Sunday, 8 April 2012

S1E01: Pilot

A few housekeeping points for starters: While I understand that the vast majority of people who ever read this will most likely have watched every episode (numerous times probably) I'd like the blog to be newbie-friendly. While there may be some mildly spoilerish details occasionally they shouldn't be enough to upset someone who's only watched up to the episode under discussion. When needed, there will be a section at the end (clearly marked) which will go into more detail on interesting points given knowledge of future episodes. Hopefully this method should satisfy all. Enough with that - onto the episode.

Of all episodes of The West Wing, the Pilot is the one I've seen the most. I show it to every new person I try to convert to the show, and as a result I've seen it somewhere between 15 and 20 times. In all of those times I can honestly say I've never been bored, as in my opinion, it's the best Pilot episode that's ever been made. It has an almost Herculean task to perform and it does it effortlessly.

For example, we have a pretty big ensemble to be introduced to, but for the most part we know a little something about all of them within the first five minutes. Sam is a fairly high level staffer for the President, in the know about issues that most people would be unaware of. Leo is rich, and the President's right hand man (he gets a call, not a page). CJ is awkward around men she's attracted to. Josh is a workaholic. Toby is an arrogant know-it-all. And this is all before the credits roll.

Then we have the scene with Leo actually arriving at the West Wing. Straight away we get a Scorsese-esque tracking shot (a few actually) and several plotlines are thrown at us (the Cubans, the President's accident, Josh's mis-step and a crossword puzzle). It doesn't feel like an information dump and it doesn't seem exposition heavy - this is what it must be like every day at the White House, right? Sorkin does a great job of making Josh likeable, while simultaneously making his job position appear really shaky. When I first watched the episode I didn't know Bradley Whitford was going to be a series regular, so there was the definite possibility that he was going to be gone by the end of the episode. The fact that I cared when I'd only been watching the series for half an hour is testament to the quality of the writing.

The first group scene (where they discuss the Cuban issue) is also a good sign that while this will undeniably be a drama series it will have some really funny moments too. We also get a glimpse of just how smart all these people are. Part of the rewatch value that the series has is that they discuss issues so quickly that on a first viewing you tend to pick up just the broad strokes of an episode - fine for understanding what's going on, but definitely not for picking up on all the nuance that's in the writing. Of course, that means you pick up on different things with each rewatch, which makes the investment in the DVD set an absolute bargain.

In an episode with a lot of great scenes/lines, the scene with the class and the one which immediately follows it in the corridor with Sam's monologue to Mallory have to be my favourite. By the time Sam says "Well this is bad on so many levels" I was in tears. Following that scene with the the heavily dramatic confrontation between Mary Marsh and Toby is a fantastic move.

Which all brings us to the introduction of the President. It's easy to see why the decision was made by the show makers to enlarge his role because Sheen nails the scene and clearly revels in the quality of writing. Oh the irony that Josh still has a job largely down to the actions of a far-right religious group.

While we're talking about good acting, you have to take your hat off to the entire cast here. This show will be the career-defining role for every one of them such is the strength of their acting. Whoever cast them was a genius.

As much as I love this episode, there are definitely a few things I can nit-pick:

"These things look exactly alike" is a huge telegraph of the swapped pagers plotline, and totally unnecessary.

Is the President really going to say "Economists were put on this planet to make astrologers look good" when he's won the Nobel Prize for Economics? Would the Economists in the room really let that comment go, much less laugh? It provides a nice soundbite but it doesn't stand up to any examination.

Leo phoned the New York Times? And from what he says it's a common occurrence? No way, not how busy they are. Realism is sacrificed for comedy.

Finally, is a member of the religious right really going to get the commandments wrong? And when know-it-all Toby corrects him would he really get it wrong too? "Honour thy father and thy mother" is the fifth commandment, not the first and not the third.

For the record I should say that I had no problem with any of these lines with the exception of the pager one when I first watched the episode. Indeed, I really liked most of them, which I guess is the point (this is first and foremost, an entertainment show, not a documentary).

Episode grade: A+

So what did you all think?


  1. I think this is a very well done summary / commentary on the first ep and I agree with the lion's share of the sentiments, save the President's joke about economists. At the time, it does seem a little out of place, but considering he does plenty of self-deprecation throughout the show and doesn't take meetings with bickering advisers too seriously I'm fine with the line.

    Good job =)

  2. Ive just started watching this for the 5th or 6th time thanks to your post on the digital fix board, and agree with most off you're comments on this excellent series. But I must point out that the "economists" quote was actually made by Leo to a group of economists as a joke about them

    Great idea for a blog and well executed

  3. Great idea, I've just started watching for the third time thanks to your post on the Digital Fix Forums and will try to keep pace with your blog.

    The West Wing is the best TV gets, and although it will never be as exciting as the first time I watched it you definitely pick up more on second and third time through.

  4. What annoys me about this episode is the fact that Laurie smokes weed after waking up with Sam. Whenever the Sam/Laurie plotline is discussed throughout the first series, they're always clear to say that same didn't have knowledge of, witness or participate in anything illegal. Whilst they meant that he didn't knowingly have sex with a hooker, the fact is that he DID witness and have knowledge of something illegal. Just nitpicking, I guess :(