West Wing 6×01: NSF Thurmont

[Writer: John Wells | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/20/2004 ]

“Everyone disagrees with your assessment.” – Leo

When trying to persuade someone to watch the post-Sorkin seasons of The West Wing, I typically offer some standby words of encouragement: “Season Five is pretty rough. But stick with it. The show gets back on its feet in Season Six.”

And it does! The sixth season of The West Wing returns the show to its revered status as one of television’s most complex and riveting dramas. Except… it doesn’t do it right away.

It’s difficult to judge Season Six as a whole, since it feels so distinctly like two disparate halves. And in order to get to the highs of the season’s second half, we must first slog through the lows of the first.

And those lows begin with “NSF Thurmont,” easily the worst season premiere in all of The West Wing. Season Five, for all its faults, at least got off to a competent start with “7A WF 83429”; Season Six’s premiere doesn’t measure up at all.

What makes “NSF Thurmont” such a weak premiere? Well, the simple answer is that it’s boring. Really, yawn-inducingly boring. Unfortunately, I’ve pledged to make these reviews into more than just simple answers, so let’s dig deeper.

Building off the Hail Mary that ended “Memorial Day,” “NSF Thurmont” follows Bartlet’s attempts to quell the flames between two antagonistic countries, before things erupt into a globe-spanning war. That description itself would probably make for a good, tense climax, with America (as always!) swooping in to save the world. Except, y’know, an episodic “climax” is the sort of thing you’d put near the end of a TV season, instead of the very first episode. Unfortunately, Season Six is stuck playing cleanup for the Season Five finale, and there’s a lot of cleaning up to do.

But that wouldn’t be an issue if “NSF Thurmont” featured dramatic stakes worth investing in. But real stakes require a story without heavy limitations. And believe it or not, you get stuck with plenty of limitations when the two countries you base your story around are called Israel and Palestine.

When penning stories about international conflicts, Sorkin was wise to use fabricated nations like Qumar and Equatorial Kundu. This kept the storylines a step or two away from reality – close enough to be tense and palpable, far away enough to not be discomforting. But Wells, in his attempts to cast a more realistic light on The West Wing, now casts a direct spotlight on what remains one of the world’s most unsolvable conflicts.

Mirroring real events in a fictional show is already asking for trouble. But centering a drama around the Israel-Palestine debate is simply baffling. How drunk on the show’s signature idealistic fantasies must a viewer be in order to believe this plot can have both a plausible and satisfying outcome?

To its credit, “NSF Thurmont” seems to realize its bitten off well more than it can chew. Bartlet and Leo clash over how to properly handle the situation, with the latter dismissing the idea of “peace talks” and telling the President to prepare for war. The tensions follow through nicely from “Memorial Day,” as the rift between the show’s two key players grows ever wider.

But the episode ultimately goes for broke on character drama, to diminishing returns. Too many of the Bartlet/Leo scenes play the same beats over and over, padding time until the story moves to Camp David. Watching Bartlet and Leo fight certainly isn’t fun, and given that much of the episode’s drama is built directly on the back of “Memorial Day,” very little dialogue between the two is eye-opening.

The same can be said for the episode at large. Instead of an engaging premiere, we get a straightforward, uninspiring connect-the-dots tale, designed only to carry the story along from last season’s finale. It’s a dull and disappointing premiere… and sadly, it only sets up further boredom in the episode which follows.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Leo referring to CJ in the briefing room as “human chum.”
+ Donna’s message to Josh in the OR: “Nice hat!”
+ The brief conversation between Jed and Abbey about the Celtics. A rare moment of sweet emotional honesty in this episode.
+ Josh referencing Nurse Ratched. Possibly a callback to CJ’s description of LemonLyman in “The US Poet Laureate”?

– Colin is really annoying. I know I say this about all of Donna’s boyfriends, but he is.
– Leo’s delivery of “WE DON’T ALWAYS KNOW HOW IT ENDS!” is the episode at its most dramatically desperate.
– Can’t Debbie at least get a line of dialogue?

Score: C-

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