1.1 Pilot (September 22, 1999)

First of all, let’s celebrate the serendipity that I finally got my act together to write this post on the 15th anniversary (to the day!!) after The West Wing premiered.  It’s like you got into a time machine and took 2014’s compulsion to recap every second of television with you and now here we are in 1999 America, preparing for Y2K, safe from terrorism, wondering whether Christina or Britney will top TRL this week, dialing into our modems on our iBooks so we can get on our AOL chatrooms and, well, chat, I guess, about this new show we saw last night.  We were all 16 and our whole lives were ahead of us.  You’ve got mail.  Et cetera.

In reality, I didn’t start watching until season 3, when I was 9/11’d into considering an international relations major for half a semester and searching for liberal ideals recited by accessibly attractive people on television.  My high school government teacher had talked TWW up a lot during the second season and I remembered the promos before the first season.  They mostly consisted of an abbreviated version of the pilot’s opening scenes played over, I swear, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and closed with Rob Lowe’s dramatic humblebrag of “Oh, didn’t I mention, I work for the President of the United States, but only civilians like you really call him that” before dashing off to a bloody and dangerous battle with I guess knights and dragons and shit from which he will most certainly never return a staff meeting.

Peasant.

Peasant.

And that brings us to why I dragged my feet on this post.  I decided to start this blog a few months back.  I was excited.  I drafted the initial welcome post, told a couple of friends, and then…remembered that I’d have to start with the pilot.

Oh, this pilot.  The histrionic opening scenes (everyone getting called into the office for something that required no more action than some jokes at a press briefing).  The forced introductions (Ed and Larry are just now meeting Sam’s assistant?  Sam didn’t know that Leo didn’t have an eight-year-old daughter?  Is it common for characters to recite their CVs to each other in the middle of a conversation?).  CJ’s unfortunate hairstyle.  Donna never brings Josh coffee; this is important to know for some reason.  And oh, dear lord, MANDY.

In fact, the only woman in the whole episode who isn’t written as a shrill hag or a domineering battleaxe is the prostitute, and she’s got her own archetype going on.  Even Leo’s wife, who is only mentioned and not seen, is characterized as having some kind of witchy controlling power over Sam.  But the Women of The West Wing will have to be saved for a very special post.

Cliches and platitudes, clarifications and simplifications.  As you’ve probably figured out by now…I love this pilot.  LOVE it.  I’m serious.  As an episode of TWW, not so great.  As a pilot, it makes me feel all gooey inside.  You guys.  If you’re going to write a pilot, get a goddamn playwright to help you with it.  That’s what this episode is: a play.  A complex but condensed teleplay.  And when you look at it like that, you can forgive the exposition and character shortcuts.  You need all that, because you have a limited amount of time to pack in a beginning, middle, and end.

I can imagine that writing a pilot, you must be tempted to leave it with a cliffhanger.  Want to see what happens?  You’ve got to commit to 13 episodes.  But you can leave them wanting more without dangling the plot in front of them.  Yes, we know Mandy’s up to no good and we want to find out more about Sam and his prostitute friend, but the episode doesn’t fade out just as Sam returns the page from Cashmere Escort Service, and we’re not on the edge of our seats to see how they resolve the Cuban refugee storyline.

Though I would like to know from what seat in that living room you're supposed to watch that TV.

Though I would like to know from what seat in that living room you’re supposed to watch that TV.

We could never see these people again and the episode would feel satisfying.  What we really want to know is how all these characters get up and do it all again the next morning, how their relationships evolve, and what lies beneath the surface.

I was a big fan of The Baby-sitters Club when I was younger, and the first chapter of all 80-something books I read was always exactly the same.  It introduced all the characters and described their unique attributes (seven, like the dwarfs: the Tomboy, the Artist, the Virgin, the Diabetic, the Hippy, the Ballerina, and Mallory).  It was OK to skip over that chapter every time, and it gave me a kind of weird guilt, like I hadn’t really ever read the book if I skipped the first chapter.  This pilot is that first chapter: important if you’ve never seen the show before, but it’s kind of OK if you skip it.

I think there’s an important distinction between a pilot and a first episode.  A pilot sells the show; but the second episode may be the real first episode.   I’m going to treat it that way and talk in my next post about what expectations it gives us for the series and what it does (or doesn’t, but should) set up.  In the meantime, I’m going to party like it’s 1999/catch up on my George magazines.

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A West Wing thing.

This blog is an experiment, so I’m flattered that you’re here but apologize for contributing to the amount of nonsense distractions available on the internet. I’m embarking upon this exercise for the following reasons:

1) I recently was in bed with bronchitis for nearly a week and, in the way that your brain can have no control over what you eat, say, or feel when you’re sick, I was compelled to watch seasons 5, 6, and 7 of The West Wing for only the second time ever.  (It’s important to note here that a conservative estimate of my TWW history puts me at over 50 views of each episode in seasons 1-4.  It is often my white noise when I am cleaning my apartment, making dinner, or getting ready in the morning.  It’s my go-to when I have nothing new to watch or listen to.)

I found, surprisingly, that I liked those three seasons.  I had stopped watching the show in real time when Aaron Sorkin left at the end of the 4th season, and didn’t watch 5, 6, and 7 until the show had ended (and then only begrudgingly, to see what had happened to the characters).  But it’s been over ten years since season 4, and, naturally, I’ve changed.  I think about things differently now, I know more, and we generally have different thresholds for what we will tolerate.  Golden Age of Television and whatnot.  Which brings me to reason number two.

2) Did I mention that I’ve seen the first 90 episodes of this show about 50 times each?  That’s almost 5,000 hours over the past fifteen years, or six solid months of my life.  By Malcolm Gladwell’s standards, I’m about halfway to being an expert (or whatever) at watching this show.  I’m definitely more of an expert at this than anything else, except maybe driving or typing or Facebook.  For something I’ve spent so much time with, I could stand to start being a little more critical.  I can put TWW in the context that only love and time can provide.

At its height, my fandom bordered on obsessive.  Yes, I still watch the show at least once a week and yes, I do include in an alarming number of professional conversations, “Let’s see, how can I explain this?  Did you ever see that episode of The West Wing when…”  But I’m much tamer now.  I am less of a zealot.  When I find out someone else is a fan, I don’t compete with them over who loves the show more.  I no longer have an AOL Instant Messenger screenname with a West Wing reference in it.  I’ve become, to borrow a political term, more moderate in my opinions.  I can see the bad in it.  I don’t look past the sexism or the holier-than-thou Sorkin soapboxes.  I want to still love it, and see it through the eyes of my sophomore year polisci major self, but something has happened.  I don’t like the part of myself that loved or didn’t love certain things ten years ago.  This obsession is slowly but surely becoming something I am not proud of.

But it’s OK, the world and I have changed.  Which brings me to my last reason for being here.

3) Footnotes.  I’ve been thinking for a while now about how much of pop culture is going to need to be footnoted for future generations, particularly quality films and television.  And we’re not doing as much of it now as we should; we’re just leaving breadcrumbs for future scholars.

I don’t think TWW is one of the greatest shows of all time (I would categorize it now more as a guilty pleasure) but I do think it existed at an important moment in America’s political landscape and will be taught in classrooms (you will not be surprised to hear that I’ve taught it in mine).

One of Sorkin’s trademarks is inside jokes that are supposed to make the smart people feel smart.  And the jokes of 1999 are getting harder and harder to get — if you even got those jokes to begin with.  I want to, again as an exercise, attempt to annotate some of the references.

Plus maybe, if I write down all my thoughts as I’m rewatching, maybe I can spend the next 5,000 hours of my life on something else.  What’s next?  (See what I did there?)

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