[Writer: Carol Flint | Director: Richard Schiff | Aired: 3/2/2005]
“He started it.” – Bartlet
I love debating. Whether it’s about TV shows, politics, or TV shows about politics, a good debate reminds my brain to stay alert and perhaps face arguments I’ve never considered before. Though we don’t always (read: basically never) convince our opponents over to our side, debating people with conflicting views is a good way to put your own views in perspective, and perhaps even sway neutral third parties in our direction.
Debating, as many academics understand (provided they stay away from social media), is a key component to our culture, not merely as Americans but as people at large. And it’s no surprise that The West Wing features numerous debates, as the characters trade arguments with both members of both their own party and the opposition. But at their best, the show’s political debates are peripheral – they’re mostly there to service the characters and their storylines. Putting them front and center can fuddle things in a hurry.
The most infamous example of this is “Game On,” the disastrous fourth-season episode that put Bartlet onstage alongside his GOP Presidential opponent, Robert Ritchie. “Game On” was much ado about much ado, painting one-dimensional arguments and vapid “Gotcha!” moments as earth-shattering polemic, its grandiose ambitions undercut by a hollow center. (A similar problem befalls Season Seven’s “The Debate,” but we’ll burn that bridge when we get there.)
How successful a fictional TV series is at portraying a debate of a real-life issue depends on four factors: (1) The resonance of the debate topic itself; (2) the breadth of divergent opinion between the two sides; (3) the level of credence given to each side; and (4) the plausibility of the outcome. While it is possible to milk compelling drama (as opposed to fleeting partisan pleasure) from one or two of these factors, it is nearly impossible for a writer – liberal, conservative, or otherwise – to nail all four.
And that brings us to “A Good Day.” There are a lot of debates in this episode, and some of them ring more effectively than others. Start with the most memorable: Bartlet vs. Takahashi. Bartlet has been feeling particularly weak as of late, both physically (still recovering from the MS attack) and politically (having a veto of his overridden by the Senate). And on top of his latest troubles, the ever-growing deficit is keeping him up at night. So the last thing he needs is Dr. Yosh Takahashi (played by the great Mako in his final live-action TV role) dropping by the White House to belittle him. Having shared (or “split,” as Bartlet bitterly puts it) a Nobel Prize several years ago, Bartlet and Takahashi don’t get along very well, and their polarized politics do not help.
What’s most effective about the Bartlet/Takahashi thread is that it doesn’t culminate in the two of them learning to agree with one another – they trade plenty of intellectual barbs, and Bartlet ends the day as upset as he was before. But the episode skillfully portrays Takahashi as Bartlet’s intellectual equal – despite his deeply conservative policies, he holds his own against the President. And more importantly, the tiff between them allows Bartlet to reflect on the state of his own Presidency – on the successes and failures of the past seven years, and of a potential trajectory for his eighth.
Less memorable – though still intermittently entertaining – is the story featuring the debate between Santos and a Congressman from Arkansas. When Speaker Haffley threatens to derail a stem-cell bill by postponing the vote until enough Democrats have left Washington for Super Tuesday, Santos, Josh, and Cliff Calley come up with a plan – have dozens of Democrats pretend to leave DC for the week, but in reality spend a night in the Capitol to surprise Haffley with their appearance when the vote is called the next morning. It’s not the first time the main characters have tried backdoor politics to outsmart Haffley, but it works better than in “Shutdown,” as Santos leading a group of Congressmen into the chamber past a speechless Speaker is a far more entertaining visual than Bartlet walking into a building, and then walking out of a building.
Yet the storyline still doesn’t leave the impression it should. For all his prominence, Haffley remains a cartoon villain, with Steven Culp’s clean-shaven face his only prevention from a mustache twirl. And Santos’ debate with the Congressman from Arkansas over the morality of stem-cell research lacks punch because not only does the episode not specify which political party the Congressman belongs to, it never even tells us his name. There’s potential for him to have an intriguing discussion with Santos (who, as this episode implies, is not fully pro-choice himself), but the episode turns him into a cipher in order to make a consequence-free argument, and so his line to Haffley – “I made up my own mind” – falls flat.
Rounding out these two larger storylines are a pair of more minute threads – Toby debating a high school boy about the voting age limit, and Kate sparring with the Canadian Ambassador over a possible hostage situation. The former story is paint-by-numbers, though it does underline the continuing thread of Toby getting stuck with the White House’s table scraps this season. The latter is a Kate Harper story, which is precisely as interesting as it sounds.
What we have, then, is a smooth but disappointingly shallow episode, lacking the depth of other outings in the show’s current sixth-season resurgence. Though it features some intriguing political back-and-forth, it never quite fulfills its potential as a showcase of partisan conflicts. It’s a strength of the Wells era that The West Wing challenged viewers to look beyond Sorkin’s status quo, but there’s little challenge to be found in “A Good Day.”
Postscript: Because I can’t resist the occasional shameless plug, here’s a more detailed piece of mine from 2016 that discusses the concept and particulars of political debate. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it’s nearly 4,500 words long, the article is one of the least-read pieces on this website. Please give it some love. (Or some hate. Whichever.)
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Margaret doing her best to stall Takahashi.
+ Any scene where Bartlet and Takahashi trading barbs. Too bad this was a one-time character.
+ Santos sitting on a couch without realizing that Donna is sleeping on it. Talk about rude awakenings.
+ The Canadian Ambassador is real polite aboot things, eh?
+ The “I’ve got a plane to catch” fakeout.
+ I love how this show keeps bringing back even the most minor characters from earlier seasons. Case in point: We get a cameo from Congressman Wade, who was previously seen talking to Leo in the opening to “Two Cathedrals.”
– Cody is arrogant and condescending. I hate arrogant and condescending teenagers, especially since I was one myself not long ago.
– The smile on Haffley’s face when he thinks Santos has left Washington. Could this guy be any more of a caricature?