Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Five Worst Episodes of The West Wing

Yes kids, it's time once again to turn a critical eye on that which we love.

I bow to no one in my esteem for the first four seasons of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin's award-winning drama and my favorite show in the whole wide world. I'll avoid giving you diabetes by lavishing sugary sweet praise, but suffice it to say those first four seasons frequently reached truly extraordinary levels of artistic excellence.

Naturally I decided to list the five worst episodes of those first four seasons. To repeat a disclaimer: this is a labor of love and should not be read as anything but that. I excluded from consideration "Issac and Ishmael," an out-of-continuity episode created in response to the September 11 terror attacks.

1. "Pilot": Season One
An episode with a number of excellent set pieces, (Bartlet excoriating the Christian Conservatives in the White House, Sam's wonderful conversation with Mallory) but also one of those cases where the pilot doesn't set the right tone for the series. One of the strengths of the series was that while Sorkin was doing a lot of liberal wish casting and created a number of conservative strawmen, he also subverted a lot of the expectations one might have of The West Wing. Religion was treated with dignity and respect. Morality was a consistent theme. So a pilot where Sam picks up a pot-smoking hooker (to be sure, he didn't pay her) and the religious right is excoriated sends the wrong message. The pilot indicated the show would be just another liberal stereotype when it proved to be so much more.

2. "Commencement": Season Four
Problematic for two reasons. First, the key plot element in this season finale is the kidnapping of Zoey. It was not Sorkin's finest decision. I get why he did it, and it was a legitimately clever throwback to a speech Bartlet gave back in the first season, but it just came off as cliche' and desperate, like Sorkin was throwing a Hail Mary at the end of his tenure on the show. Second, the episode relied heavily on Charlie and Zoey, played by Dule Hill and Elisabeth Moss respectively. Hill was the show's weak link and Moss was worse, her performances redeemed by the fact that they were comparatively rare. They had trouble carrying a scene, let alone an entire episode. (I should note that Hill has done a much better job on the few episodes of Psych I've seen) Plus, it seems like Sorkin's awfully cavalier with the death of a Secret Service agent.

3. "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail": Season Three
Goes off the rails a little bit simply with the title. God, but that's a mouthful. The decision to make Don Henley's "New York Minute" the musical backdrop completely ruins any dramatic tension. It's hard to get into the mindset that this is a traumatic time for Sam with that silly little song playing the in the background. It seems like a small thing, but while a soundtrack can't make an episode, it certainly can break one. Sorkin also poisons this episode by giving Sam what is arguably the worst "Sorkin Speech" of the show's run:

"It was high treason, and it mattered a great deal! This country is an idea, and one that’s lit the world for two centuries and treason against that idea is not just a crime against the living! This ground holds the graves of people who died for it, who gave what Lincoln called the last full measure of devotion, of fidelity."

Rob Lowe's delivery doesn't help, but yeesh, that is bad. It's not completely irredeemable until he goes into the Lincoln spiel. On the positive side, this was also the second "Big Block of Cheese Day" episode, and those were fun.

4. "The Stackhouse Filibuster", Season Three:
Aired the week after "Somebody's Going to Emergency...," so this wasn't Sorkin's best twosome. The basic premise of the episode is charming and appeals to the writer's sense of idealism, and I'm all about unrealistic idealism. Old man does something extraordinary for his autistic grandchild. Awfully cool. And we can never see enough filibusters on primetime network television. But Sorkin's framing device, several staffers writing letters to parents, is executed poorly. CJ, Sam and Josh evidently write familial emails in an absurdly stilted style. Come on guys. You're writing to mom and dad. Let your hair down a little.

5. "Game On", Season Four:

Placed here because it represents the true climax of the re-election arc that dominated the beginning of the fourth season. Bartlet wouldn't win the election until the next episode, but there was no doubt after he thoroughly destroyed Rob Ritchie in this episode that he would win. Truthfully, the outcome was never in doubt, and that sapped any tension from the entire storyline. Bartlet was never going to lose. He was certainly never going to lose to someone like Ritchie, who didn't even provide the viewers with a compelling opposition figure. Ritchie was a thinly veiled Bush parody, and I got the impression Sorkin was less concerned with entertaining his audience than with working out frustration brought on by the Bush administration. Understandable, but still a mistake. A relatively savvy viewer wouldn't expect Bartlet to lose to even a three dimensional Republican character like Arnold Vinick, but the re-election story could have been more entertaining.

A note: absent from this list is Dead Irish Writers, a third season episode that's widely panned by the show's fans. And yes, it's blatantly unrealistic. The British Ambassador complimenting the First Lady's breasts is beyond silly. But this episode is protected by the Rule of Funny. Unrealistic plot twists are acceptable if they're sufficiently funny, and I think Roger Rees' performance redeems the stupid twists.


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Don said...

I like The West Wing too. I just watched 100,000 Planes. This is the episode where President Bartlett wants to add "curing cancer in 10 years" to his State of the Union speech. A subplot is where Sam Seaborne is shoved together with his ex-fiance (Traylor Howard I believe is the actress). There was no chemistry at all between Sam and his ex. Their scenes together seemed like they were 2 strangers. I don't know if Rob Lowe just didn't do a great job or the director told him to keep his performance low key. The normally passionate Sam really came off like "Sam on valium", very robotic and cold.

Groggy Dundee said...

I strongly disagree with you on Somebody's Going to Emergency... for me it's Rob Lowe's finest hour on the show. The Alger Hiss expy was a really interesting plot to balance Sam's personal life. I enjoyed Toby's subplot with the anti-globalization protestors too.

I'd like The Stackhouse Filibuster more if it weren't a carbon copy of Dear Louise from Sports Night. I have no problem with the Pilot or kidnapping story. You're right about Dule Hill, who worked best as a foil for Martin Sheen. The whole re-election campaign left a bad taste in my mouth, as it seemed a way for Sorkin to vent about George Bush.

I feel the show jumped as early as Season Three. Not entirely Sorkin's fault, as 9/11 probably forced the introduction of "topical" material. But then you have the abrupt resolution of the MS/impeachment plotline, irritating characters like Mary-Louise Parker and Mark Harmon, the stupid CJ stalker plot... I don't think the show really recovered from that season's unevenness.

Anyway, cool blog. Glad I found it.

bslm said...

So you hated the show... When a list of worst episodes includes "The Stackhouse Filibuster" you have shown your hand. I'm sure there is another rerun of Married with Children or Beavus and Butt-Head you can watch again.