Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Way It Goes: "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc"

One of Aaron Sorkin's less admirable comic tactics is to make a character say something unbelievably stupid, so that another character can point out that what has just been said is, in fact, unbelievably stupid. This episode offers the first clear-cut example, when one of Lloyd Russell's staffers describes "Nessun Dorma" as an Italian aria by Wagner, allowing Mandy to punctuate her outburst with "It's Puccini, Wagner's German, and you're a moron." (By the by, is Mandy's penchant for manic outbursts supposed to be funny? It seems more like someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown.) Anyway, this type of unbelievable stupidity shouldn't be confused with the expository variety, in which characters don't know things they should know so that those things can be explained to the audience. Like the scene from which the episode's title is drawn, in which we learn that no one in the main cast except Bartlet and possibly Leo has ever heard of the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy.

Speaking of stupidity, let's talk about Sam. In my post on the pilot I suggested that his circumspect conduct here meant he understood the political seriousness of his actions. I hadn't recalled that he informs Josh and Toby only so that he can feel good about talking to Laurie again. Is this naivete supposed to suggest that he's pure and idealistic and wonderful? Because instead it makes him look like a dunce. The real problem, though, is what happens when he goes back to see Laurie. Threatening her and her "date" with prosecution is bad politics-- the grand jury will enjoy hearing about how he tried to keep his prostitute all to himself-- but more importantly, it's the behavior of a domineering asshole.

When Laurie points out that he humiliated and scared her, he blithely responds "I guess that's just the way it goes." The follow-up is "Cause I've decided to become a good friend of yours." And instead of running away to report this stalker to the police, she starts to banter with him. And we have a cute little quasi-romantic scene as they walk away from the camera... before he hacks her head off and buries her in the crawlspace.  This is creepy behavior on a personal level, but it's also the ethos of authoritarian government, both left and right: "I've decided to change you whether you like it or not, and I'm doing it for your own good, so you should love me." He might as well just have her arrested and demand that she retire or he'll have them press charges; what happens here is no less calculated an abuse of power.

The big drama this week is the vice-president being mean to C. J. Seriously. The underlying issue is Hoynes having the audacity to pursue his own political agenda at Bartlet's expense, but the way it's played, his more serious offense is being slightly curt with the press secretary. Tim Matheson does a fine job of making Hoynes as unpleasant as the script requires, but really his behavior is the kind of thing only the characters of a teen drama would agonize over. It's telling that the political topic on which Hoynes was commenting, the A3-C3, is never explained, actual legislation being less important than gossip. In the big confrontation between Hoynes and Leo, the former's point about constitutional authority is treated as irrelevant, and what really gets the White House chief of staff pissed off is the vice-president's failure to use the appropriate term of reference for the president. Never forget to bow before the king!  You know, I think I'm going to refer to Bartlet as "Leo's Pal" whenever the opportunity arises.  Sycophantic respect for political office regardless of merit is one of this show's core values. Which is, of course, an accurate reflection of establishment politics.

In contrast to this, we have the president's friendship with Morris Tolliver, in which he gets to exchange lame jokes and talk about his nervousness around the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  See, he's just a regular guy with worries like everybody else. And Mrs. Landingham won't let him have his steaks! He's not the leader of the free world, he's a very naughty boy. I gather the early Bartlet years are based to some extent on Bill Clinton; you can't expect me to believe he wouldn't have grabbed those steaks, and probably showed Mrs. Landingham his dick as well. But back to Morris Tolliver. The episode really bends over backwards to make us like him, so his death will have some meaning. A new baby and a proud racial past, just to guarantee that the liberal guilt will kick in. There's obviously a lot to say about how Leo's Pal reacts to the Syrian attack, but I'll hold off on that until the next episode.

Random notes:

*Leo distracts Margaret from bothering him with a picture of Morris' wife and daughter, which she naturally coos over. He might as well have given her pretty flowers to smell. And then when informing Hoynes that C. J. didn't tattle on him, Leo says "She's a good girl." Well, I hope she got some table scraps for it. No wonder this guy's wife is about to leave him. Meanwhile, Leo's Pal tells Morris that his job is to "do what these ladies tell you to do." Contemporary TV writers have some very strange gender attitudes.

*So the president's joke about golf is a big deal. But when C. J. calls the Ryder Cup team "twelve guys named Clippy" and makes a crack about their outfits, that doesn't compound the offense? And the press didn't make noise about Leo's Pal telling the Christian leaders to get their fat asses out of his White House? This is, remember, a show where actions do or don't have political consequences based on writer fiat.

*In this Hilton Head draft Sam is working, he claims to use "pretty tough" language, and the examples he gives are "political cover" and "counterproductive." What a stirring call to arns. We have here a reminder that American political language is so neutered, so vacuous, that people have come to treat its flatulence as serious discourse. IOZ was dead right to point out that "our greatest, infinitely variable native poetic form is sanctimony."

*To end on a positive note, this episode did remind me how strong some of the show's performers are. The comic timing between Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney is amazing, for instance. And I liked Merrin Dungey as a foil for Moira Kelly; Daisy undercuts Mandy's shrill quality in a way that makes me regret they didn't keep her around.

I think that's everything. Don't forget to come back for the next episode, in which Bartlet learns how to stop worrying and love the cruise missiles.

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