[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Alexa Junge and Lauren Schmidt | Director: Lesli Linka Glatter | Aired: 11/05/2003]
“What are we doing here, sir?” – CJ
The West Wing was designed to be subversive. Where the real world seemed harsh and cynical, the show would find warmth and buoyancy. Where real politicians could look dumb and cruel, the series gave us people who were sharp and fun. Whenever the world zigged, The West Wing gleefully zagged, gaining recognition for its bright-eyed and hopeful characters and storylines.
Such optimism suited Sorkin, whose career was practically built around optimistic protagonists. But it was less suited to John Wells, whose career was built around dramas that weren’t quite so sunny. Wells earned his stripes on the harsh realities of China Beach, a series which never shied away from the grimness of the Vietnam War, and he imbued that sensibilities into nearly every show of his that followed – including, for a while, The West Wing.
Wells’ penchant for visceral realism is commendable, as he has proven to be a master of the form. And Season Five of The West Wing can make effective use of this realism, with a slower, quieter pace and a focus on less political and more interpersonal drama. But in addition to capturing the rawness of reality, the season all-too-often captures the boredom of it.
Take “Disaster Relief,” an episode which transports Bartlet and a few of his staffers to Oklahoma in the wake of a disastrous tornado. In the past, Wells has often had characters on ER witness devastation and destruction up close, and he and his team now attempt to give the Bartlet administration the same treatment. The difference is subtle but important: When Carter and Benton are sent out to aid the victims of a bombing or an earthquake, their presence as medical personnel is required. Here, Bartlet chooses to fly cross-country and meet with survivors, to lend whatever help he can.
It’s a straightforward foundation, and one that works on a character level. Early episodes of this season have seen Bartlet floundering in his attempts to regain his political footing, as the kidnapping fiasco has left him weak and emotionally uncertain. It’s not surprising – and in fact, a bit liberating – to see him try and tackle a large-scale problem on a human level. But following this setup, how does the story develop?
The best scenes in “Disaster Relief” – like many of the best moments in Season Five – are the ones that allow the emotions to carry the story. We don’t need complex thematic undercurrents or rich, witty dialogue to appreciate the scene where Bartlet listens to an elderly man cry over the loss of his wife, or when he offers to help a Red Cross volunteer wash some dishes. These scenes channel very basic but very real emotions, and they work outside of any political context.
These are the moments where Team Wells (specifically, writers Alexa Junge and Lauren Schmidt) prove that it’s possible for someone not named Aaron Sorkin to write The West Wing. A different environment, an emotionally-driven plot, a minimal reliance on dialogue. One almost wishes the entire episode focused on Bartlet in a battered and broken Midwest, trying to personally instill his citizens with hope.
Unfortunately, a good chunk of the episode is still steeped in the political drudging of Washington, and it’s there in which “Disaster Relief” suffers. Whereas the throbbing, aching slowness of the Oklahoma scenes match the dour material, the boredom of the White House scenes just amounts to… boredom.
“Constituency of One” [5×05] did the series no favors by setting up a wrong-headed, poorly-constructed arc for Josh, but “Disaster Relief” does nothing to substantially improve it. The episode sees Josh and his fellow staffers face off against the conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. The policies of this group nicely tie into Season Five’s more balanced political perspectives, but the episode’s dissection of Josh’s political ostracizing (straight down to the speculation of Angela Blake replacing him) is so dry and underserved that it barely maintains interest.
The episode’s one attempt at giving Josh a big dramatic moment is also, ironically, its most dramatic failing. As Ryan drives him home from a failed meeting, Josh takes a moment to exit the car and scream loudly and angrily at… the Capitol building. There’s no way for me to rationalize and justify such an anvil of a scene: this is egregiously bad television, and one of the most cringe-inducing moments in West Wing history.
The Josh arc is not the only ineffective thread in “Disaster Relief” – a subplot involving Leo contending with the Secretary of Defense feels entirely disposable – but it’s the most disappointing, as it puts one of the show’s most enduring characters through the proverbial wringer, and proceeds to spell out his dilemmas through the most banal and histrionic of ways. The result is dull and didactic, a far cry from the nuanced politics this show once built its reputation on.
So the emotional burden of the episode must fall to Bartlet, who, after much prodding and convincing from CJ, finally acknowledges that the best way to help the disaster victims is from the White House. This revelation has a good sentiment behind it, but is entirely obvious from the episode’s first act. “Disaster Relief,” then, does not so much leave us emotionally struck as it does wondering: Was this a story that needed to be told, when the character development seems so redundant and the outcome so predictable?
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ This episode starts with the aftermath of the party from “Constituency of One” [5×05]. Nice to see some direct continuity.
+ Ryan referring to Josh as “Obi-Wan.”
+ Toby named his boat “Jeanine.” How sweet.
– I don’t need to know about Carricka Lymanshauser’s porn site. TMI, Ryan.
– Josh yelling at the Capitol building. I know I mentioned it in the review itself, but it’s the kind of thing that bears repeating.