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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