[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Paul Redford | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/30/2002]
“I’m not sure I can watch anymore. No, wait, I can. I can.” – Toby
One of television’s oddest coincidences occurred just a couple of months after the airing of “Game On”. In January 2003, NBC premiered a drama titled Mister Sterling, a show centered on an idealistic US Senator. Created by West Wing writer Lawrence O’Donnell, Mister Sterling certainly shared a few similarities with the other NBC political drama, to the point that some speculated if the show was in fact set in the same universe as that of President Bartlet. (The President on Sterling was identified as a Democrat, but never named.)
Where’s the coincidence, you ask? Well, the title character of this little-known show was played by Josh Brolin – son of James Brolin, who played Robert Ritchie for all of two scenes on The West Wing. Politics must run in the family – as, apparently, do unpopular views. At one point during the debate scene in “Game On”, Ritchie states his desire to unite Republicans and Democrats. “Americans are tired of partisan politics,” he says.
There’s no internal thought given to Ritchie’s line there – as a character, he is a cardboard cutout of a cardboard cutout, and his line is in the script only so Bartlet can respond with a quote-unquote Awesome Retort. But the line unintentionally alludes to the impending arrival and ultimate failure of Mister Sterling, which was canned after only ten episodes. Sterling didn’t believe in partisan politics – its protagonist identified as an independent, much to the aggravation of the unwitting Democrats who elected him. Though the series tried to deliver bold, idealistic drama in the vein of The West Wing, it failed – as similarly-charged political dramas like Commander-in-Chief and First Monday failed – because it chose not to pick a political side.
Though the liberalism of The West Wing can at times grate in its self-righteousness, it is an important factor of the show’s dramatic weight. With our characters firmly rooted in one party, there is palpable tension as we watch them go up against the other. (One of the great failings of Season Five, in fact, is that it chooses to drift in the middle of the road, as John Wells forsook the show’s single-minded political bent for a more bipartisan flavor.)
But there is a way to use the theory of two-party opposition to craft great drama, and there is a way to disconnect it from said drama entirely. And when that happens, the results can simply be catastrophic.
“Game On” is widely regarded as one of the best episodes in all of The West Wing, and its lofty reputation will doubtlessly make the remainder of this review discomforting for some of its more ardent fans to read. Nevertheless, in condemning “Game On”, I mean not to merely write it off as a bad episode of The West Wing – rather, I wish to use the episode’s failures as a cautionary tale for the mechanisms of political drama.
The problems with “Game On” began long before the episode itself. Even in its stellar third season, the show’s treatment of the reelection arc was markedly two-dimensional, showing the Bartlet administration contending with a threat from the opposition that was never fully fleshed out or developed. But the show had other arcs worthy of more direct focus at the time, and “Posse Comitatus” [3×21] showed signs that the series planned to address the storyline with more dramatic emphasis, properly introducing Bartlet’s Republican rival and setting up some potentially meatier showdowns between the two of them in the future.
But thus far in Season Four, as the reelection arc has taken central focus, the show has inexplicably tried to avoid plumbing it for meaty drama at every possible opportunity. Ritchie has remained a non-entity – to the point that only one debate was scheduled between him and Bartlet – and episodes like “The Red Mass” [4×04] cut whatever dramatic corners they can to avoid treating the seriousness of the election with any substantial effect. “Debate Camp” [4×05] marked the first time this season gleaned any meaningful development from the arc – and unfortunately, it would be the last time.
The troubles with the reelection arc are summed up in the frustrating teaser sequence that opens “Game On”. Because Ritchie poses no visible threat as a character or political opponent, our only possible source of drama would be through Bartlet’s own self-doubts and insecurities. Though the teaser appears to be setting Bartlet up as one nervous and incompetent in the face of public debate, his anxieties are quickly revealed to be part of an elaborate prank the staffers are pulling on Toby, the only member of the team who is truly concerned about Bartlet’s election chances. Any developments the show has been setting up by repeatedly voicing Toby’s concerns since “20 Hours in America (Part I)” [4×01] get chucked straight out the window before “Game On” even reaches the opening credits. “Don’t worry,” the episode seems to be telling us. “There’s nothing for anyone to be concerned about.” How thoughtful, I suppose.
At its core, “Game On” is an episode that doesn’t invest in its own central plot. This wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if that plot weren’t so pivotal to the series at large, but the question of whether or not Bartlet will be getting another four years in office should not be handwaved so callously. Yet instead of giving rise to Toby’s earlier concerns, the episode spends time with Toby proposing to Andy, whom he impregnated without any prior seasonal buildup or indication. “Game On” attempts to treat Toby’s courtship of Andy lightly, but because we’ve only now been very abruptly introduced to this new story development, it rings hollow, and there are no serious relationship undertones for the comedy to play off.
“Game On” may not be interested in developing relationships, but it certainly has a way with hollowing out characters. And not just in the case of the main cast – even a minor character like Albie Duncan, who in “Gone Quiet” [3×06] was portrayed as a cynical but well-seasoned politician, is here reduced to a pale Lord John Marbury clone, leveling foolish criticisms that don’t feel weighty or substantiated. CJ eventually comes around to respecting him, but it’s only through her own PR-manipulating efforts. Duncan, for his part, seems to exist in this episode only to assert that not all Republicans on The West Wing are – well, you get the idea.
Even some of the episode’s better material is harmed by context. Leo’s scenes with the Qumari Ambassador are among the episode’s most gripping, as they show us a debate in which the two participants are quite evenly matched. Leo brings up an unsettling point in the fact that Bartlet would likely gain support from Americans if he revealed his complicity in Shareef’s assassination, recalling the darker undertones that permeated Season Three. But the drama is undercut when the televised Presidential debate (more on that shortly) enters the conversation, reminding us that Leo’s arguments here are rooted in epic fantasy.
The near-blinding idealism of “Game On” does have one upside, however – it allows the episode to more smoothly introduce us to Will Bailey. A man willing to campaign even after the Congressman he’s supporting dies seems over-the-top even by this show’s typical standards, but it’s dwarfed in comparison to some of the other overdramatized brightness of “Game On”. Will Bailey is a character whom The West Wing will never quite figure out how to use properly, but he’s still a likable presence, and he has a fairly likable introduction.
That said, Will’s earnestness still doesn’t click with the convictions of the other characters, whose support of Bartlet is here reduced to the utterance of the episode’s simple titular phrase. “Game on!” implies some level of increased tension and competition, but no matter how many characters speak the line (Josh, Sam, Leo, and even Abbey each get their turn to use the tiresome cliché), the drama in this episode never grows convincingly palpable.
Well… that’s not entirely true. To its credit, “Game On” does feature one – and only one – moment in which the drama catches up to the onscreen proceedings. I’m referring to the moment when, immediately before Bartlet is set to go onstage, Abbey grabs a pair of scissors and cuts his tie. “I don’t think I’ve done enough to help you prepare for this debate,” she reasons. (Much ado is made about neckties in the episode in general; there’s probably an essay to be written about how the characters’ obsession of such a superficial clothing item toes into the relatively superficial nature of the episode, but I won’t be the one writing it.) It’s a very brief scene, played for comedy, with a conflict quickly resolved and forgotten – yet the look of horror on Bartlet’s face makes this the one moment in the story thread that generates actual suspense and amusement.
But as soon as Bartlet takes his place at the podium opposite Ritchie, “Game On” loses what little goodwill it’s managed to build up and falls completely to pieces. For many, this is the crowning scene of the episode – the moment when Bartlet finally takes Ritchie to task and delivers a strong and solid debate that proves beyond any doubt that he is the quintessential candidate. Most fans have dreamed of this moment, when the leader of one party trounces the other while the country stands by and applauds.
But watch what’s actually happening onscreen. At no point do we see Bartlet give direct answers to questions from the debate committee. At no point do we see Ritchie respond to any of Bartlet’s thoughts. At no point, in fact, do we see Ritchie come off as remotely vindictive or threatening. It’s bad enough that the show’s excuse for a serious Republican opponent is a cartoony George W. Bush parody, but the way the debate is structured – Bartlet gives sardonic responses to the Senator while the staffers cheer backstage – does not in any way feel inspiring. Instead of appearing a praiseworthy hero, Bartlet simply comes off as a bully. He mocks, he belittles, and he criticizes a man whom we don’t know nearly well enough to dislike. It’s not a flattering image for the episode to paint of the President, particularly given that it’s supposedly attempting to make him admirable.
As the debate ends, Ritchie and Bartlet share a final handshake. “It’s over,” Ritchie says. “You’ll be back next time,” Bartlet responds. It’s a sweet little moment, until you realize that Ritchie was actually referring to the debate itself, and Bartlet is still firmly entrenched in “self-righteous dick” mode.
What we have here, ultimately, is an utter mess of an episode: A story that doesn’t believe in its own drama, a plot that diffuses every bit of its own tension, and a climax that insults the show’s protagonist by attempting to honor him.
Why do so many people love this episode? Because they love its concept, I assume. On the plus side, there were plenty of other great West Wing concepts that were matched and even exceeded by their execution, and didn’t trash the show’s ideals and characters in the process.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Sam struggling to open his map on a windy day. Ah, the days before Google Maps…
+ “Elsie Snuffin”. Just an awesome name, even if it’s a variation on the original. (For those unfamiliar, “Elsie Sniffen” is the real name of actress Kayla Blake, who played Kim on Sports Night.)
+ Bartlet spanking Abbey. This would technically be a Minor Con, but the Minor Cons section is overfull as it is, so I’m twisting it into a humorous Pro.
– “Ritchie’s good at (debating).” Thanks for telling us, CJ. Now how about you show us?
– Why is Carol a sexy flight attendant? Did I miss something here?
– “’Unfunded mandate’ is two words, not one big word.” Yuck.
– “Can we have it back, please?” Double yuck.
– Know what? I changed my mind. Bartlet spanking Abbey is going in the Cons.
* Will, regarding the President: “I don’t work for him.” And the Foreshadowing Gods rubbed their hands and laughed.