Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Birthday Blogging: 20 Hours in America

Guest-blogger Jason has decided to get in on the fun of our blog's fourth anniversary celebration. Here's his favorite Season 4 episode of one of my favorite series, The West Wing.

For my contribution to the blog’s fourth birthday, I decided to jump the sci-fi shark for a second and talk about another kind of show. Specifically, political dramas, of which there is no finer example than The West Wing. And for my money, the show’s fourth season opener “20 Hours in America” is one of the best hours (er…okay, technically more since it was a two-parter) of television that show ever produced.

The episode opened with President Bartlet on the campaign trail in the last summer of his first term. Wackiness ensues as the motorcade drives away from a rally in Republican-leaning Indiana accidentally leaving Josh, Toby and Donna behind. The episode tracks between the members of the administration arrived safely back home in Washington, DC, and the three staffers who struggle, Odyssey-like, across the Midwest trying to get back.

Upon being informed of the many trials the three are engaged in to return to DC, Bartlet himself even recognizes how myopic Josh and Toby tend to get, despite their brilliance. “300 IQ points between the two of them and they can’t find their way home,” Bartlet muses. “I swear to God, if Donna wasn’t there they’d have to buy a house.”

Seriously. She’s the smart one.

The episode plays up the comedy of the show well. The trio trying to get back to DC is obviously given the most face time, but other plots make an impressive showing as well. Lily Tomlin, for instance, makes the first of many appearances as a brassy former alpaca farmer interviewing to be Bartlet’s personal secretary who’s already botched an interview because she mistakenly took too many pills before her first one. But as any scholar of the classics knows, comedy is often most effectively used as a foil to tragedy, so it’s no surprise when the episode takes on a different tone when more than halfway through the administration must contend with a bombing at a college swim meet that’s killed a number of students.

A major theme of the episode is how “elitism” gets played off in an election and how the term has seen better days. Bartlet’s challenger, the Republican governor of Florida, has been mocking him all summer with folksy bon mots and boiled-down, ten-word sound bites that the electorate is eating up, especially compared with Bartlet’s penchant for always coming off like an economics professor. Josh and Toby argue politics throughout the episode, placing them strongly at odds against the locals whose goodwill they must rely on even though they come off as arrogant jerks. The First Lady is likewise accused by a collection of conservative women’s groups when she makes an off-handed comment about being “just” a wife and mother, rather than continuing her medical practice. The aides even make the point specifically:

C.J.: [quoting a talk radio host] “This is another sign that Abbey Bartlet is a liberal elitist feminist.”

BRUNO: “Elitist feminist?” You can’t do that to the English language.

The thing is it’s awfully hard to have a television show that caters to an upper middle-class viewing audience wax political about elitism and not come off sounding, well, elitist. The West Wing always skirted dangerously close to the line between high drama and just being all-out preachy. Even if you were someone who agreed with the left-leaning politics behind the show, there were always times when you just kind of wanted to tie Aaron Sorkin’s hands so he would stop patting himself on the back. But “20 Hours in America” actually managed to pull of the lofty politics and moralizing precisely because it drew attention to it all.

As Toby and Josh bicker more and more relentlessly about the political race ahead of them, it falls to Donna to put them in their place and remind them that most Americans are far more concerned about what happens when someone sets off a bomb at a school than the insider politics of a presidential race.

But of course, the reason the episode, and the show, worked so well is because there really is no better setting to debate life and death situations and politics than the White House. The focus on elitism as a good thing, given the gravity and complexity of the world’s problems, is what ironically grounds all these Smarter Than You Are staffers and political titans. We may not have always felt like these characters were maintaining their modesty, but we continually wanted to watch them.

Also, doubt you that Aaron Sorkin can put together a moving political speech? Just try to watch the clip at the end of the episode where Bartlett describes how the school bombing is emblematic of what the country can achieve:

1 comment:

Priya said...

Thanks for the great post. I just finished re-watching the last season, and now I want to go back and watch some of the earlier episodes!