[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Paula Yoo, and Lauren Schmidt | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 11/13/2002]
“You’re not going to win, so you can’t lose.” – Amy
In addition to complex stories, engaging characters, and palpable atmospheres, modern quality TV is widely identified by its use of episodic follow-up. The increase in serialization has allowed story and emotional content to spill out beyond the confines of the individual episode, underscoring the three-dimensionality of the world the series builds.
There are, however, some drawbacks to an increased use of direct follow-through. As I wrote about on the Blog a couple of weeks ago, an overreliance on serialization can drown out the chance for tighter, more episodic achievements. But another issue with increased continuity is that if a storyline isn’t especially compelling, chances are that a greater number of episodes will be harmed in utilizing it.
“Process Stories” is, on its own, by no means a bad episode. It has some nice character moments, some very funny dialogue (even by Sorkin’s usual standards), and a well-realized theme. The problem is that this theme – along with the surrounding story – builds directly off the misguided double-whammy of “Game On” [4×06] and “Election Night” [4×07]. To that end, it suffers.
Let’s start by defining the theme. “Process Stories” highlights the question of method vs. outcome. As the title suggests, the episode favors the importance of the process over its final effects. It’s a line of thought that meshes nicely with the show’s idealized messages – way back since “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19], the Bartlet administration has touted the value of efforts over results.
But it’s a theme that feels misplaced at this point in the season. Why? Well, the characters spend a good chunk of “Process Stories” basking in their reelection victory (this episode takes place just hours after “Election Night” [4×07]), while also acknowledging that it was their efforts in the campaign that should be lauded, rather than their final victory. With all the huffing and puffing the staffers did in securing the White House for another four years, it’s important that we viewers understand and appreciate that it’s the buildup, and not the payoff, that matters.
Starting to see the problem?
Given how poorly the early episodes of Season Four managed to convince us that there was any drama involved in whether or not Bartlet would defeat Ritchie, the message of “Process Stories” comes off as limp, hollow, and even hypocritical. Because the foundation of the episode is so rickety, it’s difficult to digest the point of “Process Stories” to any great degree.
The West Wing has always been a show that asks the viewer to suspend a little disbelief in order to appreciate its finer political points, but “Process Stories” asks too much of us, on too many fronts. Sure, you could believe that an unknown pollster would take credit for the Bartlet victory and then be so sure he’ll get away with it that he attends the White House after-party. You could believe that the random guy Donna met on the street when looking to “even out” her vote would begin working at the White House just a few hours later. And you could believe that the deceased Horton Wilde would receive enough votes in the 47th district to incite a follow-up election for Sam to take part in. Yes, you could believe all of that, just as you could believe that the level of intrigue in the reelection story warrants this kind of payoff. But with nothing to ground any of these events in a logical story spectrum, “Process Stories” threatens to float away on a balloon of idealistic hot air.
Yet “Process Stories” is not a bad episode – at the least, it’s a definite step up from its two predecessors. While it features far too much in the way of contrived and manufactured plotting, and its theme doesn’t click well with its surroundings, the theme itself is well-delivered – and tied nicely into a Situation Room storyline in which Bartlet and Leo must stave off a conflict in South America, realizing that their peaceable tactics matter more than the ultimately unsatisfactory outcome.
Furthermore, the characters remain on point: CJ gets an admirable moment when she chews out the spotlight-stealing pollster, while the Toby/Andy and Leo/Jordan relationships are pleasantly spotlighted. And there’s some comedy to be found in the way that Bartlet is using the victory as a means to get some action, even if the material he shares with Abbey feels distinctly similar to that of “And It’s Surely to Their Credit” [2×05].
Most importantly, we have Sam, who not only gets the most crucial arc of the episode, but most closely embodies the season’s core themes. Sam spends the early part of the episode quoting Aristotle to explain the unlikelihood of Wilde’s win – and his motivation to take the seat. Sam’s earnestness has, at last, been fully realized this season, and his desire to sustain Wilde’s victory speaks well of him as a learned Bartlet disciple. As Season Four will continually assert, sustaining a level of power is sometimes just as challenging as utilizing it, and Sam’s determination to take up Wilde’s position is an inspiring representation of how our characters are up to the task. It’s in scenes like the one showcasing Sam’s resolute mindset that “Process Stories” excels, even as the larger scope of the episode suffers from a rather unflattering context.
Way back in “Five Votes Down” [1×04], Leo declared, “There’s two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em: Laws and sausages.” For the sake of “Process Stories,” I believe this is a good time to point out that “Presidential elections” was not on that list.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Abbey stepping into the bedroom at a most inopportune time.
+ Bartlet bragging about winning all the swing states.
+ Amy expressing her love for shrimp.
+ Toby to Abbey: “That’s a lovely housecoat you’re wearing.” Awkward.
– Bruno the Ladies’ Man is briefly amusing, but quickly grows tiresome.