surface issues: his incessant preaching, his grandstanding liberalism, and, most notably, his use of screenwriting as a means of settling personal scores.
Sorkin is not the only famed television writer to fold his scripts into paper airplanes and chuck them at his personal foes – Matthew Weiner launched a shot at his old Becker boss in an episode of The Sopranos, and David Simon took numerous digs at his former newspaper employers in the last two seasons of The Wire. But Sorkin’s jabs have gained more attention, thanks in part to their frequency and variety of targets, as well as their often blatant self-righteousness. That self-righteousness was on display in the infamous Sam/Ainsley subplot of “Night Five” [3×13], and it’s even more obvious in “The US Poet Laureate”, perhaps the single most self-righteous West Wing episode ever aired.
Given my clear love of the series, you may expect me to strike an immediate defensive pose and declare that the episode is not as insulting in its condescension and self-satisfaction as people say. But honestly? This episode is actually more condescending and self-satisfying than people say. It’s just that condescension and self-satisfaction are not necessarily the makings of a truly bad episode.
Granted, there are times when that self-satisfaction can prove Sorkin’s undoing – the “Hindsight is 20/20” mentality behind The Newsroom got really old, really fast – but in The West Wing, and in Season Three in particular, it finds an inviting home. A major component of this season is the way the Bartlet administration has become blindsided to its own internal faults – “Dead Irish Writers” [3×15] perfectly captured the staffers’ cognitive dissonance – and so a bit of overcompensating smugness doesn’t feel out of place. “The US Poet Laureate” is thus a shamelessly showy episode, dragging its characters into controversial spotlights both with and without their consent.
The West Wing has toyed with the influence of media since its early days (I discussed its effects back in my review of “Take Out the Trash Day” [1×13]), but never before has it felt so brash in its deconstruction. This is exemplified by Bartlet, who, in the episode’s teaser sequence, makes a degrading remark about Republican Presidential nominee Robert Ritchie to an interviewing newswoman, apparently without realizing the camera is still recording. The ensuing media frenzy is predictable – CJ fields the same questions from reporters for three straight days – but in the end, we learn that Bartlet’s verbal shot may not have been quite so unintentional. Following his brutally honest conversation with Toby in “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14], Bartlet still has the “I think you foul (the pitch) off” line ringing in his ears, and in this episode, he decides to stand up and do something unexpectedly bold.
It’s a clever political move, one that can be handwaved by the White House as an example of “People sometimes say things they shouldn’t” with only a minimal level of damage. Sure, Bartlet is set to be reprimanded by Congress for his remark, but he even works that to his advantage – by not showing up at the Capitol, on the excuse that he’s busy handling a pressing international issue (this week: the overuse of foreign oil), he actually makes himself look better in the eyes of the public.
Too often in the past, the staffers have had their aspirations curbed by their image-conscious sensibilities. The first half of Season Three may have seen them growing self-destructively high on their idealistic objectives, but following Bartlet’s censure in “H. Con-172” [3×10], they’ve had their goals curtailed by the need to regain favor in the public eye. What Bartlet does in this episode may not be admirable at the surface, but his cunning ice-pick stab at the opposition is just the kind of energy jolt the White House desperately needs.
Because, judging by the other storylines in this episode, the staffers are the most image-conscious they’ve been since the pre-“Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19] era. In trying to salvage the President’s reputation, for example, Sam coaxes Ainsley into accepting a promotion in order to remind the populace that Bartlet doesn’t think dismissively of all Republicans. Ainsley’s criticisms as to the nature of this move – she’s getting a promotion she didn’t earn on her own – bespeaks the administration’s desire to make themselves look as unapologetically good as possible. Sam’s defense with regard to Bartlet’s comment only further suggests the manufactured nature of the White House’s response. “For everybody who works outside the building, I’ll fall on the sword,” he tells Ainsley. “For everybody who works inside the building, I wasn’t there!”
It’s in scenes like this that “The US Poet Laureate” attempts to both have its cake and eat it, simultaneously pegging the Bartlet administration as both wrong and right. Rob Ritchie, in what few snippets we’ve gleaned on him thus far, is none too bright a candidate, and even Ainsley admits that he’s based more around instinct than intellect. Yet Ritchie’s lack of brainpower is treated as such a given in context of the story that almost no dramatic tension is generated by watching the administration attempt to recover from the President’s comments. Burdened with opposing concepts, the primary storyline of the episode never fully takes hold – an issue that will only grow more prevalent in the early episodes of Season Four.
But that’s not the only instance where this episode’s intentions fly sharply against what shows up onscreen. There’s also the running subplot in which Josh discovers a fansite devoted to him – the adorably-named “LemonLyman” – and decides to drop in for a chat. Things, as can be expected, quickly go south. This storyline has become one of the most controversial in Sorkin’s West Wing tenure – it was reportedly inspired by some heated online arguments Sorkin had with a few television fans . His scripted response to the incident is quite funny, and CJ’s berating of Josh keeps firmly in line with the episode’s image-conscious theme… but it also rings hollow, even without the real-life context, as the Internet commenters are portrayed as off-settingly harsh and obtuse. (Personally, I feel that people who comment on the Internet are usually thoughtful and intelligent. If you disagree, please respond in the comments.)
Much of the episode’s self-gratifying content could easily have made it a grating experience – and yet, surprisingly, it’s redeemed by the titular character. Tabitha Fortis is very much an embodied avatar for Sorkin – a writer who’s known to stir up controversy, despite the fact that she consistently professes only the desire to tell the truth. Taking that description on its own, the character could have easily been an insufferable example of Sorkin making a manipulative sympathy plea. Why, then, does she work?
Throughout “The US Poet Laureate”, we watch our characters make every effort to be in the right. Bartlet is “right” when he knocks Ritchie’s intelligence. Sam is “right” when he convinces Ainsley to support the White House. Josh is “right” when he preaches to the misinformed LemonLyman community. Even CJ goes out of her way to show Charlie that she’s “right” when it comes to the flaws in Ritchie’s oil plan. The issue here is not that some of these story threads feel half-baked (though they do), but that their one-sided use of gung-ho values makes our heroes come off as a tad vainglorious.
Which is precisely why Tabitha clicks. Of all the opponents the Bartlet administration faces in this episode, she is the only one not proven to be entirely wrongheaded. When she opens up to Toby at the end of the episode, it actually engenders more sympathy to her problem, more than any other character in the episode – including any of the show’s protagonists. And one only needs to swap Tabitha with Sorkin in this scenario to see the episode’s ultimate kicker: No matter how “right” his characters may be, Sorkin is still above them. He is, in a sense, the rightest one of all.
It’s the kind of brazen writing worthy of an ovation. Too often, Sorkin is derided for his potshots – and at times rightfully so. But “The US Poet Laureate” features one of the most magnificently executed potshots ever televised, and for all the flaws the episode may contain, it deserves a nod for that awe-inspiring level of audacity.
“The US Poet Laureate” may stress one-sided viewpoints, and I’m inclined to follow its level of thinking. But as an online critic who values fairness in argument above all else, I’ve chosen to adopt a more generous line of thought. A detailed and fascinating history of what first inspired this episode, written by one of Sorkin’s less-admiring fans, can be found here.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ CJ referring to Toby as “de Bergerac”.
+ Donna, on Internet commenters: “What Josh doesn’t know is that some of these people haven’t taken their medication.”
+ Bartlet mutilating the lyrics to “Makin’ Whoopee”.
+ CJ’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest analogy.
+ CJ referring Charlie as both “Chuckles” and “Chipper”.
* CJ calling out Josh for commenting on the LemonLyman website despite his asserted credentials (“Technically, I outrank you…”) is a sign that she’s got no problems talking down to more senior staff members, and is indicative of her future upward mobility.
* Accidental Foreshadowing: Bartlet’s line in the teaser (“Rob Ritchie? I don’t know him very well”) pretty much summarizes what will be the underlying problem of the upcoming reelection arc.