In the seventh episode of the seventh season of The West Wing, THE DEBATE. THE DEBATE IS HERE, AND IT’S SO MUCH MORE THAN I COULD HAVE EVER ASKED FOR. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
I’m still in awe. No one even remotely spoiled this for me, and the pure joy of discovering that I would get an entire debate (AND NOT JUST A SUMMARY OF IT OR MONTAGES) and a live one is something I’m going to cherish for a long time. Y’all, I am so impressed by this and by the decision to give us what essentially amounts to the most realistic fantasy I’ve ever seen. And really, you can’t talk about “The Debate” without acknowledging that it offered us something most of us have never truly seen: a raw debate between two Presidential candidates that wasn’t pretentious or condescending to the voter.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that this show has always been written by more liberal-minded people than not, and I’ve frequently addressed the fact that The West Wing relies on this idea of a more liberal alternate political universe. Obviously, the politics brought up by both candidates are rooted in the real world, and there were many moments in this episode that absolutely felt like this debate actually happened. That’s not what I’m referring to. The fact that Santos and Vinick were able to step away from the restrictive format of the debate is something that I think most of us truly want from our elections. We want the rawness we saw here because both these men did not seem like cardboard cutouts from their respective parties. (In that sense, this debate was the polar opposite of the first Kerry/Bush debate because oh my god, that was so. fucking. boring.) We want a moderator who is willing to interrupt, who is willing to demand that a candidate answer their question, and who is willing to tell someone to STOP TALKING. We want to see the unbridled passion that we saw from Santos and Vinick. If anything, “The Debate” reflected poorly on our own political system because this was a million times better than any presidential debate I’ve ever seen. (Shoutout to the Ohama/McCain debates, though. At least those were engaging!)
I imagine there was a lot of discussion after this aired about who “won” the debate, and I feel like that’s not really the point of all of this. For an episode so wholly concentrated on replicating a live debate with eerie perfection, I thought this was a character study of these two men more than anything else. Sure, I think there were specific points where one person definitely out-debated the other person. (Santos’s “liberal” speech crushed Vinick, and Vinick wiped the floor with Santos on that Alaska question.) I still wanted to vote for Santos at the end of this, but goddamn, Vinick is perhaps the best fictional Republican I’ve ever seen.
But a lot of this traces back to the fact that Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda deserve every award ever made for this episode. They are immense in “The Debate,” which had a lot more in common with live theater than anything else. These two actors clearly put in a lot of work into their characters, their positions, and their lines. BECAUSE AT NO POINT DID I THINK EITHER ONE OF THEM WERE READING ANYTHING. They so completely became their characters that I was left in awe of what I’d just experienced. The use of 35mm film (I think? It seemed sharper.) was a fantastic choice, as was the decision to have Forrest Sawyer play himself as the moderator. It toyed with our sense of reality, and it was very, very easy to forget that this was a fictionalized account on a fictionalized television show. And then there were all the little vocal missteps, the mistakes, the way that the dialogue was just as verbose and present as any Sorkin episode of the show, and yet, not one bit of it seemed rehearsed. (Which is also a compliment to Lawrence O’Donnell, since it’s in the design of the dialogue that some of the realism comes out.) EVEN THE USE OF THE AUDIENCE IN THAT STUDIO AS A CHARACTER WAS BRILLIANT. The claps, that unbelievable gasp when Vinick said Head Start didn’t work… goddamn.
I feel honored that I even got to watch this.
But as I mentioned before, I felt like the writers deliberately ignored a specific story-arc in “The Debate” by immersing us in this experience, and it’s a bold choice. There’s practically no plot whatsoever in this episode, and it works. It works so well because it’s through this debate that the audience is allowed to explore who these two candidates are. It was a chance for Santos to demonstrate that he was willing to ask tough questions and face tough situations. He was decidedly more optimistic about the government and its role in American life than Vinick was, and that’s important. That’s character building. And getting to watch Vinick’s no-nonsense philosophy spill forth as he verbally sparred with Santos was electrifying. Again, there’s no one like him. I can’t think of a single character I’ve ever seen who even closely resembles him, and I adore that. I adore that the writers have avoided pitting two candidates against one another who represent a stereotypical dichotomy. Neither one of these candidates are at all like the bulk of their party, and it’s an incredible thing to watch.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that politically, I was nearly in complete alignment with Santos, so I feel like running through each political or economic issue brought up is kind of redundant. (There are a few times where I started arguing with Vinick in the commission video for this, namely when he tried to credit pharmaceuticals with being responsible for saving HIV+ folks’ lives, because YOU ARE SO FAR FROM THE TRUTH.) This episode made me laugh a lot more than I expected; I shrieked more than usual; and Santos’s closing statement made me cry.
And you know, I’ve made passing reference to this, but it means a lot to me to see someone like Santos on this show in the role that he’s in. Of course, I really was immersed in the universe of The West Wing by the time the closing statement came about, and I had to remind myself that Santos wasn’t actually running for President. Still, to hear him talk about where he came from… shit, y’all, it hit me hard.
This was, without a doubt, one of the best episodes in the entire series. I’m so thankful that I got to watch it.
The video for “The Debate” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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