[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Julie Hébert | Aired: 02/04/2004]
“It’s the greatest sin in politics to be bad on television.” – Josh
Ask a fellow West Wing fan what they think the worst episode of Season Five is, and they’ll probably say… um, “Access.” But ask them what they think the other worst episode of Season Five is, and they’ll probably name “Slow News Day.”
Yes, few episodes in the show’s lengthy run have raised as much ire and controversy as this one. To some, it’s the equivalent of Bartlet strapping on jet-skis and wave-riding over a shark. (Truth be told: That would make for an awesome episode.) It was not long after the episode aired that a few fans infamously mounted an appeal to NBC (titled “Don’t Save Our Show”), begging them to put the series out of its misery.
Looking back years later, I pose the usual question: Is “Slow News Day” truly as bad as it may seem? Well, the answer cannot be boiled down to a mere “yes” or “no” – as is typical with the series, we need to examine the episode from multiple angles.
Let’s start by talking about the focal point of the controversy: the plot. And make no mistake – the plot of “Slow News Day” is awful. Amidst the season’s generally tame pragmatism, Team Wells now takes the show’s signature sliding scale of idealism to an unforeseen degree, and has the Bartlet administration come up with a way to “fix” Social Security. That’s right: One of the most divisive and complicated social policies the US government has ever implemented, and our characters come up with a way to solve it in 42 minutes. A show which presents politics in as wide-eyed a manner as The West Wing requires some suspension of disbelief, but this is simply laughable.
Furthermore, the plot isn’t even presented in a particularly compelling fashion. You’d expect an episode with this plot to carry at least a touch of long-term gravitas, but it’s instead another one-off standalone, a quick game of partisan chess in which everything is reset by the final act. From the unspectacular teaser to the anticlimactic finale, “Slow News Day” is a series low-point of coherent plotting.
But what about on a character level? “Slow News Day,” if nothing else, features a tight focus – apart from a few sequences with CJ (who spends the episode griping about how she can deal with the press over the titular event), this episode is heavily focused on Toby, and his unyielding quest to (snicker) “fix” Social Security. Toby features prominently in nearly every scene, in which we see him interact with everyone from Bartlet to Josh to his new assistant, Marina.
On the one hand, the character moments in the episode suffer from the same issue as so many other Season Five offerings – too much contrived internal conflict for the sake of drama. Will Bailey’s role is, thankfully, kept to a minimum, but Toby instead clashes with Josh, who tries to undercut his plans because… um, it’s a slow news day? Watching these two characters work behind each other’s backs isn’t all that entertaining – nor, for that matter, is the climactic scene where an angry Bartlet chews Toby out over his failed plan. (Dude, how did you expect a two-person bipartisan plan put together this hastily to work?! Argh.)
But at the same time, “Slow News Day” proves to be an integral spotlight for Toby, one that will color his character for the remainder of the series. Since Season One, Toby has always had lofty ideals (loftier, even, than that if his coworkers), and he hasn’t always waited for Bartlet’s go-ahead to realize them. And at a time when the administration needs an adrenal jolt, he sees fit to aim high, in an attempt to salvage the White House’s good name. His failure was inevitable, but not entirely out of character.
Toby’s conflict is nicely balanced by Marina, the one staffer he informs of his plan. As with such other Season Five newbies as Ryan and Angela, Marina doesn’t have enough of a personality to justify her prominence (she’s essentially a more upbeat version of Randi from ER), but she serves as a means to impart not merely exposition, but humanity as well. No, she’s not liked by other staffers, but to Toby’s mind, that just means she’s not as likely to blab about a covert operation.
It’s the kind of unvarnished mix of the humanized and that political that the show has largely reserved for Donna Moss. And the episode realizes the connection – among its few memorable scenes is one which centers on Donna and Marina. Josh, it turns out, has ordered the former to secretly gather intel on Toby from the latter, but Donna ultimately cannot bring herself to spy on a colleague. It’s a nice little scene which reminds us that not everyone in the White House has turned into a backstabbing narcissist this season, and it sets up a more emboldened Donna for later episodes and seasons to follow.
It’s character moments like these which redeem “Slow News Day,” if only slightly. Some important character-building for Toby, a nice spotlight for Donna, and a few fun lines from CJ. These glimmers of gold make up for the episode’s meandering pace… and (in case I haven’t made this clear) its thoroughly terrible plot.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The return of Toby’s rubber ball!
+ A groggy Bartlet threatening to equip Charlie with a surgically implanted snooze button.
+ Josh coaching Will on speechwriting jokes.
+ Bartlet wishing he could wear leggings in his portrait, and Charlie reminding him that it could wind up on the Internet.
+ Charlie sarcastically calling Toby “Kojak.” No one loves him, baby.
– From Toby’s pre-credits line alone (“I think I know how we can save Social Security”), this story was a bad idea. Ouch.
* This episode subtly begins to set up Toby’s arc for the remainder of the series, presenting him as more human and vulnerable than he was in earlier seasons. “The Supremes” [5×17] will explore this further.