West Wing 6×08: In the Room

[Writers: Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 12/8/2004]

“You have a year to talk me out of voting for him.” – Donna

Among the numerous changes made during the Sorkin-to-Wells transition, few are as jarring as The West Wing’s newfound penchant for “modern” cultural references. Sorkin cut off the show’s real-world history around the Nixon era, and the culture discussed in the White House rarely ticked past 1975. But a new production team brings a new flavor to the series, and so it is that references inch slightly closer to the 21st century. “In the Room,” for example, has a throwaway line where Bartlet references the political TV series Crossfire. It’s only a brief mention, but it sticks out jarringly against the show’s retrograde framework.

It was perhaps especially jarring when the episode first aired back in late 2004, a time when Crossfire was achieving some unwanted cultural recognition. Just a few weeks earlier, CNN had broadcast a now-infamous episode that saw Tucker Carlson and Jon Stewart engage in a rather vitriolic (for those days, anyway) debate. The show had heated up national political discourse around the time of the ’04 Presidential election, so having it referenced on a show as polished and disaffected as The West Wing feels clumsily ill-timed.

But bad timing seems to be all the rage for “In the Room.” The episode hinges on an intriguing dramatic device: Bartlet’s MS is returning, and it may be worse than ever. Properly executed, this development could easily inspire bold messages about inherent weaknesses and political impotence. But real suspense about the state of the Bartlet administration would require the episode to be chiefly focused on the Bartlet administration. And unfortunately, the show has just begun to move on.

“In the Room” introduces Arnold Vinick, who will become a pivotal character for the remainder of the series. With his introduction, we further embroil ourselves in a new phase of the show – one which will take place largely outside the White House walls. The focus has already begun to move away from the current President and towards the election of the next one, and the introduction of a Republican candidate who could conceivably win California suddenly gives this election storyline a great deal of gravitas.

Indeed, much of the meat of “In the Room” centers on the forthcoming election, whether around the party-groomed Baker, the coattail-riding Russell, or the scandal-shaken Hoynes. Each of these men are discussed as a potential nominee, but none of them leave much of a believable impression – particularly when placed next to a candidate as pragmatic and popular as Vinick.

Josh recognizes Vinick’s appeal – to liberals as well as conservatives – and spends much of this episode cycling through possible Democratic opponents. Hoynes is a non-starter, Baker a non-entity, and Russell just non-Presidential. (Will, of course, remains an adequate Russell standby, and his hesitance at accepting the mantle of campaign manager comes off as further confused rewriting for a once-promising character.)

It’s all very dramatically potent, and will lead to some of the sharpest and most complex drama in The West Wing’s entire run. Meanwhile, what are our main characters saddled with? A magic show gone awry at Zoey’s birthday party.

Now, I don’t wish to demean Messrs. Penn and Teller, both accomplished magicians with plenty of great tricks up their seemingly-bare sleeves. And the show has done well with celebrity cameos in the past (think back to “20 Hours in LA”). But this isn’t a cameo – it’s an entire plotline centered on the actions of two recognizable and ratings-grabby magicians, and it’s utterly out-of-sync with the West Wing we’re used to.

Note how much of the teaser sequence is devoted to these two tricksters, and then ask yourself if the show would have spent that much time on a pair of fictionalized magicians played by non-recognizable actors. But at this late date, viewership for the show had begun to drop, and celebrity guest stars had become a necessary evil. At least the show does offer up some parallels between their flag-burning trick and the Chinese summit Bartlet attends (itself based around a flag mishap, as seen in “A Change is Gonna Come”). But for the most part, the storyline is little more than ratings fluff.

We’re thus presented with a disorienting dichotomy through “In the Room.” Scenes featuring the Bartlet administration feel lightweight and disposable, even during the episode’s relatively tense final minutes. Meanwhile, scenes centered on the impending election brim with potential – potential that will be realized over the back half of Season Six and much of Season Seven. The net result is not great, but signs of improvement are gleaming – The West Wing is slowly on the way to recovery.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Dr. Griffith (previously seen in “Ellie”) returns. I’m loving these long-term continuity reaches.
+ Okay, the scene where Penn and Teller display their juggling skills is pretty fun. As is the conversation Penn has with Josh. See, I’m not totally anti-magician.

– Granted, Baker will play a semi-significant role later on. But he feels like a total placeholder during these early episodes, just biding time until the Santos campaign kicks in.

Score: B-

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