[Writers: John Sacret Young & Josh Singer | Director: Vincent Misiano | Aired: 12/1/2004]
“Piece of cloth. Cheesy piece of fabric.” – Josh
As I’m writing this review, my West Wing DVDs – the Complete Series collection – sits idly on a nearby shelf. It’s a magnificent DVD set, packed with great special features and a glossy series guide. But a thin layer of dust covers the set box – in truth, I’ve not consulted the DVD set in a while. Whenever I need to rewatch an episode for review, I simply pull it up and stream it on Netflix.
I bring this up because of the odd surprise I received when sitting down to rewatch “A Change is Gonna Come.” The title, appearing as usual at the start of each episode, had been considerably shortened from broadcast and DVD version – here, it simply read “Change.”
It’s a peculiar alteration, even if it makes aesthetic sense. Though it obviously alludes to a popular Sam Cooke number – which is sung during the episode’s closing montage – the title “A Change is Gonna Come” sounds jarring and unprofessional. (The best thing about it is the salient pun it offers to the cynical critic regarding Season Six’s growing pains – “A change is gonna come,” said critic could write, “but brother, it sure ain’t here yet.”)
“Change” is a more benign and complacent title, but it opens the door to many more questions. What sort of “change” is the episode alluring to? Does the episode offer any major alterations to the status quo? (It doesn’t, especially in comparison to recent episodes.) Does it feature any character(s) who go through substantial growth and development? (Nope.) Did Netflix retroactively alter this title as a tribute to Barack Obama? (Unlikely, especially since the episode doesn’t feature Matt Santos.)
“Change” may sound more important and professional than a title with the word “Gonna” in the middle, but it places a high bar of expectations on the episode – a bar it simply can’t cross. There are no major changes occurring in this episode, which builds its central conflict around a misattributed Taiwanese flag and the possible foreign-relations fallout it could provoke. It’s hardly the stuff of great drama, and even the writers seem to acknowledge the story’s comic bent, bringing back Bernard (the stiff, antisocial Englishman who previously appeared in “Noël”) to let potential hilarity ensue.
Unfortunately, not much does ensue, hilarity or otherwise. The episode plays in a relaxed key, without much room for substantial development. The last-minute reveal that Bartlet’s MS may be relapsing feels less like a meaningful development than a Hail Mary to scrounge up some dramatic tension. (Indeed, succeeding episodes will only emphasize this superficiality.)
Occasionally, the story layers in more setup for the impending election arc – Eric Baker (previously mentioned in “The Hubbert Peak”) makes his first onscreen appearance, while Russell and Hoynes also get moments of setup – but knowing how little impact any of these candidates will have in the long term makes it difficult to get deeply invested. (Credit where it’s due, though – the episode does make an effort to begin redeeming Hoynes from the sorry depiction we witnessed in “Life on Mars” and “Full Disclosure.”)
There’s hardly enough material for this episode to justify any self-importance in its title. A change to the show is gonna come… but brother, it sure ain’t here yet.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Kate educating CJ with miniature flags. “I play a lot of Risk.”
+ Margaret singing and dancing. This is something the show always needed more of.
+ Leo’s “fork-and-flag” analogy.
– Why does this episode feature an in media res opening? There’s no reason for it. Tell your story normally, guys.
– Who exactly is Carol working for now? It’s unclear if she’s an assistant to CJ or Toby.
– And our surprise musical guest is… James Taylor! Or it would be a surprise, if the guest credits hadn’t proudly announced the “Special Musical Appearance by James Taylor.” Oh, well.
Hoynes to Josh: “You can be Leo to me.” This is an obvious allusion to Josh’s forthcoming work on the Santos campaign, which will culminate in him becoming Santos’ Chief of Staff.