West Wing 4×21: Life on Mars

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Paul Redford, and Dee Dee Myers | Director: John David Coles | Aired: 04/30/2003]

Mister Brains! Mister Brains!

Yes, Timmy?

Mister Brains, I have a question!

Haha, you always do, Timmy. You always do.

Mister Brains, is there life on Mars?

That’s an excellent question, Timmy. Scientists have been wondering that for centuries.

Gosh, Mister Brains! Do you know the answer?

Well, it’s funny you should bring this up, Timmy. You see, I’ve lately been studying numerous documentaries relating to the subject of Mars and its life-giving capacities. In fact, I recently came across an episode of television that broached the topic directly.

Golly, Mister Brains! Tell me more!

I certainly will, Timmy. It was quite an ingenious episode, for multiple reasons.

What made it so ingenious, Mister Brains?

Well, for starters, the episode began with a very tense and dramatic opening scene, and then cut to another scene with the words “Twenty-Four Hours Earlier.” It was a brilliant storytelling technique that served to grip the audience from the episode’s opening moments.

Gosh, Mister Brains! But isn’t cutting back to “Twenty-Four Hours Earlier” just a lazy and overused dramatic device?

Not at all, Timmy. It only seems that way because it’s been used a thousand times before.

Yeah, that makes sense! Tell me more, Mister Brains! What else made the episode so brilliant?

Well, the story centered on a character who was only introduced one episode earlier, and who suddenly uncovers a major scandal surrounding the Vice President.

Wow, Mister Brains! But doesn’t that seem like a really unlikely development?

Oh, of course not, Timmy! Political scandals occur all the time, and the vast majority of them are uncovered by one single person who somehow manages to stumble onto every clue which leads to them during his very first day on the job.

Good point, Mister Brains! But why is the focus on a character whom we’ve only just met?

Whatever do you mean, Timmy?

Well, wouldn’t it be more effective if the episode focused on someone that viewers were used to? You know, if a character who had close ties to the Vice President uncovered the scandal, and then had to grapple with its implications? Wouldn’t that make for more compelling drama?

Don’t be silly, Timmy. Centering the drama on a character the viewers already know and love would just lead to a lot of heartfelt emotion and resonance and a lot of other things that get in the way of the plot. It’s far better to put the focus on a brand-new character that nobody cares about, and then cram all the legitimate character drama into the final ten minutes.

Right as always, Mister Brains!

And better yet, it’s important to make this new character a Republican, so that the other characters will dislike him from the moment he first appears, and viewers will not be compelled to sympathize with him.

Golly gosh, Mister Brains! That’s a terrific point! So I guess the episode also puts a lot of focus on the Vice President himself, right?

Oh no, Timmy. He doesn’t even show up until the last few minutes.

Wait, what?

Yes, another thing that makes this episode so brilliant is that the scandal storyline comes completely out of nowhere. There is no buildup in previous episodes – in fact, the Vice-President himself has barely even played a role in this season.

Gee whillikers, Mister Brains! But isn’t that just lazy writing?

Not in the slightest, Timmy! The point of this episode is to catch us off guard, to make us feel utterly shocked by this turn of events. But not too shocked, of course, which is why the episode barely spends any time with the Vice President and filters the whole story through a character we don’t care about.

Zowie, Mister Brains! I think I get it! So the only reason this painfully contrived story exists is to shock the viewers?

Oh, of course not, Timmy. This painfully contrived story exists in order to set up another painfully contrived story in the next two episodes.


One manufactured plot deserves another, Timmy.

Right on, Mister Brains! But at least now that this new character has uncovered such a major scandal, it’s definitely going to factor into his development going forward. Right?

Oh, not quite, Timmy. You see, he’s pretty much a non-entity after this episode.


He makes one more appearance in the next season, and then vanishes with no explanation.

Holy gee, Mister Brains! That sounds really lazy!

Oh, no, Timmy. You see, the character he’s replacing had also disappeared with no explanation. It’s rather poetic.

Goshy gosh, Mister Brains! But don’t all these story elements feel really cheap?

Not remotely, Timmy. You see, this episode manages to distract us from all the scandal-based contrivances by focusing on another contrivance: the Communications Director getting angry because he’s in love with his ex-wife.

Golly gee whillikers, Mister Brains! Why is this story suddenly important?

Because this episode was produced near the end of the season, Timmy. And that means that important things need to start happening, no matter how little buildup they’ve had in the past few episodes.

So true, Mister Brains! You sure know a lot!

That I do, Timmy. That I do.

So can you answer my question?

What question?

Is there life on Mars?

Oh, I’ve no idea, Timmy.

You’re the best, Mister Brains!


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ CJ’s “Gotta do what he’s gotta do.”
+ Love that bird. Although the Tippi Hedren reference is a bit on the nose.
+ Stu Winkle going on, and on, and on…

– Will is ranking the Laurens. Of course he is. On the plus side, the Laurens will never appear again.
– Hoynes to Josh: “I should hit you in the face.” Umm, way to write this character out with dignity, guys.
– The final line of this episode is just plain bad dialogue. Which is not something I would expect to say about Sorkin.



10 thoughts on “West Wing 4×21: Life on Mars”

  1. [Note: Unpaid Intern Staffer posted this comment on November 30, 2016.]

    I do understand the lion’s share of your frustrations with this episode (I certainly wanted more focus on the outgoing Vice President rather than Chandler as well) but I think a C is a bit harsh. That big scene toward the end where Bartlet, Leo, and Hoynes discuss his resignation may not make up for the rest of the episode’s faults, but it is, to me at least, one of the most powerful scenes of the whole series, featuring three of the show’s most talented actors doing a superb job selling us on the enormity of what’s going on. Sad to see that scene didn’t get any shoutout in the review or even in the Pros/Cons section.


  2. [Note: Flamepillar112 posted this comment on November 30, 2016.]

    Haha, excellent structure, just “College Kids”. You should do more fun reviews of excruciatingly mediocre episodes. (Not seen this one, but still.)


  3. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on November 30, 2016.]

    I agree with you, but I mostly have to comment that you have the best name of any commenter on these reviews.


  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on November 30, 2016.]

    Standing on its own, I think it’s a very good scene. But when every story beat which leads to that scene feels so spontaneous and artificial, especially coming near the end of a season which has already featured too many spontaneous and artificial developments, there’s not enough genuine emotion attached to that scene for it to work on the level that it’s supposed to.

    In the end, the episode suffers due to the sheer gap between where it tries to go and how lazily it gets there.


  5. [Note: Unpaid Intern Staffer posted this comment on November 30, 2016.]

    Aaron Sorkin could at times be one of the laziest writers on planet Earth, you’ll find no argument from me on that point. And if the episode had focused more on the characters of Hoynes, Bartlet, and Leo from the very beginning, it would have probably been one of the top 10 best episodes of the entire run. So I suppose our only difference here is that I forgive a lot of bad execution if the concept underneath it all is good enough. Probably not the mindset to have for a critical reviewer though.

    Mostly I’m still peeved that Sorkin wrote out Tim Matheson just for the sake of an absurd season-ending cliffhanger. Just a criminal waste of Tim Matheson.


  6. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on November 30, 2016.]

    Indeed. I think Season Six makes good use of Matheson, though, and redeems Hoynes pretty well.


  7. [Note: Trev posted this comment on December 4, 2016.]

    I agree with this review… clumsy plot device to not have a VP for later. Your review of Commencement is anticipated; I have raged against it ever since it aired!


  8. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on December 5, 2016.]

    Though “Commencement” has its flaws, I still like it a great deal more than “Life on Mars.” So don’t expect too much raging. 🙂


  9. [Note: Trev posted this comment on December 7, 2016.]

    It is more nit-picking than raging; the whole setup in the club is an issue for me, more later. I’m probably one of only a few haunted by Leo referring to an Ambassador named Vignisdottir as he, not she (as it would be in Iceland).


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