[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Leslie Linka Glatter | Aired: 10/30/2005]
“It’ll look better after you win.” – Sheila
During the Sorkin years, policy debates on The West Wing tended to be intraparty rather than interparty. Sorkin unquestionably favored the blue over the red, assumed (correctly, by Nielsen metrics) that most of his viewers did the same, and focused on disputes between the establishment liberals and the far left.
John Wells, in moving the series closer to the political center, changed the series’ overall dynamic; now, debates between mainstream liberals and conservatives were the rule rather than the exception. While that did not help boost the show’s ratings (more on that in the next review), it did allow the series to focus on more hot-button issues that were the focus of early-2000s political discourse.
“The Al Smith Dinner” focuses on one of the most polarizing issues in American politics, the ongoing fight between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Such a controversial topic was not common fodder for primetime TV in 2005, and could potentially spell trouble for NBC. But “The Al Smith Dinner” manages to avoid any real controversial pitfalls. Part of the reason may be that it’s quietly sandwiched between two other, highly polarizing episodes (“Here Today” and “The Debate,” both divisive for their own non-political reasons), and partly because the episode focuses far less on the tenets of the debate than what it says about the characters doing the debating.
As the nominees for two major and opposing parties, Santos and Vinick hardly see eye-to-eye. In fact, we as viewers (assuming we know anything about American politics, or politics in general) are geared to believe that these two men naturally disagree on everything this side of their favorite pizza toppings. So when a pro-life group puts out an attack ad against the Santos campaign, and Josh and Lou respond with a negative ad of their own, nothing seems out of the ordinary.
But of course, nothing about this election is ordinary, with the two candidates holding conflicting positions even within their own parties. Vinick, as has been established in the past, is more socially liberal than most of his electorate, here getting a warmer reception from a pro-choice activism group than the more traditional religious Right. But here we learn that Santos has his own socially conservative personal beliefs that conflict with many in his own party.
Here’s the kicker: Divorced from party, in a vacuum all their own, Santos and Vinick share extremely similar views on the issue. It’s only when placed in context of their political allegiances that they seem out of place. And that’s where their courting of respective bases gets complicated – will Santos find common ground with conservative Christians? Will Vinick go for liberal urban yuppies? (As this episode indicates, he’s campaigning in New York, one of the country’s most consistent Democratic strongholds.)
I’m not here to argue that these positions and candidacies are believable. (Certainly The West Wing has never been a truly believable show, though it does work overtime when attempting to reconcile its fantasy characters with ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling.) But in context, they are certainly interesting, and a telling indictment of how political philosophies can supersede the politicians who espouse them.
Within the context of the season, “The Al Smith Dinner” is a thematically driven episode, and doesn’t do much to develop the campaign characters or storyline. (Its primary function is to set up the debate in the next episode, which is a pointless exercise in its own right. But again, more on that next time.) In fact, its key character moments are confined to the White House scenes, which deal with the fallout from “Here Today.”
Will Bailey has had an odd journey over the last few seasons, a square peg in a steady succession of round holes. Introduced in the waning days of Sorkin’s tenure, he was conceived as a lightweight Sam Seaborn replacement, initially apprehensive of the Bartlet administration but quickly growing accustomed to its inner workings. Just as he was growing fully acclimated, Team Wells took over, sending him to the office of a brand-new Veep, dismissing the starry-eyed edge that had first defined his character. He was featured prominently in the Russell presidential campaign, but Bingo Bob was an obvious third wheel to the steadily rising stars of Santos and Vinick. And after all that, Will returns to the White House, to be given the same office he originally vacated, plus the press secretary job recently lost by Toby.
Is Will a good fit as press secretary? Not so much; he was clearly only given the job as a means of keeping Joshua Malina in the show. But the writers are at least smart enough to acknowledge his poor fit for the position, even building the episode’s subplot around it. Will stumbles and fumbles through his first press conference; he’s scarcely better than Josh was in “Celestial Navigation.” But by episode’s end, the reporters have dialed things back to softball questions.
What prompted the change? Clearly CJ had a hand in it, although we’re left to speculate exactly how. We’re also left to wonder who gifted the little pink Spalding on his desk; CJ again seems to be the likely suspect, but it remains unclear. (Would she really give away Toby’s famed toy so soon after her favorite sparring partner was fired from the White House?) The subplot, like the main plot, keeps character focus to the background; that’s just the way the rubber ball bounces.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Lou referring to the New York Times as an “ink-stained rag.” Kind of doubt primetime TV would make a tossed-off comment like that today.
+ Will botching CJ’s Eskimo line during the press briefing.
+ The Lou/Bruno scene is a ton of fun. These two needed to spar more often.
+ Donna dissing Josh as he attempts to give her a job interview (and thus exert authority over her once again). Hits him hard, now that he’s no longer her superior.
+ Will leans back in his chair to catch the ball. Guess what happens next.
– The anti-Vinick ad is pretty cheesy. “If he’s on both sides, how can he be on your side?” I can never take the public campaign ads seriously, which is why it’s always better when the show sticks to behind-the-scenes drama. (Once again, more on that next time.)