West Wing 7×08: Undecideds

[Writer: Debora Cahn | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 12/04/2005]

When rewatching West Wing episodes – as with any old TV show or film – it is sometimes best to consider the time period in which it was made. Not every aspect has dated well. Not every reference holds up. The series is still largely entertaining and worthwhile, but certain parts of it are distinctly of their era. And this is especially true with the Wells years, which often insisted on being up-to-the-minute on real American and global issues. The way those issues were viewed and addressed then are not always the manner in which they are seen today.

And there are few examples of this as awkward as “Undecideds.” To be clear, this was not a good episode of television when it aired in 2005. But reflecting on it over fifteen years later, it’s a mess.

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West Wing 7×07: The Debate

[Writer: Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 11/06/2005]

“Okay, let’s have a real debate.” – Santos

The story behind why “The Debate” exists is an interesting one. Far more interesting, in fact, than “The Debate” itself.

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West Wing 7×06: The Al Smith Dinner

[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.

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West Wing 7×05: Here Today

[Writer: Peter Noah | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/23/2005]

“Is it possible to be astonished and at the same time not surprised?” – Bartlet

“Here Today” has had an unusual journey among West Wing fans – a journey which, as I’m writing this, is perhaps not yet complete. When it first aired in 2005, it was roundly hated by the show’s fans. A few critics praised it, but most of the show’s publicity had dried up by then.

Over fifteen years later, “Here Today” still isn’t one of the show’s most beloved episodes, and hardly comes up in discussions of the show’s best hours. But it is earning more respect from many West Wing fans (including many who, like myself, came to the series years after it concluded).

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West Wing 7×04: Mr. Frost

[Writer: Alex Graves | Director: Andrew Bernstein | Aired: 10/16/2005]

“We stay on message, we stay in control.” – Josh

Before sitting down to rewatch this episode for review, I had to subconsciously remind myself of the title. It was “Mr. Frost.” It was not, as my mind kept urging me to believe “Mr. Snow.” (Nor was it “Mr. Plow”; that title is reserved for an episode of an entirely different show and an accompanying, inexplicably catchy jingle.)

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West Wing 7×03: Message of the Week

[Writer: Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 10/09/2005]

“He’s what’s wrong with the party. He’s the problem, not me!” – Vinick

The West Wing was never designed to be timeless, but it also wasn’t intended to affix itself to a specific point in American political history. Produced in the waning days of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first, it certainly drew inspiration from the news of its era, but for much of its early seasons, it kept a safe distance from the world outside our TV sets. Under Sorkin’s tenure, key names and places were fictionalized, the better to avoid controversies and to keep the stories from aging too poorly.

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West Wing 7×02: The Mommy Problem

[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/02/2005]

“I need to hear it all.” – Santos

At a time when many serialized dramas (The Sopranos, The Wire, Buffy) were being meticulously mapped out for seasons in advance, The West Wing was largely written on the fly. Sorkin famously spun Bartlet’s MS into an episode simply as a detail; it was only during the break between the first two seasons that he began considering its implications in the larger framework of the series. Plenty of other arcs were introduced as the need allowed, even as some of them built off events and even lines of dialogue from seasons past.

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West Wing 7×01: The Ticket

[Writer: Debora Cahn | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 09/25/2005]

“Yeah, but I won.” – Josh

It begins unlike any season before. Not in the present, or the past, but the near future – three years hence, when a now ex-President Jed Bartlet reunites with his former staffers at the opening of his own Presidential library.

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West Wing 6×21: Things Fall Apart

6x21 Things Fall Apart

[Writer: Peter Noah | Director: Nelson McCormick | Aired: 3/30/2005]

“No one signs up to come in second.” – Santos

Back in college, I took a class that at one point assigned us to read from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The book, for those unaware, is set in a Nigerian village that is forced to deal with late 19th-century colonialism. I’d be lying if I said I remembered much from the book, but then, I don’t remember much from most of the classes I took during college (apart from the fact that they were constantly distracting me from this website).

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West Wing 6×20: In God We Trust

WestWing 6x20

[Writer: Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 3/23/2005]

<blockquote. “Counting weddings and funerals?” – Vinick

Across the course of The West Wing‘s sixth season, we’ve borne witness to transition. A series that once centered on those who work in the White House has shifted focus to those who covet it. Bartlet, CJ, Leo, and Toby have become supporting characters in the series they established. New faces, locales, and storylines have taken hold.

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West Wing 6×19: Ninety Miles Away

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[Writer: John Sacret Young | Director: Rod Holcomb | Aired: 3/16/2005]

“I’m gonna remember this…” – Leo

The rules of fictional writing (be it in television, film, or literature) dictate that there are two types of bad stories – those that fail in concept, and those which fail in execution. The West Wing, despite its many triumphs, has produced multiple episodes in both categories. The “fail in concept” basket includes “Slow News Day,” which is ineptly plotted but at least features some glimmers of character competence, while the latter category slots in “Constituency of One,” which starts with a promising series of storylines and then bungles every last one of them.

And then once in a while, we get an episode that fails in both concept and execution. An episode like “Ninety Miles Away.”

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West Wing 6×18: La Palabra

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[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Jason Ensler | Aired: 3/9/2005]

“Eleven and thirteen.” – Santos

Matthew Santos is charming, handsome, and charismatic. He jokes effortlessly with reporters and maintains friendly rapports with the folks on his campaign staff. He has a lovely wife and two cute-as-a-button kids, and they make the most beautiful gosh-darn family you’ve ever seen.

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West Wing 6×16: Drought Conditions

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[Writer: Debora Cahn | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 2/23/2005]

“You got a chance to shape the debate, strengthen the party, and you blew it!” – Toby

Among the many failings of Season Five, one of the most egregious was the way it turned TV’s greatest political series into a primetime soap opera. Illicit romances, interpersonal vendettas, and betrayals/backstabbings were brought to the forefront, often seemingly out of nowhere, and the show’s once-cutting political vernacular fell to the wayside.

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West Wing 6×14: The Wake-Up Call

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[Writer: Josh Singer | Director: Laura Innes | Aired: 2/9/2005]

“The document is just the beginning.” – Lessig

I’m a sucker for titles with double-meanings, and “The Wake-Up Call” has a doozy. The name refers here to the late-night/early-morning call that the President receives during a national emergency. But it also refers to the recent metaphorical wake-up call – mapped out in the purposeful “365 Days” – to the Bartlet administration at large, which is now in its final year and must determine how to end on a high note.

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West Wing 6×13: King Corn

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[Writer: John Wells | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 1/26/2005]

“I lived the opposing arguments.” – Santos

It’s impossible to envy the position John Wells was put in during the summer of 2003. Not only had he been left to take charge of one of the most lauded and award-winning dramas of the era, but he’d had no direct involvement with the series beforehand. That the series didn’t immediately collapse into a pile of ash and broken dreams with the Season Five premiere was something of a miracle.

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West Wing 6×12: 365 Days

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[Writer: Mark Goffman | Director: Andrew Bernstein | Aired: 1/19/2005]

“Everyone’s walking around here like we’re finished.” – Leo

There are certain oddities and inconsistencies of The West Wing which must be accepted in order for us to appreciate the show’s finer aspects. The unexplained disappearance of many side characters (did Mandy just get lost on her way to the Sit Room?). The occasional character inconsistencies and continuity errors (pretty much everything involving Zoey Bartlet). The fact that election years are staggered two years against real-life elections (although if they occurred during leap years, as happens in reality, I suppose this episode would have been distractingly titled “366 Days”).

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West Wing 6×11: Opposition Research

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[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Chris Misiano | Aired: 1/12/2005 ]

“How do you wanna go broke? As the brown candidate, or as the American candidate?” – Josh

Politicians, despite what cable news may tell us, are not props. They are as human as you or I. They have hang-ups and flaws and quirks and foibles. They have favorite foods and favorite films and families they occasionally get to see.

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West Wing 6×10: Faith Based Initiative

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[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.

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West Wing 6×09: Impact Winter

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[Writer: Debora Cahn | Director: Leslie Linka Glatter | Aired: 12/8/2004 ]

“This is the back room.” – Leo

During the teaser sequence of “Impact Winter,” Annabeth and Josh discuss the upcoming press briefing, which will occur during “Take Out the Trash Week.” Annabeth asks Josh if he’s interested in doing the press briefing in Toby’s absence, but Josh swiftly declines, noting what a powder keg the press room can be.

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West Wing 6×08: In the Room

6x08_top[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.

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West Wing 6×07: A Change is Gonna Come

6x07_top[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.

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West Wing 6×06: The Dover Test

6x06_top_[Writer: Carol Flint | Director: Laura Innes | Aired: 11/24/2004 ]

“You don’t work here anymore.” – Debbie

It’s unfortunately telling that the two most interesting characters in “The Dover Test” do not have any direct affiliation with the Bartlet White House. In fact, it’s unfortunate, period – most of the main characters spend this episode looking out of their element, wandering from one hallowed room to another in search of a direction.

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West Wing 6×05: The Hubbert Peak

6x05_top[Writer: Peter Noah | Director: Julie Hébert | Aired: 11/17/2004 ]

“We didn’t have the votes.” – Josh

The Toyota Prius is one of the most fuel-efficient and environmentally-friendly cars ever made. Not only will it get you where you need to go, but it’ll do so without polluting the air with unwanted carbon emissions. You can look good while driving, and you’ll save a dozen friendly seagulls with each trip. Go green – go Prius!

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West Wing 6×04: Liftoff

6x04_top[Writer: Debora Cahn | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 11/10/2004 ]

“I don’t think this is gonna work out.” – CJ

Network television is built on status quo – individual episodes may play around with character dynamics, but in the long run, nothing can change. Yet the longer a show stays on the air, the more difficult status quo is to maintain. Even the most reliable formula will eventually grow stale, at which point fans will begin hungering for change.

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West Wing 6×03: Third-Day Story

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[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 11/3/2004 ]

“It’s that little burst of warmth before you freeze to death.” – CJ

“Third-Day Story” is a step up from the first two episodes of The West Wing’s sixth season. That’s not saying a great deal, but it’s worth acknowledging. As the show shucks off the effects of the wrong-headed Israel/Palestine arc, it tries to return to its baseline status quo – but the results, especially in the early going, are mixed.

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West Wing 6×02: The Birnam Wood

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[Writer: John Wells | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/27/2004 ]

“Sir, should we be here?” – Josh

About the best thing that can be said about “The Birnam Wood” is that it’s not nearly as self-aggrandizing as it could have been. The episode could have been an exercise in pompous polemic, the sort of all-too-important speechifying that doomed the worst of the Sorkin episodes. But John Wells (who wrote this episode, in addition to the preceding “Memorial Day” and “NSF Thurmont”) keeps the drama toned-down and evenly moderated. Attempts at political grandstanding are few and far between.

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