[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Mark Goffman | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 11/19/2003]
“Secret Service’s gonna love this.” – Josh
As a writer, John Wells is a capable man. He knows how to string a compelling story across forty-three minutes. He knows how to balance healthy beats of drama and comedy. And he knows how to generate friction in rubbing two characters together.
As a producer, though, John Wells is a genius. Not only has he produced ER, one of the longest-running and most successful dramas in television history, but he’s displayed a remarkable ability to shepherd the ideas of other writers onto the small screen – including, yes, with The West Wing. Wells may not be one of the industry’s most cherished writers, but he certainly has an eye for shows with mass appeal.
One can only assume it was with this eye that Wells set his sights on The West Wing when he assumed the position of its showrunner. Although Sorkin era-Wing had flirted briefly with megahit status, the show’s ratings were showing signs of wear. Wells had his work cut out for him in sustaining the show’s level of quality, but he was also shouldering the monumental task of sustaining its popularity.
Wells’ “mass-appeal” technique, from all outward appearances, was bipartisanship. Sorkin celebrated the idea of one party declaring decisive victory over the other, but Wells chose to offer a more balanced perspective – presumably, to court more conservative viewers in the George W. Bush era.
The sentiment was admirable, but the results were mixed, and would not make for gripping drama until the political balance was personified through Santos and Vinick. Season Five, unfortunately, has a lukewarm feel to its politics – while Sorkin’s tactics allowed for dramatic victories and defeats, Wells’ approach leaves the characters stick in the bland safety of the middle ground.
“Shutdown,” for example, features a promising setup but an incredibly weak payoff. Inspired in part by the infamous government shutdown of 1995, the episode pits Bartlet against an iron-willed Speaker Haffley as they reach a stalemate over a proposed budget cut. The idea of political progress screeching to a halt sounds dramatically tempting, as its effects naturally reach far beyond the White House and the Capitol. But “Shutdown” doesn’t seem interested in political ramifications – it just presents itself as an argument between two men with very basic and conflicting lines of thought, and spends most of its running time trying to generate sparks.
Bartlet’s staunch refusal to concede is borne of a newfound determination, the need to regain his tough, respectable status in Washington. It’s an inspiring motive, but, in true Season Five fashion, it’s also fairly simplistic. Haffley, at the other extreme, is painted as underhanded and vindictive, which detracts from the episode’s drama. While Republicans of the Sorkin era were rarely shown in positive lights, their screentime was usually limited to a handful of political screeds. Haffley, on the other hand, is meant to carry a good chunk of the episode, and hasn’t nearly the depth or personality to do so. (Royce is a more interesting character, caught between serving his President and serving his party, but the episode affords him very little outside of a few troubled glances at the Speaker.)
Much like the kidnapping arc, the conclusion to the shutdown story is inevitable. That may explain why the episode glosses over any citywide drama (we glimpse a couple of civilian interviews that essentially play out as comedy), but it doesn’t excuse the episode’s arid lack of forward momentum. With all non-senior staff forced to leave, the White House becomes a hollow, barren place, and the mood of the characters reflects that all too well. Following in the footsteps of Ryan and Bingo Bob, the one beacon of sunshine in this episode is newcomer Marina, who spends most of the episode literally cleaning up everyone else’s trash.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a mid-episode slump if said episode revs up for an exciting climax. But even the attempt at a grandstand third act – which simultaneously attempts to redeem both Bartlet and political pariah Josh – is limply structured and executed. Josh’s “bold plan” consists of two factors: Have Bartlet walk (past cheering crowds) to the Hill, and have him get up and leave while Congress is busy deliberating.
Nothing about Josh’s plan is executed with any genuine dramatic rigor – at best, his ideas rub off as a few extra story beats. More importantly, his ideas are not nearly the “brilliant political maneuvers” that the writers want us to think they are. Smart politics are built on questions, ideals, and debate. They are not built on public image and playing shamelessly to the media. The West Wing has demonstrated that you can put two people in a room together and let them discuss their conflicting ideologies – and time and time again, it can make for fascinating drama. “Shutdown” features two stabs at fascinating drama: Bartlet walking into the Capitol, and Bartlet walking out of the Capitol. (I will give credit, though: At no point does Bartlet stand outside and scream at the Capitol.)
And yet… while “Shutdown” is in no way a West Wing triumph, it doesn’t feel like a total letdown. Whereas “The Dogs of War” [5×02] featured plenty of buildup and a thoroughly lackluster conclusion, the flames that “Shutdown” wishes to quell were only sparked at the end of the previous episode. And intriguingly, by side-stepping around any large-scale ramifications, the episode never builds our hopes up to the point where they can come crashing down.
So while the episode’s climax – in which Bartlet and Haffley reach a basic, offscreen resolution – feels bland and entirely too safe, it doesn’t achieve the hapless, desperate status of a cop-out. It’s an appropriate resolution to a story that, as I alluded to earlier, could not have ended any other way.
“Shutdown” should not be penalized for its relative lack of grandeur. It should, however, be penalized for its missed character opportunities and oversimplified politics. In other words, it’s a standard Season Five episode, dressed up in a slightly more attractive plot. Pat it on the shoulder and move on to something else.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Charlie getting everyone’s attention: “Hey, people, shut up!”
+ Okay, the little girl on the TV cracks me up. Why couldn’t this episode have been about her?
+ And this week’s Clunkiest Line Award goes to… “Christmas came early this year.” Thanks, Haffley.
+ Another triple-cymbal crash. Sigh…