THE WEST WING and storytelling in miniature

Greetings, Programs!

Back in the day, The West Wing was one of my favorite shows. I don’t think it’s aged as well as many, and I’ve found that I have issues with Aaron Sorkin over the years, but still–when the show was at its best, The West Wing was superb. One facet of its success was its approach to storytelling in miniature.

The West Wing was an ensemble show, telling the stories of a large cast of characters as they worked in the White House to run the United States. Ensemble shows (and books) pose their own challenges: which stories do you focus on more than others, what do you do with characters who might not be the actual focus in this episode or chapter as opposed to the next one, and so on. Many times there would be a “main” storyline in an episode, but along the way Aaron Sorkin had to get the other characters into the show somehow. Sometimes they would factor into the episode’s main storyline, other times they wouldn’t.

This, then, posed two problems: First, Sorkin had to make sure that the main storyline in any episode moved along in satisfactory fashion with lesser screen time in which to do that job than a non-ensemble show might have (and he was not always successful at this). Second, he had to ensure that the secondary stories in any episode were satisfying on their own (and he was not always successful at this, either).

Here we have one of Sorkin’s secondary stories that works very well. This is from the second season’s Christmas episode, in which the main story is Josh Lyman’s struggles with PTSD after being critically wounded in an assassination attempt on the President some months before. That story has no bearing on this little tale that involves CJ Cregg and her attempts to get to the bottom of an odd incident in which someone, while on a tour of the White House, suddenly had a very emotional response to seeing one of the many paintings on the wall.

This little story unfolds over just two scenes, which combined take less than five minutes. And even so, you have everything you need for a story: character, a problem, some background, and some true wit. Here’s the scene:

What leaps out at me here? Well, we have the trademark Sorkin stuff here: walking-and-talking, fast dialog, and all that. But there’s something here that definitely sparkles, which doesn’t always happen in these Sorkin episodes-within-episodes. There’s the mystery as to why someone would be so emotionally charged after seeing what we’re told is an uninspiring painting, and there’s the fact that the payoff comes pretty quickly. This miniature episode highlights one of Sorkin’s favorite approaches to storytelling: using comedy in the first act to partially conceal the emotional hit in the second (leaving the emotional hit, as he once described it, “hiding in the tall grass”). Here Sorkin only has two scenes to work with and they have to be pretty short, so he doesn’t linger or tarry. There’s nothing here that doesn’t need to be here, which can be one of his problems as a writer. There is also no pious pontification here.

Of course, the scene mostly crackles because of the amazing chemistry between Alison Janney and the wonderful British character actor Paxton Whitehead. The way Janney smiles when Whitehead is referring to the President’s awful taste in art (while taking another shot at her own “taste in accessories” in the process), just the way they converse as if they do this stuff every day. This stuff doesn’t always work well on The West Wing but here it works so well that I almost want a sequel series when CJ Cregg, after leaving the White House, teams up with Bernard Thatch to seek out lost works of art and return them to their original owners. I love this little story right from the opening exchange, which establishes relationship and character in just two lines each:

CJ: How are you doing, Bernard?

BERNARD: I’m not at all well.

CJ: That’s not unusual, is it?

BERNARD: No.

The storytelling lesson here is that sometimes limits can push one to do really good things. Sorkin doesn’t have time in this episode for more with this story than these two scenes, so he gets all the impact that he can from them. It’s really, as Sorkin himself might say, quite something.

And that’s all I have for today. See you ’round the Galaxy!

 

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