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The West Wing: The Crackpots and These Women

‘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?
Josh: Yes.
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.


  1. You're considerably more forgiving of the sexism in this episode than I am. "These women" aside, it was a good episode. I always like Big Block of Cheese Day episodes, because everyone always starts out making fun of it but gets obsessed with their issue by the end of the episode. And I love that Ron Swanson was campaigning for government spending. Because that's hilarious.

    Josh's story about his sister always makes me sad.

    Bartlet's first choice for Toby's job was David Rosen, which is the name of Joshua Malina's character on Scandal. Joshua Malina, of course, plays Will Bailey in later season of The West Wing. :)

  2. I was worried I was being too negative about that speech, I'm glad it's not just me that finds it gut-wrenchingly horrible! (Along with poor Josh's insanely traumatic story about his sister!)

  3. Definitely not. My one issue with Aaron Sorkin is the sexism he lets into this show, particularly in early seasons. I always expect Bartlet to go on with "these women" and how they tie their shoes by themselves and have figured out how to drive themselves to work.

  4. I always love BBOC episodes because they are so revealing of character. This one is no different.

    The obvious example is Josh. I thought it was an interesting choice that we learn such a significant part of his backstory so early. In effect, we learn what makes him tick before we learn who he is. We go into the episode knowing that he is intelligent and ambitious; we leave it knowing that he has had tragedy in his life that makes him overly sensitive to his friends. What we haven’t seen yet is how else this tragedy affects him. It may have made even more of an impact later in the series.

    We also learn quite a bit about the President in this episode. As the basketball game (and you, Juliette) point out, his need to win is so excessive that he cheats to do it. Yes, it is a funny scene, but it is revealing. Not only does he need to win, however, he needs to be loved while he is doing it and he needs the love of the people who work for him.

    Much in the way that Josh obsesses about the card throughout the episode, Bartlet obsesses about Toby’s comment on the basketball court. The difference is that we don’t see it until the dinner. It is not unusual that people that work as hard as Bartlet’s staff might be less than pleased about having their day extended even further with their boss. When they respond to the chili invitation with an understandable lack of enthusiasm, Bartlet’s response is to order them to join him. He says at the end that he likes to see colleagues relaxing and enjoying themselves. While I am sure this is true, it may have more impact if they were all there by their own volition.

    Bartlet also needs to the smartest person in the room. While he is wiling to accept help, he is going to do things he feels are beneath him with contempt and scorn. The prep for the press conference is a perfect example. He shouts at Toby; he snarks at Sam and he is dismissive of Mandy. Once his mind is made up, he can’t hear any other points of view, even when they make sense. Toby’s speech about Hollywood and guns is valid, but Bartlet can’t allow himself to admit that he would rather have Posner’s money than take a true stand.

    We learn less about Sam and C.J., but we do learn that Sam is a pedant and dismissive to the point of rudeness to the man who has come to talk to him. C.J., on the other hand, is also laughing, but she is able to see the passion the wildlife people have for their work and respect that.

    The sexism in the final scene is an unfortunate coda to this episode. I think Sorkin’s heart was in the right place; he was trying to show us that, in spite of all his flaws, Bartlet truly cares about the people that work for him. It does so, but not in the right way.

    The best thing about this episode? It taught me to put cumin in my chili. If you don’t, try it. It works.

  5. I'm not so sure the "speech" was truly sexist or misogynistic. In 1998, the federal government had just release a report detailing how women were underrepresented in the Federal workforce. At the same time, a worldwide report listed the US with only around 20% of government decision making jobs going to women. I think this was Aaron Sorkin chiding the federal government on not doing enough to support capable women. Bartlet's tone is one of love and respect for what these women have accomplished -- and he's not broadcasting to the world, he's having an intimate conversation with his best friend when he decides to include Josh. And the series is replete with instances of how much the President loves, respects and trusts Josh.

    I will readily admit that, in a vacuum, 15 years later, this doesn't look very good on the surface. But if you can't put the show in its historical context, shows like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners and Leave it to Beaver would be wretched examples of race and sex relations today.

  6. There's a lot of uncharacteristic goofiness in this one. It wouldn't work all the time but I loved it -- the big-block-of-cheese and the UFOs and the wolves-only highway and the chili party. Also loved the b-ball scene. These people work such long hours that they're family.

    But mostly this episode made me care about Josh. He was so upset about the N.S.C. card that he couldn't stop thinking about it and eventually had to give it back. And he still carries the loss of his sister with him without acknowledging that he does. He's special, and there really is something sweet about him.


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