The West Wing: Pilot   Rewatch 
June 27, 2014 12:02 PM - Season 1, Episode 1 - Subscribe

The senior members of the White House staff are summoned to the office early in the morning to handle several difficult situations.

Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman is in hot water after a television appearance attacking a Christian commentator, Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn spends the night with a woman who turns out to be a call girl, and the President has crashed his bicycle into a tree. The story also follows the fate of a group of around 1,200 Cuban refugees, 137 of whom arrive in Miami and claim asylum, while 350 are missing in a storm and presumed dead.
Airdate: September 22, 1999
Director: Schlamme
Writer: Sorkin
posted by ApathyGirl (34 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
So I'm thinking about following the Mad Med re-watch model, and posting two episodes a week. Thoughts, feedback?
posted by ApathyGirl at 12:41 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of in a hurry, does anyone mind if I walk while I talk about this one?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:02 PM on June 27, 2014 [13 favorites]


Two eps a week is good for me.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 2:20 PM on June 27, 2014


Oh my gosh yes. I actually started a re-watch after the oral history posted a few weeks back!

One of the things that really stuck with me about this episode was the idea that someone might actually not know what POTUS stood for. But then I realized I couldn't really tell when it had been popularized (watching WW for the first time, as I did, way after it had aired in real-time). But a google turned up this article about its use from 1997! So I guess that moment from the 1999 pilot was actually rather zeitgeisty.
posted by likeatoaster at 2:27 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't think I realized this was the pilot the first time I saw it as all the characters seemed well established, or at least were in my mind after some random episodes.

In an alternative universe the writers ran with the call girl scandal and it was an ongoing theme for all nine seasons, the last of which had some serious Lincoln bedroom scenes where Vice President Seaborn and his girlfriend Laurie are surprised by Mrs Mandy Seaborn.
posted by sammyo at 5:08 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


The theme music is so bad.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:46 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Two things about this episode that didn't work for me in retrospect:

First, President Bartlet was referred to as "POTUS" three times in the teaser (once by someone who clearly knows what it means, twice by people who are passing along messages verbatim), and then never again in this episode and only two times in the rest of Sorkin's tenure on the show (once by someone reading it off a list and once on a pager display). It reminds me of all those times a villain wears a mask until the dramatic reveal for the audience, and then never bothers wearing it again.

Second: In an alternative universe the writers ran with the call girl scandal and it was an ongoing theme for all nine seasons, the last of which had some serious Lincoln bedroom scenes where Vice President Seaborn and his girlfriend Laurie are surprised by Mrs Mandy Seaborn.

That's the alternative universe where Sorkin didn't fall in love with Martin Sheen (famously, the original intent was for Bartlet to be more of a background character and for Leo to be sort of the father figure/minor antagonist for Sam Seaborn's Wacky White House Crew). It's just so obvious in Bartlet's "walk in and Solve The Problem in Act 5" bit here, making it kind of structurally weird when compared to the rest of the series.
posted by Etrigan at 5:47 PM on June 27, 2014


Yeah, but we all fell a little in love with Martin Sheen in that moment, didn't we?
posted by ApathyGirl at 6:40 PM on June 27, 2014 [8 favorites]


I can't argue with how awesome his Sheenness is, but it makes the pilot just weirdly different from the rest of the series. That's a pretty common issue with pilots, but for whatever reason, it really stands out for me for TWW.
posted by Etrigan at 7:50 PM on June 27, 2014


Whenever i go back and watch the pilot, that's what stands out for me too. I like to imagine the alternate series that only has Barlet in like 5-6 eps per season. I think it would probably be better, but I'm not sure.
posted by dogwalker at 8:33 PM on June 27, 2014


I think it would probably be better, but I'm not sure.

No way, and not just because Sheen is so great. Not having someone play the role of the President (or rather, having Sheen only occasionally appear) would make the show weird, because it would have to constantly invent some way for the top-level advisers to the President go into the decision-making room and get POTUS' input but not show it, or else just seem bizarre, because people know enough about the White House not to believe that decisions don't get made in the Oval Office constantly. I don't think it would have worked very well at all.
posted by axiom at 9:20 PM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


because it would have to constantly invent some way for the top-level advisers to the President go into the decision-making room and get POTUS' input but not show it,

The difference is that you do that part before the episode starts. So instead of Josh and Sam hashing out all the pros and cons of Policy X (and explaining it to Donna), with CJ weighing in on how the press is going to take it, Toby grousing about the historical aspects of it, Leo sort of corraling everyone together and finally Jed doing his wrap-up speech; you have Leo coming in and saying, "The President wants to do Y. Make that happen." or "Congress is doing Z. Uncluster that." It's not at all weird if you approach it as a workplace show, with The Bosses putting forth policy that Our Heroes have to deal with.
posted by Etrigan at 9:59 PM on June 28, 2014


the man of twists and turns: “The theme music is so bad.”
You're right. It's terrible as an opening theme. It works great as an end theme. The glockenspiel at the end really ties a bow on it.

That said, The West Wing is one of the few shows I don't fast forward through the theme because I like the part when the helicopter is coming in for a landing.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:44 AM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


I love how we get told who each character is going to be in the first five minutes:
Leo: No-nonsense man of action
CJ: Klutzy levity
Josh: Workaholic (He and Sam are both wearing yesterday's suit, but for different reasons)
Toby: Smartest kid in the class
Sam: The most popular kid in class, the ladies man.
Mandy: Smug, rash and careless.

This, of course, is not necessarily the arcs that play out over the long haul..
21 episodes 'til Mandy gets banished to Mandyville.
posted by ApathyGirl at 11:57 AM on June 29, 2014


I just recently did a rewatch of TWW and posted about it on FB a lot, but I'll probably play along with this one, too.

I'd always maintained that the least believable aspect of the opening was that Sam slept with a Washington call-girl to the highly placed / law student who didn't know what POTUS meant. In later viewings, I realized that might be because she was seriously baked, but it still sort of bothers me.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:47 PM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


My parent's watched this episode and hated it because of its tendency to canonize the president as a wonderful angel. Of course they are

a)British
b)Watching after George W Bush's presidency

It does bug me, especially earlier on, although we will learn that this president isn't perfect. Actually what I like most about the West Wing is that despite the utopian attitude of the staff, the government actually accomplishes very little throughout their 8 year tenure. Still, the whole set up of the religious guys not knowing the ten commandments and the president knowing it is absurd in retrospect. This isn't the last time this happens, sadly (I'm thinking the rant to the talk show host who won't stand in the presence of the president, another thing that comes off as ridiculous to this Brit).

I also find the whole thing about Josh getting fired a bit odd in retrospect, as he does much stupider things than this as we go on and there's really no mention of it. This does start a long tradition of Josh being quite bad at his job, however...
posted by Cannon Fodder at 2:28 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


I absolutely love Leo's running bit with the crossword. "What's my name? My name doesn't matter. I am just an ordinary citizen who relies on the Times crossword for stimulation. And I'm telling you that I met the man twice. And I recommended a pre-emptive Exocet missile strike against his air force, so I think I know how to spell the man's name!"

I recently finished a rewatch of the series, so Josh's S1 hairline is a bit of a shock.
posted by casualinference at 6:12 AM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]


The theme music is so bad.

I was about to sputter about you shutting your mouth, but I just rewatched the credits (haven't watched the show in years, but of course now that it's on fanfare I'll have to rewatch the whole thing) and you're right. So cheesy! So overblown!

But I do think it's kind of perfect for the show. Like House of Cards' theme music is both sinister and stylish/sexy, this music is optimistic and patriotic. It's not what I'd listen to on my own time, but it works for the show.
posted by lunasol at 6:12 AM on June 30, 2014


I like the opening credits music -- when they do cold opens, the smash cuts to those opening drum beats is often great -- but I hate the music they play over the closing credits.

It's so sprightly in a way that the show never, ever was even in it's funnier moments, and it is wildly inappropriate after many of the episode endings. Mrs. Landingham just died, lets play a jaunty tune!
posted by jacquilynne at 7:21 AM on June 30, 2014 [6 favorites]


It does bug me, especially earlier on, although we will learn that this president isn't perfect. Actually what I like most about the West Wing is that despite the utopian attitude of the staff, the government actually accomplishes very little throughout their 8 year tenure. Still, the whole set up of the religious guys not knowing the ten commandments and the president knowing it is absurd in retrospect. This isn't the last time this happens, sadly (I'm thinking the rant to the talk show host who won't stand in the presence of the president, another thing that comes off as ridiculous to this Brit).

That scene with Dr. Jacobs is often quoted as one of viewer's favorites, but I have always hated it. It's so very contrived, and so very out of character for the president. He is downright mean to her without provocation. Yes, she remains sitting, but that's the contrived part - no one would be so foolish or disrespectful to sit when everyone else is clearly standing for the president. He shames her in the worst possible way in a social setting where she can't defend herself. What is she supposed to do, get in a heated argument with the POTUS at a White House event she was presumably invited to?

As much as it might be every bullied kid's dream to shame their tormentor in that manner, it isn't the political, proper, or polite way to respond. In real life, a president would get slammed so badly by the media for acting that way.

Anyway, my first reaction to your claim that they accomplish very little was "but peace in the Middle East!" But that wouldn't be the first time we've brokered some sort of agreement between feuding nations, and I doubt it lasted long on West Wing either. Still, I'm not sure that it would be correct to say they accomplished very little so much as it would be they compromised a lot in the face of adversity. That might sound like a weakness, but I think it shows their determination to make some progress even if it isn't the giant leaps they were hoping for.
posted by 2ht at 7:33 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Anyway, my first reaction to your claim that they accomplish very little was "but peace in the Middle East!"

I have to admit I sort of forgot that development out of existence precisely because it was such a ludicrously large claim for a show about progress by degrees. I think they also "fix" social security in that season as well...

You're right that I mis-phrased their accomplishments, they do get significant acheivements, but often in a "two steps forwards one step back" kind of way which reflects how politics tends to actually work. I just think its nice to remember that for a show that is remembered as being incredibly optimistic, the characters often don't get to implement the laws they'd like, and they do suffer defeats more than once.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 7:50 AM on June 30, 2014


Being British, and in any case a couple of years behind when I came to it, how it was received at the time kind of passed me by. I imagine the relentlessly optimistic liberal viewpoint if not successful deed was quite divisive then.
posted by vbfg at 8:13 AM on June 30, 2014


God, yes, the Dr. Jacobs scene is ridiculous pandering. Plus, it's basically stolen wholesale from an email forward. So it's largely plagiarized pandering.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:36 AM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]


God, yes, the Dr. Jacobs scene is ridiculous pandering. Plus, it's basically stolen wholesale from an email forward. So it's largely plagiarized pandering.

Huh, I had always thought the e-mail forward plagiarized TWW, but Snopes confirms that the e-mail came first. I agree that it's over the top. I loved the scene when I was younger and more naive, but now it just makes me cringe (except for the crab puff bit, because I love Awkward Sam and all NH-related storylines).
posted by casualinference at 10:40 AM on June 30, 2014


NH-related?
posted by jacquilynne at 10:43 AM on June 30, 2014


Oh, God. This, West Wing plus MetaFilter is a mixture of two things I already have problems with moderating my intake of. I literally have had to go on the West Wing wagon (98 days clean, friends, one day at a time) because I was about to roll over and do my third straight nightly rewatch on Netflix.

I think the pilot is the best pilot of all time. It's not the best episode of WW, and it is terribly flawed in some ways, but it really is the perfect intro into the show. EVEN if Leo is too cuddly and too (if ever so slightly) batty, the President is too remote, Mary Marsh etc are too fish in a barrel-y, and Mandy exists at all. God, Mandy. The convertible and the cop and the generic riot grrl music. Bah! She really is the clunkiest part of the show's whole first season. Like quicksand, struggling makes her sink deeper in. I honestly think Moira Kelly does as good a job as you can do with what she was given, but she was given a stink bomb. The poor dear.

I like the theme music. But! I basically hate the season one theme music. It's clearly at least partially sequenced, and it just isn't quite right. By season two they have a more symphonic, sweeping version that I think plays much better.

*** SPOILER WARNING!! ***
I think it was clear the way I ate the crab puffs that it was a gesture of protest.
*** END SPOILERS!! ***
posted by dirtdirt at 12:49 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


New Hampshire!

(For example- tourism is a major industry in the state, particularly in the fall, so why does the president claim to not know what leaf-peeping is? Bartlet was governor for 2 terms, but Zoey says he served as governor for 8 years, while New Hampshire really has 2-year gubernatorial terms (2*2=4, not 8). And, while we're at it, the Bartletts from whom Josiah Bartlet claims to be descended had an additional 'T' in their name!)
posted by casualinference at 12:52 PM on June 30, 2014


Oh, and Jed mispronounces the state capital, Concord. It's conquered, not Concorde.
posted by casualinference at 12:54 PM on June 30, 2014


First gym scene of the show (CJ). I'll be taking note on rewatch, but I think only woman characters ever actually go to the gym (either being shown actually working out, or in the case of FLOTUS, talking about it)—the men sometimes speak of their intentions to go, but never do. Cf. vacations.
posted by obloquy at 9:09 PM on July 2, 2014


Interesting connection. I can recall only two other gym scenes in the series: Sam confronting Congresswoman Becky Reesman/Neal's mom, and then CJ and Simon (after she questions the quality of his gym).
posted by casualinference at 6:13 AM on July 3, 2014


As others have pointed out, there are a number of things here that aren't carried through the rest of the show. Despite all the "POTUS" talk, he's basically never called that throughout the rest of the series.

Donna is weirdly irreverent to Leo when talking about Josh's imminent punishment. Donna can be like that, but there's a time and a place, and she is appropriately respectful of Leo and the president and basically everyone who's not Josh for the rest of the series. In that scene she talks to Leo like she would talk to Margaret, and it seems weird.

At the time, Mary Marsh and the religious folks seemed cartoonish, but given the characters we've seen in actual politics in the intervening years, I'm ready to buy it. I don't think it's fair to set this up as "The religious folks got the commandments wrong, and the president knew them" since his Catholicism has always been an important part of who Bartlet is. I think there's a point to be made that you can be religious without being an oppressive religious asshole (a la Mary Marsh and Co.).

Any time I rewatch the West Wing, I always end up saddened by how much holds up. Sure the computers are giant and they're using pagers and there are issues, but also, it's 15 years later and we're still debating abortion rights and the role of religion in government and these things have gotten worse, not better. *sigh*
posted by terilou at 9:35 AM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


First gym scene of the show (CJ). I'll be taking note on rewatch, but I think only woman characters ever actually go to the gym (either being shown actually working out, or in the case of FLOTUS, talking about it)—the men sometimes speak of their intentions to go, but never do. Cf. vacations.

Sam definitely goes to the gym at some point.
posted by charmcityblues at 6:21 PM on August 10, 2014


Sam walks around holding his gym bag and telling everyone he sees that he's going to the gym, and then doesn't ever actually go, in one episode. But yeah, you're right— as casual inference reminded me above, he does also bang his head on a weight bar at the gym in another episode.
posted by obloquy at 6:36 PM on August 10, 2014


Several nights ago I began watching The West Wing. I never saw it while it was on, as I lived without a TV during most of those years, and maybe a few years back I started watching it but though I really enjoyed it I ended up letting it drop for some reason or other before I'd gotten more than a season or two in. I'm finding it's good escapism for these times. I get to vicariously live in a reality where there's not only no President Cheeto but also no President Bush II, and the White House is filled with qualified, intelligent, dedicated people who exchange smart, funny dialogue at a rapid fire pace, and presided over by a president who is usually on the right track and will listen to his team when they tell him he's not.
posted by orange swan at 3:11 PM on September 28, 2017


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