Monday, November 19, 2012

Dummies: "Mr. Willis of Ohio"

So here we are, more than a year after I last wrote about The West Wing. At five episodes annually, I should finish abusing the Sorkin era in a mere 18 years. Just think: babies born while I was discussing the pilot will be able to celebrate my post on "Twenty Five" by smoking a cigarette or casting a meaningless vote in the latest Most Important Election Ever. I'm getting a little misty at the very thought. Anyway.

"Mr. Willis of Ohio" is a tough episode from the perspective of this blog, because its political issue (apart from the cutesy Josh/Donna discussion of taxes, which is notable only insofar as it suggests Sorkin thinks the liberal argument for high taxation should be made in the most paternalistic way possible) is the census, which cannot possibly be said to matter. Sorkin tries his level best to convince us otherwise, not least in Joe Willis' final speech about its being "the right place to start," which is evidently meant to be stirring but contains, so far as I can see, no meaningful content. Yes, to the extent that one accepts the illusion of representative government it matters how many people there are in the country, and yes, to the extent that one fetishizes the constitution it matters whether sampling is consistent with it. But even so, this is thin stuff on which to hang an episode. (I note in passing that one benefit of the traditional census from a liberal perspective, that it provides temporary employment for hundreds of thousands of people who need it, goes unmentioned, though I suppose the acuteness of that need is somewhat more visible now that it was in 1999.)

But of course this episode isn't really about the census. It's about Joe Willis, about praising him in terms so condescending that the praise falls flat. Last episode ("The Crackpots and These Women," if you'll cast your minds back thirteen months), we were told that Mrs. Landingham was amazing because she had a perfect attendance award; now Joe Willis is amazing because, er. Because he's a teacher? Because he went to night school? Or because he's bereaved, good-natured, self-deprecating and black? Stop and imagine this same script with a white Joe Willis. Not only does Toby's ploy no longer work; the worshipful attitude the episode takes toward him becomes hard to comprehend. I don't think, though, that Willis' race is actually the point; it's just a cheap grab for liberal sympathy. Willis' true "appeal" lies elsewhere, and reveals a deep cynicism that clashes with The West Wing's superficial optimism.

What Toby says about Willis, what makes him "unusual," is that he "didn't walk into the room with a political agenda. He didn't walk in with his mind up. He genuinely wanted to do what he thought was best. He didn't mind saying the words 'I don't know.'" Unless you're a misanthrope, these are not in fact regarded as unusual characteristics for an average human being. They may, however, be unusual for a politician. What we have here, then, is the political class genuflecting to ordinary people by declaring their inherent superiority. This is most easily regarded as pandering, but it's also possible that politicians wholeheartedly believe it, that they do see themselves as driven purely by agendas, fixed opinions, selfishness, and arrogance. Consider Toby's confession to Willis, in which he acknowledges that he was engaged in manipulative, dishonest race-baiting. Doesn't that make him a pretty terrible human being, regardless of whether Willis knew he was doing it? The episode moves rather lightly past the partisan gains sampling will offer Democrats, but isn't that likely to be the point of the exercise? What about the precedent it sets? Instead of answers we get a joke about the Nielsens, a reminder that The West Wing is best regarded not as a drama, but as a sitcom suffering from a serious excess of Very Special Episodes.

One last thing about Mr. Willis: the character appears not to be very well thought-out. The first thing we hear about him is that "presumably he's gonna do what he's told." But if that's the case, how is he a swing vote, and why is he at a meeting designed to convince those hostile to what the White House wants? Unless they mean "do what he's told by the other committee members at the meeting." Which raises the questions: what party is Willis in? The other two are Republicans, but it's hard to imagine that Janice Willis, possibly black and definitely admired by Toby, was with the GOP. (Fun fact: in the real world there has never been a black Republican congresswoman, although Mia Love, black, female, Mormon, Republican, and therefore fascinating to those who enjoy identity politics, is hoping a recount will change that.) But if he's a Democrat, why is he being courted simultaneously with Republicans (or at all), and why do Gladman and Skinner act as though the Republican committee chair's advice would mean something to him? Is he supposed to be that much of a naif? Or is this just a script that makes no earthly sense?

Speaking of making no earthly sense, in this episode Josh points out the inanity of Sam telling Mallory that he had slept with Laurie, but only for the sake of another line of repetitive Sorkin banter, not because it is, you know, a gaping flaw in the plot logic of a major first season storyline. Also, Sam again makes the distinction that Laurie is not a hooker but a call girl. Why is he so hung up on this? Because he's a privileged asshat more offended by the idea that he would solicit a cheap prostitute than by the thought he would solicit one at all? You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.

Then there's Zoey's close encounter with the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad frat boys. What's grating about this scene is not that I don't think such frat boys exist, or that they might be found in a D.C. area bar. It's not even the implausibility of the set-up. (On that note, though: where is Zoey's Secret Service protection? Leo's Boss mentions upping her protection, but why is nobody in the room with her to begin with? Did they somehow imagine that being surrounded by several high-profile members of the administration made her safer? No wonder kidnapping her turns out to be so easy. And would the bartender just hand her C.J.'s drink anyway? "It's for my non-underage friend!" Yeah, right.) What's grating is the reason the frat boys are so comically over the top: so that we won't stop to wonder whether throwing the Secret Service at them might be a slight overreaction to some macho posturing, posturing in which the grownup White House staffers also engage, though without the racism and homophobia. Are we meant to cheer that the Eric Balfour character might go to federal prison because he was carrying cocaine while attempting to flirt with a receptive girl who happened to be the president's daughter? I guess so, especially because it helped Charlie get over his inferiority complex. And what's a ruined life next to that?

That's all for now. Coming up: "The State Dinner," in which Abby Bartlet is introduced. I may watch it later today, but I doubt I'll have time to write about it until after Thanksgiving, which I plan to celebrate, in best West Wing tradition, by pretending to care about Indians and making a prank call to the Butterball hotline. Good times.

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