West Wing 5×19: Talking Points


[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Richard Schiff | Aired: 4/21/2004 ]

“It’d be nice to roll back that tide, wouldn’t it?” – Bartlet

Writing in the Wall Street Journal in December 2013, Peggy Noonan referred to something she called “West Wing Disease.”

“Young staffers grew up watching that show,” she said, “and getting a very romantic and specific sense of how government works.” The show’s tight focus on the White House, she theorized, made it seem that the White House was the government, and disregarded the various complex and interconnecting agencies that surrounded it.

Noonan, who had worked as a consultant on The West Wing in its early seasons, raised an interesting point. Many young staffers of the Obama administration got their first glimpse at Washington thanks to Aaron Sorkin, and were influenced by the perception that the White House was a vast but easily-oiled machine. Perhaps real politicians were not as wide-eyed as CJ Cregg or Josh Lyman, but the system they worked in seemed easy to compartmentalize.

Alas, as almost anyone who’s spent a few years on Capitol Hill can tell you, the US government is not nearly so simple. The Oval Office may be the heart of our political system, but the arteries expand to many other offices and departments, and pulling one the wrong way could cause harmful repercussions in three or four others.

The West Wing understood this, to an extent, but was less concerned with explaining the intricacies of governmental systems than in deepening its characters and weighing the balances of power. That’s to be expected – it’s a TV show, after all, chiefly concerned with giving its audience a compelling story each week. The minutiae of government are better left dictated by Frontline documentaries and David Simon.

Still, The West Wing’s tunnel vision could often grow sanctimonious, and even the Sorkin-to-Wells transition didn’t broaden the show’s governmental scope. If anything, Season Five increased the focus on the White House as a singular entity, ignoring long-term problems and far-reaching implications in a misguided attempt to maintain the show’s signature optimism.

But after struggling through a host of weak plots and anonymous themes, we finally arrive at “Talking Points,” an episode that gives us as good a glimpse into real-world politics as any other episode in the series. As with “The Supremes,” it’s a Season Five episode done right.

Like most other West Wing episodes, “Talking Points” stays rooted to the White House. But the White House it shows us is more destabilized than usual. The storylines are centered around themes of outsourcing, disenfranchisement, and media corruption – concepts that haven’t been utilized very often in the show’s past. And even when the episode does foray into the familiar, the writers know how to keep us guessing.

There are no broad, sweeping moments in “Talking Points.” No powerful dramatic speeches or emotional climaxes. In many ways, it feels like a low-key Sorkin episode, featuring a string of loosely-connected story threads that highlight our main characters’ various goals and aspersions. But it differs from a Sorkin episode in its outlook and tone. “Talking Points” offers no easy answers. Josh may shudder at the idea of middle-class Americans losing thousands of job opportunities, but, as Leo and Bartlet explain, good governing at times involves sacrifice.

Josh’s frustration over the White House’s broken promises is compounded by the promotion of Ryan, who – after an entire season of being mocked and ignored – finally goes from student to teacher. Josh also doesn’t celebrate when Haffley guarantees him the Republican caucus – as one of the show’s most partisan politicians, he’s not too happy if his mistakes appease the opposition. Josh is left to fume over the direction of the administration – and, ultimately, to try and fix it.

“Talking Points” is one of the few West Wing episodes that forces Josh – usually the show’s most stagnant character – to consider changing his outlook. His failings in this episode motivate him to give a more active role in the administration to Donna (who spends much of this episode lamenting her lowly position), and quietly set up his own refreshing arc in the show’s final two seasons. Josh may never truly change his views, but he is finding new ways to implement them.

A cynical eye is cast towards the Bartlet administration in this episode, but it doesn’t glare too hard. Instead, the events here dictate the problems the administration (and, by extension, the show) has faced this season, combating insurmountable problems with confounding solutions. “Talking Points” treats Bartlet’s latest solution as a detriment, and lets us view things through Josh’s slowly-widening eyes.

And not everything is doom and gloom. CJ gets a great subplot surrounding mass media conglomerates and the stranglehold they have on the free press. It’s a biting commentary on media corruption, and climaxes with CJ teaching her beloved press reporters a most amusing lesson. CJ has remained the show’s most idealistic character through this season’s bleakest moments, and champions truth even if it means “refurbishing” White House property. (As an added bonus, Leo offers to foot the bill.)

There are brief moments of levity glittered throughout “Talking Points,” little jokes that lighten the mood and keep the story from getting too unpleasant. Still, it’s a serious episode overall, with a darker message than the show typically delivers. It’s a message that wouldn’t mesh at all in Sorkin’s White House – but fits perfectly into the world built by Team Wells.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Josh’s reaction when Ryan informs him that he’s leaving the White House: “Thank you.”
+ Kate Harper makes her debut in this episode. And has an amusing exchange with Debbie.
+ Brock correctly predicting the rise of online television. (This episode was produced a year before the birth of YouTube.)
+ Contrary to CJ’s claims, there is no TV network called “The Fascism Channel.” But there was once a network called “The Puppy Channel.” I’m serious. Look it up.

Score: A

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