Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Anthony Drazan
Original Air Date: October 20th, 1999
Forever the episode best known for the ‘Big Block of Cheese’ plot line, watching the various staffers of the White House having to deal with organisations and groups that otherwise wouldn’t be given government funding is very funny.
Once again there is a delicate balance to this episode that goes from funny and charming to poignantly dramatic.
The image of a pre-Parks and Recreation Nick Offerman going cap in hand to ask for government funds for a freeway exclusively for wolves and being laughed at by C.J. when the potential budget they need is revealed along with Sam being given a talking to about UFO’s makes for some of The West Wing’s funniest scenes so far.
Also, this being the 90s, it’s no surprise that UFOs comes into the equation. This was after all the era of The X-Files.
On top of all that we’re given our first glimpse of Bartlet’s daughter Zoey and with it another hello to a future big name; The Handmaid’s Tale star Elizabeth Moss.
The best plot line here doesn’t involve jokes involving President Bartlet’s chilli making skills or the left field businesses that try to obtain government funding on one allocated day of the week.
For that we go to Josh and with it a wonderful performance from Bradley Whitford.
There’s no denying that The West Wing has a very witty heart, and an ability to make the audience laugh with its ability to mix great dialogue and equally wonderful character interaction. What would always give the series a real charge is its ability to marry that sense of wit and fun with stories that were grounded into the realm of political minutiae.
The West Wing is not 24 and is not likely to be the type of series to throw a nuclear threat into its storytelling, but this being the world of politics and centred around the highest office in the land means that the idea is there and the characters must plan accordingly.
Josh is selected to be one of the potential survivors of such a disaster if it should ever happen and with it the realization for the character that nobody else around him on the staff will be.
The moment the character asks Sam how he reacted to being chosen to which Sam has no idea what he is talking about is a stark moment. Like the death of Bartlet’s physician a few weeks ago and how it brought about ‘A Proportional Response’, it’s a reminder that for all the witty back and forward going on in the Oval Office and all the fun to be had at making fun of the President’s chilli making skills, not to mention that little hint of chemistry and potential romance between Zoey and Charlie, that this is a world with stark stakes.
We don’t expect Sorkin to ever go down the route of that type of threat (or at least we didn’t in 1999, two years later would unfortunately tell a different story when the series found itself having to react to real world events), but it’s a gentle and delicate reminder of the possibilities of such things and how an infrastructure like the political world and those who inhabit it have to potentially deal with it and plan for it just in case.
Josh’s reaction when he is given the card that will allow him the right to live while those around him will not is as brilliantly played moment in the series up to this point, made even more so by Whitford’s slow realization of what the card means and his subsequent emotional crisis as he realises that nobody else around him has also received one.
Couple this with Bartlet and Toby’s increasing antagonism throughout the episode and Bartlet’s words to Toby that while he wasn’t his first choice for Communications Director, he now knows he needs someone like him, and we have another wonderful hour of television.
It loses a star however for a very blatantly condescending final scene that is the first red flag over Sorkin’s more problematic writing abilities. Sure, the speech that Bartlet gives right at the very end is wonderful and one could honestly just watch forty five minutes of Sheen giving speeches, especially the ones that Sorkin writes, but the moment when he, Josh and Leo extol the virtues of all the women around them feels strangely sexist even if it is trying to say something elegant.
It basically amounts to ‘geez, aren’t women great, who knew?’ and is embarrassing in an eye-rolling way, despite having three great actors deliver the lines. We know that the female cast of characters in this show is wonderful. We don’t need it spelt out to us, especially by three men delivering dialogue written by another man.