I’m a big fan of The West Wing. The casting is fucking perfect, the jokes are a delightful combination of esoterically dry and silly slapstick, and the writing is excellent.
I’ve been enjoying the shit out of Joshua Malina and Hrishi Hirway’s podcast The West Wing Weekly, and have been re-watching the show along with the podcast to increase the fun. This week, we’re on Season 2, Episode 4, “In This White House,” which is the episode that introduces us to Ainsley Hayes. IT IS THE WORST EPISODE OF THE ENTIRE SERIES.* Come at me, bro.
There are so many problems with this episode, I don’t even know where to start. Let’s just take it from the top. First of all, the premise. I actually don’t have a problem with the fact that the Republican Aaron Sorkin wrote in for this purpose is a young, pretty, blonde from the South, because you know what? That shit’s real life. UCLA calls it the “Michele Bachmann effect,” because apparently its researchers have a higher gag threshold than I do. Anyway. Fine, they’re doing the whole pretty-Republican-lady thing, but what irritates me is the joke that finishes the cold open: Josh running breathless into Toby’s office saying, “Come quick! Sam’s getting his ass kicked by a girl!”
HURR HURR, YOU GUYS. A girl was better than a boy at something, isn’t that hilarious? This joke is dumb, old, sexist, and lazy, even by the standards of 2000, when this episode aired. Come on, Aaron. Write something better. It’s literally your job. For what it’s worth, Hrishi and Josh have talked before about the sexism baked in to the show – the way CJ gets talked over or ignored, the way women operatives and women-oriented groups are treated dismissively or disdainfully by our central characters – and how this reflects the boy’s-club mentality of inside-the-beltway politics. Essentially, they argue, Aaron isn’t being sexist, he’s being true to life. Bullshit, I say. The whole point of The West Wing is to present an aspirational picture of what we can do as a people when we work together, and how politics can be employed for good. Brad Whitford hit the nail on the head when he called it “liberal porn.” We watch The West Wing and we want Bartlet to be our president, and we want CJ and the guys to be our best friends, and we dream of how much better the world would be if some of this was a little bit real. So, why is it that the political aspect of the show can be aspirational but this gross sexist part has to be “real”? It doesn’t. I think, in this instance, Josh and Hrishi are overthinking things and giving Aaron a little too much credit. I think this is an example of Aaron’s unexamined unconscious bias against women coming to the surface. The fact that we see this kind of thing play out over and over in his other shows (Jim constantly coming to Maggie’s rescue and Don’s hideous moralizing to the raped college student in The Newsroom are some examples) demonstrates that Aaron’s unconscious bias comes out one way or another. There’s a way to write this character and these interactions, and make them funny, without resorting to these lazy jokes at the expense of women and girls.
Second complaint: Ainsley’s friends. They should have saved some money on the two-line extras and just used those life-sized cardboard cutouts of Dale Earnhardt Jr. that have been standing in the back corner of my neighborhood liquor store for the last 10 years instead of bothering with casting live human people, because that’s about the depth and realness of these clowns. They have such unmitigated glee in Ainsley’s performance on “Capital Beat,” talking about her becoming a star, like they’re villains from a 1940s movie about a naive midwestern girl who gets taken advantage of when she tries to make it in the big city. Yeah, we get it, these are the bad guys. Ease up, Sorkin. Good grief.
Third complaint: Literally** everything Ainsley says. First of all, the caller ID bit. How and why does Ainsley have the phone number for the White House operator memorized? It was like that thing from earlier in season one where everyone had apparently been reading Donna’s book about what life was like 100 years ago, or when the hometown priest Bartlet calls in when he knows he’s not going to commute the death sentence magically knows that Joey Lucas is a Quaker and Toby’s rabbi had tried to intervene, as if he’d watched the episode on the plane down from New Hampshire. It’s just weird and it takes us out of the world of the show. Find a different narrative device, one that makes sense within the universe of the show, to express this information. Forget the whole song and dance with the caller ID (SEE WHAT I DID THERE) and just have Ainsley answer a phone call from the White House. But that’s just nitpicking. The real problem is Ainsley’s two speeches.
First of all, the gun speech.
Excuse me, I, a liberal anti-gun person, am not against guns because I don’t like it when people die needless and violent deaths, but because I have a cultural bias against the people who like guns? And the thing that’s more insidious than the fact that a bunch of white supremacists literally just attempted to lynch Charlie and accidentally ended up shooting the President of the United States instead is the fact that Josh and Sam don’t like those guys very much? THAT’s the real problem here? Um. I don’t even know how to respond to that, except to say:
I understand that I may be a little more touchy about this subject, now that kindergartners keep getting slaughtered when they’re trying to play on the playground or learn their alphabet. But it’s not like gun violence was new when Aaron wrote this episode in 2000. We’d lived through the dramatic rise in gun violence of the 1960s and ’70s, and the hysterical years of the ’80s and ’90s where constant news reports of gang- and drug-related violence kept the nation in fear, despite the fact that crime was actually down throughout the decade of the 1990s. Also, this episode aired just a year after Columbine, arguably the most shocking of all the school shootings because it was the first, and we hadn’t yet developed the callous over the place in our nation’s heart where we feel compassion for one another and let that spur us toward positive change. This “argument” of Ainsley’s, about Sam and Josh’s anti-gun stance as nothing more than a convenient cover for personal dislike, is ignorant and offensive to the point of absurdity. It is one of the most awful things anybody says on the show, ever.
Secondly, the “I’m their lawyer” speech when Ainsley meets her caricatures/friends at the diner after her interview is also ridiculous and terrible and redundantly on-the-nose, but I’m too exhausted with outrage and indignation from the gun speech to give a shit anymore.
Zero stars for this episode. Ugh.
*At least, as far as I can remember right now. I reserve the right to determine other episodes were worse as I re-watch them. I haven’t seen most of these episodes in about a decade.