‘It’s throw open our office doors to people who want to discuss things that we could care less about day.’
Toby and the President butt antlers over guns, violent movies, their sense of achievement and the President’s better angels while Sam and CJ meet with fringe interest groups and Charlie meets the President’s youngest daughter, Zoey.
It’s Big Block of Cheese Day!
I’ll let Leo explain: ‘Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of his White House, had a big block of cheese... it was there for any and all who might be hungry... it is in the spirit of Andrew Jackson that I, from time to time, ask senior staff to have face-to-face meetings with those people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention. I know the more jaded among you see this as something rather beneath you. But I assure you that listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one, and surely not the people's servants.’
I love the idea of Big Block of Cheese Day. From a story point of view, there’s something really lovely about the thought of giving people who normally struggle to be heard a voice, no matter how crazy. From a narrative point of view, it’s a goldmine, a perfect opportunity to create eccentric characters with wacky special interests. And so, Ted from Scrubs wants Sam and the White House to pay more attention to UFOs, while Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation wants CJ to set up a wolves-only highway (which I believe was actually proposed recently). CJ and Sam are initially amused, but Sam finds himself strangely preoccupied with what turns out to be an old Russian satellite while CJ becomes a passionate advocate for wolves and their comparative statistical safety compared to vending machines.
Meanwhile, Mandy stirs up yet more trouble between Toby and the President, already fighting all day, when she reveals that Toby was the President’s second choice for the Chief of Communications job. Toby and the President are both so passionate that, inevitably, when they disagree the sparks fly – they could do without someone like Mandy running around sticking her nose in.
Josh turns out to have a horribly traumatic back story, revealed in a trip to his psychiatrist. He hasn’t been going since getting a job at the White House, but since discovering that if there’s a nuclear holocaust, it’ll be just him, Leo and the President with some military and secret service officers and none of his friends, he's felt the need for a quick chat. His late sister’s love of music also provides him with an excuse to play Schubert’s 'Ave Maria,' which is beautiful, and his scene with CJ is delicate and touching. His eventual decision is daft, pointless and heroic, and tells us so much about Josh’s character – his bravery, his loyalty, the strong affection he feels for his friends and co-workers and his streak of manic idealism. Though his description of how we could all die of smallpox will haunt my nightmares.
The only tiny drawback to this otherwise perfect episode is the President’s speech about ‘these women’ at the end. I’m sure Sorkin meant well, but it is the most horribly, uncomfortably patronising speech I’ve heard in a while. Aw look, it says, the little ladies are up here playing with the big boys. Aren’t they sweet? All this while Zoey supervises the cooking in the kitchen... At least she has Charlie to help her, once Josh has encouraged him to see her as ‘a girl’ and stop calling her ‘Ma’am.’ Josh and Zoey seem especially close as well, Josh greeting her with a cuddle and saying ‘yeah right!’ when Bartlet suggests Zoey will lead a life of celibacy, which is a tiny bit weird and inappropriate, but never mind.
Minor niggles can’t take down this story though. This is one of my favourite early episodes, and it’s pretty high up in terms of my all time favourite episodes overall. It’s sweet, touching and hilariously funny with a streak of tragedy and melancholy running through it courtesy of Josh’s storyline – it’s the perfect example of The West Wing in a nutshell. Just five episodes in, the show has hit its stride.
Bits 'n' pieces
- The opening basketball game is very funny. It’s the only time we really see Bartlet’s obsessive need to win, but since he won a Presidential election I think it’s safe to say this is a significant aspect of his personality.
- Why is Josh only just now getting this card that tells him, the Deputy Chief of Staff, where to go in the event of a nuclear holocaust? I guess that’s one to chalk up to artistic license.
- The very short Bartlet hiding behind the professional basketball player is hilarious.
- Sam says he hasn’t seen his assistant Kathy naked but she’s like his sister – just like Josh and Donna. Josh looks uncomfortable, mainly because he’s stressing about the card thing, but I like to think it's also because he would quite like to see Donna naked, as they have fantastic chemistry. On the other hand, he later substitutes Joanie (his dead sister) for Donna in conversation, so who knows...
Toby: It was Steffi Graf you crazy lunatic! Do you think I’m not gonna recognise Steffi Graf when she’s serving a tennis ball at me?!
Leo: And Sam goes on my list!
Sam: What about Toby?
Leo: I’m unpredictable.
Bartlet: Is it time for my 10am scolding?
Bartlet: Everyone! Come in. Come on in. Hey, listen up everybody. Zoey's down from Hanover. I'm making chili for everyone tonight.
Everyone (listlessly): Great. Okay. Chili.
Bartlet: All right...You know what? Let's do this. Everybody look down at the big seal in the middle of my carpet. Now, everybody look back up at me. Zoey's coming down from Hanover and I'm making chili for everyone tonight.
Everyone (excited): That's great! I love chili! Terrific!
CJ: Josh, have you been upset about this?
CJ: You’re very sweet sometimes, you really are.
Josh: Schubert was crazy you know. Do you think you have to be crazy to create something powerful?
C.J. (on how people might be killed by vending machines): I don't know. I mean, maybe the vending machines fall on them while they're getting their change.
Bartlet: C.J., I don't mind the cost of this wolves-only highway. It's the segregation. The ACLU is gonna file a petition on behalf of some reindeer and then we're all screwed.
Almost perfect television. Four out of four crackpots.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.