[Writer: Bradley Whitford | Director: Chris Misiano | Aired: 1/5/2005 ]
“Am I wrong to want to set the record straight? No pun intended?” – CJ
If you’ve been following these reviews for a while, you’ve probably noted that I don’t like The West Wing placing its politics front and center. The show is at its strongest when it points the magnifying glass at its characters, with policies and procedures functioning mainly as story fuel.
The Sorkin years, for the most part, kept Bartlet and co. at center stage, although it couldn’t resist occasionally dipping its toe into Very Special territory with episodes like “Take This Sabbath Day” or “The Women of Qumar.” It could be argued, then, that those first four seasons spoiled viewers into thinking this juggling of the personal and the political was easily sustainable.
Alas, it wasn’t. Over the last season and a half, we’ve watched Team Wells try to follow up Sorkin’s juggling act, but too often have they struggled to keep all their pins in the air. The divide between the show’s personal and political story arcs has grown increasingly starker, which ultimately hurts both – the characters lack the urgency and edginess that distinguished them from most other primetime dramas, while the plots often feel hollow and workmanlike.
Team Wells has tried to spruce up these plots by tackling more modern and relevant social issues, but this increased focus on staid and stuffy political debates doesn’t make for particularly engaging drama. Instead, they feel forced – and, in some cases, viewing these episodes years later, dated.
And man, does “Faith Based Initiative” feel dated. The episode was produced at a time when many real-life Democrats opposed gay marriage, and virtually every discussion the characters have about the topic in this episode reflects that interparty divide. What felt like an up-to-the-minute political discussion in 2005 feels soft and homogenized in 2018.
I can already hear your protests: “But that’s not the episode’s fault! Plenty of old TV shows feature storylines or messages that are now out-of-date. That’s just life.” And indeed it is. But most TV episodes, including most West Wing episodes, don’t construct their entire A-plot around a political issue and then use that issue as the story’s primary fulcrum.
What, precisely, is the emotional lynchpin of the gay-marriage storyline? Well, there are rumors swirling that CJ might be a lesbian, and the episode puts her in the unenviable position of trying to denounce the rumors without coming off as homophobic. There are some laughs along the way, but it’s not a particularly compelling or enlightening hook, and feels an awful lot like the episode trying to have its rainbow cake and eat it too: poking fun at the politics of the situation while also attempting to provide serious and thoughtful commentary.
Much like a typical episode Sorkin’s later Newsroom, too much of the story here relies on finger-on-the-pulse messaging rather than character. (Although in fairness, “Faith Based Initiative” is still far more watchable than most episodes of The Newsroom.) So we thus take extra solace in the Santos/Josh scenes, which continue to steer the season toward more engaging waters.
Though early Season Six episodes paint Santos as the ideal Congressman – potential catnip to a party in desperate need of a frontrunner – “Faith Based Initiative” takes time to show his human side. Santos is all set to end his political career and settle down in his lovely Texas home, but the draw of the White House – of a larger megaphone and a higher soapbox – can’t help tempting him. And where the opportunity-seeking Josh first broached the option to the Senator, it is Santos who convinces Josh to lead the campaign.
The scenes between Santos and Josh are reflective of the flashbacks between Bartlet and Leo we witnessed in seasons past. A promising politician who’s frustrated by the system; another man who convinces him to try and change it; the inevitable moment when the two join forces to face the Presidency together. To quote another famous politically-charged drama of the 2000s: All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
And that’s a good thing. If there’s one thing the first half of Season Six has proven, it’s that The West Wing is in serious need of a new direction. And what better way to find that direction than by starting over with a different playbook? It’s time to move toward the season’s latter – and far superior – half.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Of note: This episode was written by Bradley Whitford, one of two episodes he wrote for the series. (The other is Season Seven’s “Internal Displacement.” That may explain why Josh gets a lot of the best material here.
+ Santos, a legitimate Texan, mocking Russell’s cowboy boots.
+ Josh eager to assist Russell in his meeting with the NAACP, before Charlie kills his buzz.
+ CJ towering over Annabeth. Someone should make a buddy comedy with these two.
– There is nothing in Gail’s bowl. Gail is a major letdown.
* Real-Life Foreshadowing: Santos’ campaign announcement speech is centered on the word “Hope.” This immediately recalls the famous “Hope” poster of Obama’s 2008 campaign. It’s the first of many instances of foreshadowing that the last two seasons of The West Wing will make about the 2008 Presidential election.
* More Real-Life Foreshadowing: Russell cautions Toby that the White House will need to handle the issue of gay marriage delicately, saying that they have an opportunity to make it happen in ten years. This episode aired in 2005; gay marriage was nationally legalized in 2015.