Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S01E01 – Pilot

In the first episode of the first season of The West Wing, holy SHIT, this is overwhelming. I like it. If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to start The West Wing.

Oh god, I GET TO START A NEW SHOW. I LOVE DOING THIS. Not only that, but two new shows at once! We’ll get to Friday Night Lights tomorrow, so for now, it’s time to focus on my very first journey through The West Wing.

To start things off, please read the Site Rules and the FAQ. Spoilers of any kind are not allowed in the comments. Do not talk about ANYTHING in the future unless you are using rot13 to code your comment. (That’s what all the gibberish is down below!) Additionally, in order to be respectful and welcoming to other folks, please be aware of your use of slurs; if you are warned not to use one, just take it in stride and don’t use it here on the site. It doesn’t mean you’re an awful person or that you’re not welcome in the community. I just want to keep things inclusive of everyone!

You can commission Mark Watches episodes for any episode of this show right here; that page also lists all episodes that have already been claimed!

Since I’m starting a new show, I always like to let y’all know what it is I’m familiar with beforehand so that you know how truly unprepared I am. In this case:

  • I know The West Wing is about the presidency.
  • Martin Sheen is the president!
  • Allison Janney and Robe Lowe are on the show!
  • ALLISON JANNEY IS MY QUEEN. SHE IS THE SOLE REASON I KNEW I HAD TO WATCH THIS.
  • Aaron Sorkin created this, wrote it, and he disappears sometime in season four or five.
  • Aaron Sorkin is kind of an asshole.
  • THERE IS A LOT OF TALKING. I saw Sports Night many years ago during a couple sittings, so I am somewhat familiar with Sorkin’s style? It’s seriously been like 10 years since I last saw it, so I don’t remember much about it. I’ve also seen The Social Network and about six episodes of The Newsroom.
  • I am aware one of the main actors dies during this show in the latter seasons, though I am not 100% sure I remember who.
  • Allison Janney is still my queen DON’T YOU FORGET THIS.

So, the “Pilot” episode of The West Wing:

OH MY GOD, I AM SO OVERWHELMED.

That’s my initial thought. This show makes absolutely no attempt to gradually ween you into its world. You’re dropped into the sheer chaos of what it is like to work for the White Staff, and that includes more dialogue in one episode than I think I’ve ever seen in a Mark Watches show. And I still have 155 more of these HELP.

I admit that while the last ten minutes of this episode is PURE BRILLIANCE, I was pretty lost for the first thirty minutes or so. Which is okay! I don’t mind that, and it doesn’t turn me off the show at all. I actually appreciate that Sorkin isn’t writing this premiere as a premiere per se. We definitely get a decent picture of the staff, some minimal characterization, and about ten different plots intertwined with one another. What’s notable about “Pilot,” though, is that it very quickly establishes the atmosphere of The West Wing. This is a fast-paced show based around dialogue, character interaction, and a healthy dose of American politics filtered through a group of people who experience our government in a rather fascinating context.

My first year of college was spent dawdling about the English department, furious that there were so many rules, disappointed that I wasn’t reading enough literature or non-fiction, and frustrated that I wasn’t having the experience I craved. By the end of my freshman year, I’d converted to a political science major, which later morphed into a dual major with religious studies. There’s a moment in the video for this episode where I have a glorious epiphany that I’ll repeat here: OH MY GOD, I CAN FINALLY USE ALL THAT EDUCATION I GOT. THIS IS MY DAY OF RECKONING. Truthfully, my inability to focus on just one subject in college meant that I had a heavy dose of politics, both domestic and foreign; I studied religion because I was fascinated by something I couldn’t seem to believe in; and amidst this, I was taking courses in gender studies and critical race theory. So I suppose it’s not surprising that I write the way I do for my sites. I am not an expert in anything at all. (There’s still a part of me that would love to go back to school and get a PhD in something, but then I remember papers and homework and ew. Also, it’s so expensive.) But I know a few things about a lot of things! And lord, I AM GOING TO HAVE AN OUTLET TO TALK ABOUT THEM ALL THIS IS GREAT. 

Because this episode jumps all over the place, I thought I’d split it up by character/plot so I can address all the various topics and people in “Pilot.”

Joshua Can’t Shut Up

I know that this site has exposed me to a lot of great television, but I’m still quite ignorant about every show ever, especially in the context of U.S. social history. So when this show opens up with a catfight between Joshua, Toby, Mary Marsh, Al Caldwell, and John Van Dyke. It is explicitly about the battle in the public sphere between Christian right wing groups and the perceived “persecution” that these groups feel from the White House. I’m not above saying that Joshua’s statement on Capital Beat was unnecessarily crass even if he was being astute during an attack. Just because you’re right about something doesn’t mean that context doesn’t matters. Joshua’s statements have clearly ignited a maelstrom of attention, and I imagine that this certainly didn’t help Bartlet be less angry the day it happened, leading to him wheeling his bicycle into a tree. It was fascinating to me that the very first episode has the threat of firing hanging over it. This is a plot you would think would be reserved for a later episode, but it’s rather clever in “Pilot.” We learn that Joshua doesn’t have a filter when he’s angry, as it’s later revealed that he’s messed up publicly quite often. It also establishes that his character finds the Christian right to be bullshit. (Actually, pretty much every character – Leo, Bartlet, Toby, C.J., Sam – expresses, at one point, a negative opinion of these people, though it’s important to acknowledge the varying degrees that they do so.)

So what’s Joshua forced to do? Talk to a whole bunch of people he doesn’t want to. That includes Mandy, who he worked with during Bartlet’s election campaign. Who he also dated. Who is now dating a possible future rival of Bartlet’s. (Can I assume that since this show is seven seasons long, there’ll be another campaign at some point? THAT IS VERY EXCITING. Don’t tell me, obviously.) I’m guessing Josh/Mandy will be brought up at some point.

Sam Had Sex with Cuddy from House

Oh my god, it’s Lisa Edelstein! I didn’t know she was on this show. Aside from a surprisingly tense and touching scene in Laurie’s apartment, Sam’s role in this episode is to show us just how abnormally chaotic the White House staff is. As the Communications Director, his job tears him in thirty different directions at once. He’s young, conventionally attractive, and sexually active, which lands him in bed with Laurie, who is actually a high-end escort. Well, calling it: Sam is going to go back to Laurie at some point, and he’ll face public scrutiny for this. (Well, if not that, then a whole lot of private scrutiny from his co-workers.) I’m always weary of plots in mianstream shows that involve sex workers because they’re often treated terribly, so I’m going into this cautiously. At the very least, Sam doesn’t disrespect Laurie and doesn’t say she’s unattractive or immoral for what she does. Hell, it seems that Sam wasn’t the Communications Director, he might pursue Laurie. But that’s a hypothetical that doesn’t matter right now.

They have pagers, by the way. Pagers. Oh my god, this show is so deliciously late 90s.

Anyway, can I just say that the entire scene with Mallory where she deflates Sam’s rapid-fire monologue is what I live for? My god, it’s beautiful, and I hope someone framed that shit in a museum. It’s a work of art.

HELLO PRESIDENT

It’s amazing that President Bartlet is saved for the very end of this episode. First of all, it’s puts the focus on his staff from the get-go. We learn about them, we see them at work, we learn basic characterization from the way they talk, what they say, and how they act. We really do get a picture for the behind-the-scenes experience at the White House. So Bartlet’s arrival during the absolutely fucked-up war of words between the Christian representatives and Toby/Joshua is INCREDIBLE. With his entrance and immediate refusal to speak on the terms of these people, he is established as the authority of the office.

It’s mesmerizing, and by gods, I am looking forward to every great Bartlet smackdown this show can give me. His calm manner is what makes his monologue so forceful. Initially, it’s as if he’s just relating a silly story to these people, but its meaning becomes painfully clear: Trying to accomplish things while angry is a foolish endeavor. In his case, he’s not going to talk to these people when they refuse to denounce the Lambs of God (a barely-veiled reference to The Lambs of Christ, a real pro-life group), who sent his daughter a Raggedy Ann doll with a knife in its throat because she expressed her belief in a woman’s right to choose.

Holy shit. I mean, another reason that emotional climax of “Pilot” is so effective is because this episode builds tension to this moment. Everyone’s running about, unsure what to do about the million issues the White House faces on that specific day. Is Josh going to be fired? What do they do about the possible 700 Cuban refugees heading for American soil in Florida? How do they please Mary Marsh? Do they have to start worrying about re-election?

Bartlet doesn’t provide all the answers. He just provides the stability, the glue that holds all these people together. I am fascinated to see how his staff will act once he is actually there. More or less, The West Wing has my attention. I can’t say I’ll catch every detail, as this show is unbelievably dense, but I’ll do the best I can.

The video commission for this episode is now archived on MarkDoesStuff.com for just $0.99!

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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2 Responses to Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S01E01 – Pilot

  1. Pip Harper says:

    Currently on season 3 myself, but seriously, this show is absolutely fucking beautiful. Cannot wait to experience it again through you, Mark, you wonderful experience-conductor-internet-man-hilarious-thing that you are.

  2. L says:

    I just watched The West Wing for the first time in August-November last year. Based on what you’ve mentioned you liked in the Pilot… you’re going to have a fun time with this show.

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