West Wing 5×18: Access

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Lauren Schmidt | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 3/31/2004 ]


You love CJ Cregg, right? I mean, of course you do. Everyone loves CJ Cregg. She’s wonderful. She may well be The West Wing’s most popular character, and is easily one of its most likable.

But this raises a question: Why are CJ-centric episodes so consistently bad?

“The Women of Qumar.” “The Long Goodbye.” “Full Disclosure.” These are some of the dullest and most frustrating episodes in the entire series. And what do they have in common? They’re all centered on CJ.

Part of the problem may be that the series overplays its hand with Allison Janney. Once it became clear that Janney was the show’s secret weapon, and it most reliable Emmy magnet, the writers began purposely crafting episodes designed to help Janney bring home the gold. The resulting episodes were heavy on melodrama but light on genuine character development, choosing to shove CJ into contrived roles (the straw feminist, the grieving daughter) that clashed awkwardly with the rest of the show.

Another issue may be that CJ works better in small doses than as a centerpiece. Because she is the conduit between the White House and the Press Corps, she doesn’t have the same insider status in the White House that’s afforded to Josh or Toby. (Recall that it took nearly two full seasons for CJ to feel like a full-fledged member of the administration.) Her most successful arc in the Sorkin era – the Simon Donovan story – felt largely disconnected from the rest of Season Three’s home stretch, but was also developed slowly and subtly, as opposed to the abrupt character rewriting of the aforementioned misfires.

You would think the writers would eventually learn their lesson. But now they give us “Access,” an episode that easily ranks among the most boring, disposable, and thoroughly pointless in the entire series. And yes – it’s centered on CJ.

Actually, “centered” would be putting it mildly. This entire episode feels like a shrine erected to the blessed name of Claudia Jean Cregg. Its “day in the life” structure follows the White House Press Secretary through every twist and turn of her job, constantly reminding us of just how difficult said job is, and how only the toughest and most capable of minds can possibly handle it. And it’s not just the (incredibly annoying) narrator who lists CJ’s numerous attributes ad nauseum – Toby, Josh, Donna, Carol, and a variety of White House staffers we’ve never seen before and will never see again all take their turns explaining the CJ Cregg is a political goddess.

Is any of this necessary? Do we need a refresher course on a woman we’ve gotten to know and love over the past five years, particularly when this episode offers no new insights into her character? If you really want an episode that shows us how wonderful CJ is (and actually manages to be entertaining all the while), rewatch “Take Out the Trash Day” or “And It’s Surely to Their Credit.” Or “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You.” Or “On the Day Before.” Or “Angel Maintenance.” Or virtually any episode that doesn’t self-consciously try to cram her awesomeness down our throats.

Still, perhaps the most insulting aspect about “Access” has no connection to CJ herself. The entire episode is structured as a Frontline-style documentary, with handheld cameras providing glimpses into the inner workings of the White House, and with behind-the-scenes interviews with various staffers interspersed along the way. This episode, you see, is designed to give viewers an inside look into the mechanisms of the Bartlet administration, because clearly no other West Wing episode has ever done that.

The irony of “Access” is that by granting us this “secret” look into the White House, it undermines the entire mission statement of the series. Watching The West Wing is a thrill because it feels as though we are right alongside Bartlet and Leo and their political family, watching as they plan and stress and debate their way through each new crisis they encounter. By presenting a literally behind-the-scenes episode, homogenized for the general public, “Access” actually feels less personal than a standard episode, lacking any real emotional connection for viewers to latch onto.

Why does this episode exist? What purpose does it serve (besides to give Janney the obligatory Emmy)? Why does it keep referencing a Bartlet-era scandal we’ve never seen nor heard about before? Why do I not care enough to try and answer any of these questions?

“Access” is not the worst West Wing episode ever – “Ninety Miles Away” will forever hold that distinction – but it may well be the most pointless and detrimental to the overall series. Its lack of any long-term relevance does prove to have one positive, however – it makes it that much easier to ignore the episode and move on to better things.

Postscript: Okay, never let it be said that I’m unwilling to invite counterarguments. For all the hate directed towards this episode, Julie Levin Russo has written an interesting defense of it, and it’s certainly worth reading.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ We get one more appearance from Mike Casper. I assume he was recruited by SHIELD shortly afterwards.
+ The home movies of CJ’s childhood. Young Allison Janney is adorable.
+ CJ’s Season One hairdo. Hooray for nostalgia!
+ There are TV cameras in Gail’s fishbowl. Gail is such a diva.

– The narrator’s voice grows dull and annoying very quickly. Where is Ron Howard when you need him?
– The shaky camerawork and constant quick cuts gave me a headache.
– “Is the Pope Catholic?” Yes. Yes, he is. Now please stop using that hackneyed phrase.
– While the home video clips are cute, cutting to a few of them while CJ talks to her dad on the phone is just lazy and manipulative.
– I’m no national security expert, but I don’t think a camera crew would be allowed to wander around the White House while the President is dealing with a terror raid.
– Granted, it’s not the episode’s fault, but the retroactive continuity here makes no sense. Given that (as we’re told) the documentary was not released to the public until after Bartlet left office, wouldn’t the narrator have given some indication that CJ spent her final White House years as the Chief of Staff?

Score: F

2 thoughts on “West Wing 5×18: Access”

  1. I think “Access” as a concept has promise, not for giving us, the viewers, an insight into the Bartlet administration, but for showing us how the populace views them, via the same mechanisms that we’re able to observe politicians in real life; from a distance, and with nothing remotely resembling normal, sincere social contact.

    Unfortunately, the episode is still not very good anyway.


    1. Good point. But like I said in the review, the perspective that “Access” uses isn’t insightful – it’s redundant. If there was some wraparound story to provide an emotional hook, it could have worked on an experimental level. As it stands, the episode is just (like the “quote” at the top of the review indicates) a real bore.


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