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The West Wing: 20 Hours in LA

"Is there an epidemic of flag-burning going on that I'm not aware of?"

Bartlet needs to go to LA for a fundraiser, and insists on doing the whole thing, including several meetings, in one non-stop 20-hour trip.

Taking its cue from its setting in the home of the movies, this episode is all about appearances and the messages we send out to people. Bartlet meets with people campaigning for an anti-flag-burning amendment, an issue which is entirely about appearances and messages – no one is physically hurt by someone burning a flag, the problem with it is entirely emotional (well, unless they were to end up in some tragic flag-burning-related accident – two people per year are apparently killed getting stuff out of vending machines, after all). He also meets with a Hollywood producer who wants him to speak out in favour of gay rights more and a pollster who thinks he can win the next election by putting through the anti-flag-burning amendment. Meanwhile, on a more sinister note, Zoey's new protection officer Gina identifies possible threats in a crowd from their stance and expression (though to be honest these guys are so clearly sinister and unpleasant you'd hardly need CIA training to spot them).

Joey Lucas emphasises the other side of that theme, the way the public receives that message, claiming that vox populi, vox dei, 'the voice of the people is the voice of God' (of course she thinks that – she's a pollster). However, higher themes aside, this one is forever fixed in my mind as 'the one where Joey Lucas sleeps with Q'. Taking advantage of the LA setting in another way, the guest stars are great, a mixture of just excellent actors playing guest characters (Bob Balaban as Hollywood tycoon Ted Marcus, John de Lancie as pollster Al Kiefer) and a couple of fun cameos as themselves (David Hasselhoff, Jay Leno).

I'm a bit torn on my reactions to Marcus throwing his weight around in an attempt to ensure the President protects the rights of gay people in the military. Half of me is thinking, 'this is great, this guy is using what power he has to do some good'. The other half is thinking, 'OK, I happen to agree with this guy, but imagine if I didn't – this is some random move producer throwing his weight around and, essentially, trying to blackmail the President. It's a reminder that the whole system ultimately comes down to whoever has the most money winning and it's really depressing'. In the end, the President pointed out that he was already doing everything he could and the whole thing was rather unnecessary.

I've been whining a bit about The West Wing's inherent sexism lately, but for me this is one of the episodes where they do rather better at showing slightly flirty relationships at work without being insulting. When CJ complains that Toby hasn't complimented her on her dress, it feels like a conversation between old friends (mine know to compliment my hair, every time) and when Joey asks Toby how good she's looking right now, it's light and fun and actually works to emphasise her professional superiority over Kiefer. Still, it's a bit on the line, and it would be nice if an episode could go by without some kind of comment on the female characters' bodies or looks. Or with a bit more comment on the men's. Either way.

The interactions between Donna, Josh and Joey are, of course, another thing all together. It's clear that Joey likes Josh a lot, despite sleeping with Q – the look of chagrin on her face when he catches them together is very touching. It's clear that he likes her too. We also get some more slight indications that Donna likes Josh, as she pesters him to go after Joey but looks upset when he says he will (see below) and later rolls around rather tipsy on his bed.

Poor Kenny, of course, is in the middle of everything apart from the final bedroom scene – there's a wonderful moment where Joey shoots a very brief, embarrassed look in Kenny's direction as he has to translate her awkward admission that 'I came here with someone' for Josh. The West Wing is very good in its handling of Joey's disability – it never really gets in her way and certainly doesn't stop her doing her job, but occasionally it complicates things, just a bit (her attempt to cover up her connection to Kiefer with an 'I hear everything' joke that makes Josh so uncomfortable at the idea of laughing at her disability that he forgets to pursue how she knows of their conversation is a moment of evil genius).

I like this episode – any episode with Joey Lucas in it has to be good and there are plenty of great bits of dialogue and it covers some interesting issues. Like much of the first season of The West Wing, it's a bit bitty, though – a series of vignettes surrounding the trip to LA that don't necessarily add up to much beyond furthering the Donna/Josh/Joey love triangle.

Bits 'n' pieces

 - Having recently landed in the middle of the night and then attempted to do a solid half day's work before sleeping, I'm entirely with Leo – it's a very bad idea.

 - Josh has trouble working hotel key cards, and misses the days when there were actual keys. I'm with you there, buddy.

 - The President has not been sleeping well in general and is looking increasingly tired to others. He's also still butting heads with the Vice-President.

 - Josh confusing 'the voice of God' for 'the voice of a dog' is very amusing and cute and all, but he's a lawyer and an employee of Jed Bartlet, and surely knows the difference between the Latin words 'deus' ('God', 'dei' in the genitive) and 'canis' ('dog', also 'canis' in the genitive).

 - The fact that Zoey and Charlie are a couple is public knowledge, and some threatening letters have been received from white supremacists.


Donna: There were messages for you at the desk... Mandy?
Josh: Ugh, later.

Donna: Josh, you've got a crush on Joey Lucas, and I really think you should do something about it, because you're starting to bother me.
Josh: Well, that's something I really care about.
Donna: Call her right now.
Josh: I'll see her tonight.
Donna: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Josh. Do you know what that means? It means you should take this time to gather rosebuds, because later on you might not be able to.
Josh: Interpreting the classics, with Poet Laureate Donnatella Moss.
Donna: I'm just saying, call her and stop bugging me.
Josh: So, let's call her.
Donna: Really?
Josh: Yeah. Let's do it. Call her, and then we'll do everyone else.
Donna: I have alabaster skin, you know.

Sam (re the President): He's got that look on his face like he's thinking about ways to kill himself.

Fun fluff. Two and a half out of four celebrity cameos.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


  1. Why is Donna pushing Josh at Joey Lucas? It's not that I don't like Marlee Matlin -- she's terrific. And she's obviously a terrific poller. Pollist. Pollster? But what is she doing sleeping with that jerk played by John deLancie? I have serious doubts about her taste in men.

    Gotta love an episode featuring an intellectual moment with David Hasselhof playing himself. :)

    Bartlet is pushing himself way too hard. Doesn't Air Force One have a bedroom for the president? Why won't someone make sure he sleeps?

  2. I think Bartlet has one of those personality types that can't help it - that keep going too far until they crash. They probably all do actually! Though he seemed keen enough on sleeping in during the previous episode!

    I avoided talking too much about why Donna's pushing Josh at Joey because it comes up in season 2 - I didn't want to spoil anything so figured it was safest not to say too much, but I can't really speculate cause it would be informed by having watched season 2.

  3. While this episode is a series of vignettes, what struck me was how many future story lines are introduced or hinted at here. Most of them are almost throw-away lines, but there are several issues that we will visit again.

    Marcus's line about being President longer than Bartlet always bothers me. Shows him to be an egotistical ass who thinks he can buy anything with his money. Problem is, he's probably right.


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