Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Big Block of... Something: The Crackpots and These Women

The title of this episode (apart from being, as Dave Barry would observe, a good name for a rock band) captures its rather broad focus. The linking narrative is what Toby aptly, if with a usage error embarrassing in a show under the impression it's intelligent, calls "Throw Open Our Office Doors to People Who Want to Discuss Things that We Could Care Less About Day." But woven around that are a fight between Leo's Pal and Toby, some banal psychodrama for Josh, the introduction of Zoe, and an attempt at an appreciation of the show's female characters. It's actually a fairly deft screenplay, if you overlook the fact that it does several of those things poorly.

Let's start with what Josh calls "Total Crackpot Day," earning him a whack on the head from Leo that's a little too forceful to be amusing. (Maybe that's why Jenny dumped him.) I've remarked in the past that the staff's disgust at having to talk to ordinary Americans reflects the contempt of the political class for people who care about issues in a more than nominal way.  (Look at the early liberal reaction to Occupy Wall Street, before co-opting that movement came to be seen as the better angle, or for that matter the liberal reaction to the Tea Party.) But, to be fair, this episode at least nominally agrees with Leo that "listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one." Both of the characters who are shown having these meetings with crackpots end up sharing their concerns on some level. It's all vaguely heartwarming. But what the hell is it good for?

So Sam spends a couple hours worrying about a UFO, and CJ can spout some trivia about wolves. Does that mean they'll encourage the White House to further address these "issues?" Of course not. The substantive effect is the same as if the staffers had remained unconvinced, or (and here's the rub) if they'd never had the meetings in the first place. It would seem that Margaret is right: this is definitely a waste of time.  Except, that is, insofar as it generates the illusion of access to pacify those who don't matter. (The rise of the Internet has made this process even easier.) Last week we learned that the staff can't be mean to congressmen because they're people too, but judging by the open contempt both Sam and CJ demonstrate for their guests, the crackpots aren't people at all.

One last point before we leave the topic behind, at least until next year's Big Block of Cheese episode: Leo refers to the crackpots as "people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention." It's important to note the types of organization we're never shown. Apparently there was no time for the staff to speak to drug reform advocates, gay rights activists (recall that this episode is set in 1999), anti-corporate groups, or members of any peace movement, even though these are all indeed organizations that have a difficult time getting the White House's attention. One is left with the impression that people who aren't adept at acting within the system are all weirdos whose pet issues no one could possibly be expected to care about. And that, of course, is exactly what insider Washington thinks.

Since the main plot is essentially comic relief, the dramatic weight comes from the subplots with Josh, Toby, and Bartlet. I don't want to spend a lot of time on this, as little of it is directly political, but I will point out that Josh's angst is extraordinarily cheap drama on a number of levels, and shows some of the ways in which psychotherapy can become a writerly crutch, as will happen a couple more times during the show's run. It's obvious that therapy can be the basis for excellent character work; The Sopranos is a case in point. But that was a show with some sense of subtlety, and with a deeper awareness of what therapy can and can't do for a person. This, on the other hand, is like that old cartoon labelled "One-Session Therapy," where the therapist simply says, "Get over it." Josh goes to see his therapist for the first time in months, and immediately brings up both the problem he's having and a seemingly-unrelated quirk that the therapist quickly reduces to a buried trauma, with which the patient immediately deals. It's practically a parody of classical Freudian analysis. Apparently Josh is now over his lingering guilt at his sister's death, just as he'll recover from PTSD over the course of an episode next year. This is a pat, thoroughly episodic approach to complex ongoing issues, and it would be embarrassing in a soap opera.

Although Toby's problem with the president is personal, foreshadowing the eventual "revelation" that the president has daddy issues, they discuss it in terms of a couple political topics that caught my attention. On the basis of previous viewings, I had remembered Toby as the closest thing the series had to an admirable politician, in terms of his views on the issues, but so far I'm not seeing much evidence of it. There was his desire a couple episodes ago to cause trouble for the southern Democrat who made an empty remark that could be construed as a threat against Bartlet, which clashes badly with his later image as the civil liberties guy in the administration. And now he sincerely wants to kick Hollywood around for glorifying violence? Give me a break, dude: have you heard of a little thing called the US military?  Even as Sorkin's script acknowledges that complaints about violence in TV and movies are just easy politicking, it pretends that principled belief about such violence ought to be taken seriously. (On the other hand, Toby is at least allowed to argue for an honest admission that the gun control bill was weak, which everyone else dismisses on opportunistic political grounds.)

Finally, we have the "These Women" portion of the title, the scene at the end where Bartlet, Leo, and Josh wax rhapsodic about the female cast. I'm not one to use academic jargon in discussing social issues-- most of the time it isn't necessary-- but in this case, it's worth mentioning the gaze of this scene. The characters and the camera, and implicitly the series and its world, are male; no matter how successful they are, women remain the Other, and their success is somehow more remarkable than that of men in equal positions. A charitable interpretation would tie this to Leo's description of "a world that tells women to sit down and shut up," but fortunately I'm not inclined to be charitable, and anyway the problem of sex and gender attitudes in contemporary society is subtler than that, as the rest of the dialogue in the scene suggests.

Bartlet says that C.J. is "like a fifties movie star." Is that really the best appreciation he can come up with? It sounds more like praise for glamor and image (traditional feminine attributes) than anything else, especially since he adds that she's "capable and energetic and loving." Of those three adjectives, only "energetic" would ever be applied to a male politician, and even then it would sound like damning with faint praise. His comments on Mrs. Landingham are even worse. Would he assume a man would be less likely to "serve [his] country" after losing sons in Vietnam, or is this an echo of the idea that women are naturally more nurturing and child-oriented than men? The only thing he can say about her job performance, meanwhile, is that she's never missed a day of work. The Perfect Attendance Award? Really? That's what you give someone who has no real accomplishments. This scene, which is clearly meant to be in praise of women, ends up having the opposite effect because the qualities it ascribes to them are thoroughly cosmetic. This points to a larger problem with the series' treatment of female characters, but I think I've gone on long enough for one day, and there's an upcoming episode to which it's more relevant, so for now I'll let the subject go.

Quick takes:

*Bartlet telling everyone to look down at the seal so that they'll have heartier praise for his chili. This is a sitcom moment, but taken seriously, what does it say about his authoritarian hunger for deference?

*There are a couple jokes about the first lady's Ouija board. Obviously that's a reference to Nancy Reagan's astrologer and Hillary Clinton's seances (N.B. I don't know the details of either story, and I'm quite happy with that), but does Abby Bartlet really seem like the kind of person who would use a Ouija board? And are these stories themselves, about the frivolous, irrational hobbies of women, sexist in and of themselves?

*Sam: "there are levels and an order to our air defense command." Because maintaining the hierarchy is much more important than, oh, identifying something mysterious that's flying over the country.

*Bartlet talks about space travel and "touch[ing] the face of God." This is an obvious reference to Avuncular-Actor-in-Chief Reagan's post-Challenger performance, but at least that was about dead astronauts, not a paean to the days of the arms race.

*C.J. suggests they could spend the $900 million cost of the wolves-only road on building "the nine best schools in America." That's touching and all, but the more likely use of that much money would be on the nine best Predator drones. The scientists point this out, with an eerily relevant reference to "another war plane, another S&L bailout," but the episode is too busy portraying them as overzealous wackos to admit they have a point.

Next time: "Mr. Willis of Ohio," in which the series decides to wax sentimental about an ordinary American, possibly because he lacks the audacity to have deeply-held opinions.

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