Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Sports Night"

-created by aaron sorkin
Sorkin's first television series, it lasted two seasons. Upon cancellation, the voice of upset fans was far-reaching. Fans of his later shows may be rightfully mystified as to why. I suppose the kind of honesty and reality it was attempting felt a bit revolutionary to the puddle-deep sitcom world of 1998...but viewed in comparison with his later work, SPORTS NIGHT often feels amateurish, lacking the nuance of WEST WING, STUDIO 60, and THE NEWSROOM. Wonderful actors are sometimes placed into no-win situations by forced dialogue.
-Shoe Money Tonight
The first episode to glimmer with the cohesively brilliant dialogue sorkin would master in THE WEST WING, specifically in an interchange between jeremy (joshua malina) and natalie (sabrina lloyd). She's having unjustifiable trust issues in their romance, and during a staff poker game, he challenges her to get over them and realize what she has. She fails, but he takes her home anyway (well, who wouldn't?).
-The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee
Seven college football players refuse to play under a confederate flag. Is the guest appearance of an unknown who would later act her way into a beloved regular role on THE WEST WING, enough to elevate this average episode onto a "best-of" list? Well, yes. Janel moloney gives a brief but wonderful turn as an under-appreciated wardrober.
-Cliff Gardner
A somewhat blah episode, but william h. macy fans (and if you aren't, WHY NOT?) will be well-rewarded. In his second of six episodes as arrogant ratings expert sam donovan, he gives an absolutely brilliant speech about philo farnsworth's brother-in-law.
Natalie organizes a late-night game of Celebrity (the only time the coolest party game ever appears on television?). Casey has to tell dan that only one of them made the "most influential people in sports" list. Jeremy, post-breakup, has a scintillating and sweet flirtation with a woman at a bar (paula marshall - CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, CALIFORNICATION). When he finds out she's a porn actress, he bolts.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


I met her in the city to read a new play of mine, as an audition. She was very nearly bald, which impressed me greatly (loving a bald woman being a long-unfulfilled fantasy). She was wonderfully talented and uninhibited. We became friends, getting together every month or two to read a play, or just hang out. Often we'd spend the night together, cuddling. Being bohemians, we were comfortable sleeping together naked. She was deep into the martial arts, so was usually in good shape. I very much liked being her friend. She wrote poignant poetry, mostly about sex, love, and howling darknesses in her psyche. She knew of depression and chemical imbalance, and sometimes took powerful mood-stabilizing drugs. In public, she always wore heavy makeup; she'd been through enough therapy to realize that this was a hiding behavior, but she was still unable to break free of it. As time progressed, sexuality crept into our embraces. There was always a holding-back element; we may have kissed on occasion, but no other fluids were ever swapped. And we almost never spoke of it, either. It became my first experience with anything resembling “friends with benefits”. She was into pain - i gave her a number of orgasms through hard biting. Once she took my thumb into her mouth, and i suddenly knew that she was far more talented at fellatio than any woman i'd ever been with, except perhaps my first, Kathy. I became a little obsessed imagining sharing that with her...but i always had a faintly disquieted feeling after we'd been sexual. I just couldn't find my way to being 100% present in those moments. I'm not sure how much of that was just fear of the dark, damaged parts of her (and my aversion to makeup)...but i knew that i didn’t feel enough compatibility to sustain the kind of intense romance she seemed drawn to. We never really talked about it - only once, did i maybe see a glimmer of a part of her that felt disappointed or rejected by me. Our friendship hung in there for a year or two, until she moved out west. She had fallen into a love threesome, with a man and a woman. The occasional notes she sent me in the years that followed told of being happy. Her words were a bit forced and mantra-like...but does anyone actually do better?

Friday, December 14, 2012

technicolor dreams 3

-spring 2002
I had thought i'd remain in Lee County until professional acting work stopped coming, then head for the Rockies for some unstructured traveling. But Paul Longua, my old buddy whose Scope Shack had provided a home for the Orpheus-banned DRINKING IN AMERICA, had moved his photo shop\gallery to a location right on the beach's Times Square, on the second floor of the Seafarer's Village Mall. He wanted to focus more on the arts, and asked me to start a theater. I agreed, out of friendship and loyalty, and also because he supported my pushing the taboo boundaries which had held us back at the Orpheus. The space was fifty feet long, and thirty feet wide at the back where we would perform. There was an adjoining backstage room, and comfortable seating for fifty. Paul started filling the place with the work of local artists. He found several chairs that were fashioned after high-heeled shoes. Tom Waits became our patron saint, his album SMALL CHANGE our soundtrack. Wonderful Sheryl Ruppert, from ON TIDY ENDINGS, told me of her lifelong dream to be the narrator of JOSEPH, and i decided we could do the show as a two-actor vehicle. It was the first show i'd ever had a lead in, when i was sixteen. It wasn't hard-hitting, but i didn't want to be a slave to one genre, and for a first show, it might be a perfect crowd-pleaser. I also thought the world of Cheryl, so it gave me special happiness to do this for her. It would be sweet to finally play Pharoah, a role i almost would have taken over Joseph, all those years ago. We cut a couple songs and shortened others, which Sheryl said would excerpt us from royalty obligations. I wasn't positive about that, but went along with it. We rehearsed at a clubhouse near her home. It was a madcap version we created, with wigs, beards, and hats flying fast and furiously. Once we arranged the music and found the proper keys, i went to Sarasota, where Jim Prosser recorded the accompaniment (amazingly as always). I played Joseph and Jacob and Levi (with Sheryl as a harmonizing cowboy brother) and Reuben (with Sheryl as a beret-bound brother). One night, during my first lines, i started singing an octave too high (i hope that wasn’t the night we taped). I played butler and baker, doing quick spins with puffy hat and serving napkin. Jim Conti at the Wood Theater couldn't have been sweeter about loaning us costumes. I spewed a slew of silly accents, from cockney to cowboy to french to brit-twit to Elvis. It was satisfying to be a better singer than my first go around. I gave Paul and Sheryl a percentage of the take. We had good-sized, very happy crowds. Paul put up a multi-colored parachute on the gallery ceiling. I wrote to Valda, my director from JOSEPH seventeen years earlier, and she mailed me our original amazing coat. So wonderful. We even had an opening act - Paul had found ten year-old beach resident Bonita Violette, who did a monologue called "Cosmetology Class". Tweren't bad, not at all. Soon after the run, we did a multi-media evening, with Jim Corsica (Father Mark from TONY AND TINA’S) and i doing the opening bar scene from SEXUAL PERVERSITY. My esteem for Jim was huge, and the scene was wonderful. I played my old role of Danny - at first i was concerned i had unwisely tried to recapture old glory, but when Jim finally got the Mamet dialogue, the scene just soared. He was a veteran's veteran, and i was touched to my core when he said that it was as much fun as he'd ever had on a Florida stage. JOSEPH was wonderful, in part because my more "straight" relatives, plus some of the children's troupe i was acting with on Sanibel, could enjoy it whole-heartedly. Back at the Wood, Shelhammer joked that i needed to stop playing Jews, already. Orpheus vets Amanda and Donna both came, and it was very sweet to give them more entertainment than they expected. Around this time, the county arts magazine “Happenings” did a story on me, the first time i'd ever been the sole subject of an article. The interviewer was sweet Dick Westlake from ECC and TONY AND TINA’S. The article ran several pages, with a picture of me all tattooed and mohawked.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The West Wing, season 5

-7A WF 83429 ****
It would be hard to overstate the importance of Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme to THE WEST WING. Of course, that seems half-patently obvious. Sorkin was the visionary and the voice. Once things are clicking, you can go on without the former, but the latter? When STAR TREK lost Roddenberry, they only lost their visionary. And Schlamme was, for lack of a better metaphor, the show's body. He gave the voice its look. Losing these two, due to squabbles with the studio, can only be compared in television history to Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds leaving M*A*S*H. The fact that both shows survived, even thrived, reduces the second-guessing to fodder for fan debates. And John Wells becomes Burt Metcalfe, promoted from in-house to guide the show once the horse (or camel) has left the one-bactrian town. Did the studio bring shame upon its house by allowing this pair to leave? Yeah. But what cannot be doubted is that Wells was the right choice. Welcome to "7A WF 83429", darkly and disquietingly shot, the combustible part three of a four-episode arc. Imagine Stephen King writing half a novel, then asking you to finish. This episode simmers, as Walken (John Goodman) replaces Jed, his finger on the trigger of massive military retaliations against Qumar (never mind that Zoey's kidnappers are still unknown). Is it possible that Goodman single-handedly elevated this one into greatness, assuring a nervous fan base that the show would survive? Yes. Not to diminish the fantastic contributions of the regular cast, but with any other actor in the Walken role, this episode, season, and series could have gone a whole different way.
-The Dogs of War ****
Zoey's kidnapping goes into its second day. Walken orders bombings and ground forces in Qumar. The staff (and Josh particularly) are going crazy with fear that Walken will start legislating a right wing agenda. How is it that we had to wait for season 5 to meet the President's eldest daughter?? Hello, Liz Bartlet (Annabeth Gish - DESERT BLOOM, MYSTIC PIZZA), in the second of six fine appearances. A wonderful Walken/Fiderer scene. The debut of Jesse Bradford (ROMEO + JULIET, HACKERS) as irritating intern Ryan Pierce, who would do nine episodes. He's obvious comic relief here, but will become a little more. This kidnapping arc finale isn't as brilliant as its predecessors, but is pushed into greatness by Goodman and the images of a family reunited.
-Jefferson Lives ***
With Jed back in the Oval, the search for a Veep goes into high gear. The choice candidate is Sec. of State Berryhill (the second of two fine appearances by William Devane - KNOT'S LANDING). A contentious congress will only approve a stiff who threatens no one. Welcome, Bingo Bob! Gary Cole (THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE, OFFICE SPACE) would go on to log twenty-one fine episodes. Abbey blames Jed and Leo for the kidnapping, and takes Zoey to New Hampshire. Josh and Amy spark some fine sexuality again, dammit.
-Han ****
One of the most exquisitely poignant guest turns in show history elevates this one to a lofty place. The aforementioned sentence is an example of the rhetoric Will and Toby struggle to bestow upon new Vice President Russell in the President's welcome speech. The "honest" version they perversely write for themselves ends up on the prompter by mistake. Pretty hysterical. A north korean pianist (Tony Lee - LOST) plays a recital in the White House, under the glare of military guard. He communicates to Jed his desire to defect, which could destabilize a nuclear treaty. The music of Bach and Chopin is achingly beautiful, and Tony's performance will tear your heart. Russell asks Will to be his Communications Director and senior adviser...a move that feels way too soon given that Will has been Deputy for only half a season. It sets up the series-ending election to come. But did he have more potential in the inner circle?
-Constituency of One ***
The single most unrelentingly bleak episode of WEST WING. Ever. Every character is receiving or dispensing misery. It's all tightly-written and acted, but...if ever we needed Rip Taylor, it's now. We do, however, have a little...Skeritt! Tom (M*A*S*H, ALIEN) drops in for a one-off as a democratic senator who switches partys. Will's defection to Russell is a done deal. This move would have felt less clumsy if they'd had a scene of Leo overruling Toby's protests, allowing Will to go because Russell (the second-most important person in the land) needed much more capable handling.
-Disaster Relief ***
Jed goes to Oklahoma to console tornado survivors, and stays overlong as he deals with his own demons of tragedy and loss. He has a very touching scene with a woman washing dishes. Josh deals with the fallout from some bad judgment. Ryan has a dandy episode, showing unexpected depth and understanding. Bradford is thoroughly capable, playing a well-crafted role, but the magic of chemistry doesn't quite strike, and he'll be soon gone. The debut of Terry O'Quinn (PRIMAL FEAR, TOMBSTONE) as General Alexander, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He's fine, but never reaches Fitz's level of juice.
-Separation of Powers ***
Ancient, ailing Chief Justice Ashland (Milo O'Shea - BARBARELLA, THE VERDICT) ends up in intensive care, prompting Toby to send Joe, Ashland's former clerk, to ascertain whether he needs to step down. Joe balks, then covers for his former boss. The third of six episodes for Angela Blake (Michael Hyatt), a political operative who takes over Josh's legislative responsibilities. It can be easy to think that no WEST WING character ever derailed as unceremoniously as Mandie, but i guess every new executive producer gets one character that hits the ground splatting. Again through no fault of the acting or writing...but that's just the way these things go. Her character was probably designed to flame out, of course, but that's neither here nor there. Speaker Jeff Haffley (Steven Culp - THIRTEEN DAYS, ENTERPRISE) takes advantage of the President's weak approval ratings to push an ultra-conservative budget agenda. Steven would do nine episodes, and never miss a beat. Threatened with a government shutdown, Jed calls his bluff.
-Shutdown ***
The fatal flaw in this one (and it's such a fun ride you probably won't even care) is that the scene where Jed wins his one-on-one showdown with Haffley, cuts away early. It's easy to imagine this choice was made because the writers had no idea how they would realistically get to where they needed to go. But we'll allow that conceit, as it gets our heroes back on their feet. Much of this, including an unprecedented visit to the Hill by the presidential party, is orchestrated by comeback kid Josh. Russell has some surprisingly good moments. And the star of the show? Debut character Rina (Melissa Marsala), the mysterious sexpot who cleans the place up while all support staff are required by law to be away. She would do six episodes, but the producers would piss away her potential, including (and especially) her tantalizing chemistry with Toby.
-Abu el Banat ***
Another worthy entry in the WEST WING yule-a-thon! The presidential family gathers for Christmas dinner at the White House...sort of. Jed is stuck in a meeting, Ellie arrives even later, and people are coming and going as family drama swirls, most of it over Liz and her husband Doug Westin (Steven Eckholdt - THE L WORD), who comes to Josh seeking the President's endorsement in a run for congress. The DNC has another candidate in mind, and Josh miserably tries to get this message across. Steven would do five episodes, and have some great moments. The most whopping scene in this one is between Jed and Liz, when a family's past and present come thudding together.
-The Stormy Present ***
A former President dies. Bartlet, Walken, and former President Newman (James Cromwell - SIX FEET UNDER, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT) travel together on Air Force One to the funeral, while a crisis inflames the Middle East. Exhilarating, nuanced acting between this grand triumvirate. C.J. speaks to a nebbishy scientist (Steven Tobolowsky, GROUNDHOG DAY) about government mind control experiments. Mallory (Allison Smith - KATE & ALLIE, HELTER SKELTER) drops in for her first post-Seaborn appearance, and her evening attire may detach your eyes from their sockets. Toby gets a snootful trying to write an impossible eulogy, and sings "Suicide is Painless".
-The Benign Prerogative ***
A fascinating episode which gives us a full ride on the only non-Zoey romance of Charlie's WW life. A journalist graduate (Gabrielle Union, BRING IT ON) turns his head, and he shares White House tales, only to find that she already has a press corps job lined up. Nice chemistry. A little more fleshing out would have been nice. Jed considers presidential pardons and the carnage that mandatory minimums have wreaked on people's lives (and taken discretionary power away from judges). Donna has to research the possible pardonees, becoming emotionally involved. And Joey Lucas is pregnant!
-Slow News Day ***
Toby gets Jed's permission to explore saving social security. He gets two opposition senators together, but it all blows up, endangering his job. Good drama, and like the best of season 1, strongly educative on an important issue. Fine supporting turns from Josef Sommer (WITNESS) and Michael Nouri (FLASHDANCE). C.J. has one of her most enjoyable flirtations ever with an argentinian diplomat (Joaquim de Almeida - CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER).
-The Warfare of Ghengis Khan ***
The space episode. Josh swats down NASA reps appealing for more funds. One of them (Christina Chang, 24) has a gentle flirtation with him, takes him stargazing, and makes him dream of humans on Mars. Elsewhere, an orbital detonation has the nuclear community scrambling to find out who's joined the club, but it turns out to be Israel developing submarine warfare. The israeli prime minister (the debut of the exquisite Armin Mueller-Stahl - THE LAST GOOD TIME, THE LONG RUN) is summoned to the White House, and has a grand scene with Martin. Vice President Russell is great as the clueless fool who figures out what's going on and prevents a military assault on Iran. Jay Mohr (JERRY MAGUIRE) debuts as ultra-conservative talk show hack Taylor Reid, who baits C.J. mercilessly. The story and music of Blind Willie Johnson ("Dark Was the Night") are rendered beautifully.
-An Khe ***
These days, the typical Hollywood political intrigue/action film is conspicuously less well-written than even a second-rate WEST WING episode like this, a bizarre reversal of fortune from the days of the original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (in other words, if the TV/movie incarnations of MI had been reversed, it might have been one of the most intelligent franchises of all time). This episode is a beautiful effort, bouncing back and forth from the corrupt intrigues of a defense contractor friend of Leo's (Jeffrey DeMunn, THE GREEN MILE), back to the time when they were shot down in Vietnam, and Leo's life was saved. Philip Baker Hall (BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA) debuts as a grizzled senator. Brian Kerwin (MURPHY'S ROMANCE, KING KONG LIVES) debuts as a bewitching, bothering park ranger from C.J.'s past. A touching version of "My Country 'tis of Thee", by Crosby & Nash, lends emotional texture to Leo's despair.
-Full Disclosure ***
Vice President Hoynes resurfaces with a tell-all book, trying to resurrect his image to make another run at the White House. He twists the truth to make Jed and Leo look bad - C.J. locks out his behavior by threatening to reveal all she knows...which is a lot, considering they had sex once. It's great to have Mr. Matheson back. The D.C. mayor (James Pickens Jr., THE X-FILES) convinces Bartlet to try a school voucher program. Sam Robards (AMERICAN BEAUTY, A.I.) debuts as journalist Greg Brock. He's fine, and he ain't no Danny.
-Epper Si Muove ***
Ellie is targeted by a republican congressperson, for the HPV research she's a part of. Sesame Street visits the White House, to film a segment with Abbie. It gets pretty hysterical. Will must face Russell's sneaky side.
-The Supremes ****
A conservative justice dies of a heart attack. With the republicans controlling congress, the staff bemoans the litany of wishy washy centrists who are approvable. Josh hatches a hare-brained scheme wherein Chief Justice Ashland (the wonderful Milo O'Shea) steps down, allowing Jed to appoint a liberal lion chief justice. The trade-off? Allowing the republicans to name the other seat. Fantastic, gripping, funny...and the liberal lion is played by Glenn Close (THE BIG CHILL, FATAL ATTRACTION). She has wonderful chemistry with, well, everyone, including her ultra-conservative opposite (William Fichtner - ARMAGEDDON, THE PERFECT STORM). It's a banner episode for STAR TREK fans, with appearances by Riker's dad (Mitch Ryan, DHARMA & GREG) and the brilliant Robert Picardo (the doctor, VOYAGER).
-Access *
A fine idea that sinks quicker than a very small rock. Just appallingly off the mark. The only one-star episode in show history, and the only one that made me grimace at the prospect of watching again. A TV documentary crew is allowed to follow C.J. around for an entire day. Wilson Cruz (MY SO-CALLED LIFE, SUPERNOVA) plays one of C.J.'s assistants. Janel Moloney fans will be rewarded with perhaps the best Donna smile in show history.
-Talking Points ***
C.J. tries to get the press corps upset that the FCC is in monopolistic collusion with the major media outlets. Unfortunately, the press corps works for the major media outlets. Josh has his feet taken out from under him by the computer industry shipping 17,000 white collar jobs to India because of a trade agreement he brokered, which breaks a promise Bartlet made to unions. The return of John Amos, for the first time since he left the show to do ALL ABOUT THE ANDERSONS, which ran for all of about, oh, sixteen episodes. The debut of Mary McCormack (PRIVATE PARTS, IN PLAIN SIGHT), who would do 43 episodes as Deputy National Security Adviser Kate Harper. She would be wonderful...and criminally underused. GALACTICA fans, listen for the voice of Anne Lockhart! The greatest C.J./Ben scene, a painfully realistic rendering of the romantic self-sabotage we all engage in.
-No Exit ****
The White House goes into biohazard lockdown, isolating people in sealed rooms...paging Jean-Paul! Let's take a moment to acknowledge the work of writer Deborah Cahn. Perhaps more than any other single individual, she's the reason why the post-Sorkin era cannot be dismissed. Look up the episodes she penned - it's clear that she captured his voice, and housed that voice in the right settings, far better than the rest (this one followed up "Abu el Banat" and "The Supremes"). This episode is also an object lesson in why the post-Sorkin years partially failed. There wasn't enough advancing of the cast relationships, in the right way, as here. All the concerns about Will being removed from the inner circle are forgotten as he and Toby argue the way to the heart of their conflict. It's so well written that you temporarily forget we never completely buy Will's defection. C.J. and Donna have a scene of unvarnished truth that advances their characters more than the past four seasons combined. Kate's professional standoffishness gets on Josh's nerves. Leo and Abbey are alone in the residence - she pops pills. And the most enjoyable thread of all has Jed, Charlie, and Debbie showering in the basement. The greatest Fiderer episode is just one of the many reasons why this one's brilliant. Plus some Butterfield, Reed Diamond (JUDGING AMY) in the first of three appearances as Dr. Gordon, and a lil' Brent Huff (THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK YAK).
-Gaza ***
Donna, Fitz, and Andy are sent on a fact-finding mission in Gaza. One of their vehicles is detonated by terrorists, leaving Fitz and two congresspersons dead and Donna critically wounded. Insanity erupts, with Leo (and the republicans and most of the democrats) calling for immediate military retaliation, while Jed tries to bring Palestine and Israel to a peace summit. Kate is the only voice in the Sit Room preaching patience. In flashbacks, Donna learns about the horrors of the region, and has a sweet romance with an irish photojournalist (Jason Isaacs - HARRY POTTER, PETER PAN). Josh flies across the Atlantic to be by her side. Farewell, Fitz...we wanted more, not less of you...but this episode hit us right in the stomach, and that's nothing to sneeze at.
-Memorial Day ***
With two men by her bedside, Donna starts to recover...then is back in surgery with a blood clot in her multiply-fractured leg. The rift between Jed and Leo grows, as Israel bombs Gaza and Jed delays a U.S. military retaliation. The President must throw out the first pitch at a major league game...and his athletic prowess is shaky even when he's not wearing a flak jacket. The scene of him practicing pitches in a White House hallway, under the watchful eye of Toby and Charlie, is one of the funnier ones in show history. Jed is halfway to a peace summit...

Friday, December 7, 2012


-by Dee Dee Myers
Dee Dee Myers. The first woman ever to hold the post of White House Press Secretary. Dee Dee Myers. Six-year consultant on THE WEST WING, and responsible for giving the show much of its verisimilitude. Dee Dee - the real C.J. And author of a wonderful, wonderful book. The title is more attention-grabber than literal, of course (except insomuch as it's not). Much more than a memoir, she supplies scientific evidence for why humanity's condition will improve dramatically once women share equally in all decision-making. While much of that science is highly conjecture, as we're still probably a century away from understanding what "female human nature" is (assuming such a thing even exists), the theories she presents are fascinating and compelling. The biggest difference between men and women lies in the feminine ability to build group relationships, while being less ego-driven. It's also fascinating to learn that while women are on the whole just as smart as men, they also currently live closer to the center of the bell curve (meaning both fewer blazing genuises and fewer blathering morons). Dee Dee offers commentary from other women who have been leaders or firsts. We live in a world where billions of women are still almost entirely subjugated and disempowered, and have reached real equality in none of even the most progressive societies, but Dee Dee's breakdown of what's already been accomplished, and the inevitability of the rising tide of humanity's reintegration, will leave you energized and ready for the future.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The West Wing, season 4

-20 Hours in America ****
As a follow-up to one of the most hard-hitting episodes in show history, this double-length season-opener is perhaps the funniest ever. Relaxed and smoooth the smooth of a fifty year-old whiskey (i'm imagining). Josh, Toby, and Donna get accidentally left behind by the motorcade in Indiana. A comedy of errors (running out of gas, a time zone change, a wrong-way train, mean girls on bikes...) follows. Amy Adams (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, THE MUPPETS) plays a modern farmer's daughter. Ernestine Jackson and Tommy Lafitte play diner proprietors who possibly offer the most funny-per-second in show history (get the dry rub). Sam has to spend the day staffing the President, making him realize how dumb he is. C.J. struggles with resentment from Simon's "little brother", until Charlie schools him. Debbie finally earns the personal secretary position, and Ms. Tomlin is a delight. Qumar reopens the investigation into Shareef's death, leading to some tense (but still funny) scenes between Jed, Fitz, and Nancy. Just when you thought you'd never see her again, Mallory appears. She takes a tired Sam home...let your imagination go where it will, because we won't see her again for two years. In the midst of all this lightness, domestic terrorists set off pipe bombs at a college swim meet. Jed's remarks in the aftermath put a lump in my throat. Fantastic.
-College Kids ***
Joanna Gleason is back as attorney Jordan Kendall, who is brought in to consult when Qumar's suspicions may force the administration to reveal the assassination. The show has grown in stature enough that pop stars are no longer merely loaning their songs, they're appearing live, as Barenaked Ladies and Aimee Mann appear at a "Rock the Vote" function (she sings a beautiful cover of James Taylor's "Shed a Little Light"). Amy and Josh, post-breakup, still have beautiful chemistry.
-The Red Mass ***
How is this episode not about cancer? The President and staff attend a mass, along with the leaders of congress. George Coe returns as Senator Stackhouse, whose issue-raising and tentative inclusion in the debates may split the democratic vote. The final scene between he and Jed, on the church steps, is a beaut. Blaming Israel for Shareef's death, the qumaris shoot down a plane containing their foreign minister (Malachi Throne, whose 1966 role as STAR TREK's Commodore Mendez makes him the only actor to appear on two of the three greatest television shows of all time). Denied the number of debates they want, Sam and C.J. suggest a go-for-broke tactic, with just one no-holds debate. A tantalizing once-only appearance by Hilary Salvatore as staffer Emily, who sucks the air out of the room in a silly scene with Charlie.
-Debate Camp ***
As the Bartlet team prepares for the debate, the humor is flowing and flashbacks take us to the pre-inauguration four years before, when lots of freshman mistakes were made. Take your sentimental side out for a walk, for Kathryn Joosten's final appearance as Mrs. Landingham. In California, an underdog congressional candidate dies, but his staff keeps campaigning. Sam speaks to the chief of staff, and WW audiences get their first taste of Joshua Malina as the brilliant, principled Will Bailey (Sorkin audiences have had plenty of tastes, as Josh is about to become the first actor to be a lead on two separate Sorkin shows, a distinction he will one day share only with a certain Mr. Whitford). There's something charmingly unique about this feels familiar, yet ever-so-faintly like a different creative team was responsible.
-Game On ***
Abbey's funniest (tie-cutting) moment in show history, the funniest practical joke in show history (at Toby's expense), and a stirring debate victory over James Brolin's Governor Ritchie. Hal Holbrook's final appearance as Albie Duncan, and this time his crustiness is augmented by a moment that may bring a tear to your eye. Jordan Kendall is called in, after a Qumari ship carrying weapons for terrorists is seized. Leo has a tense standoff with their ambassador, played by the brilliant Tony Amendola (STARGATE: SG1). John Aniston moderates the debate. Will Bailey's quixotic dedication makes a believer out of Sam, who promises to run in the special election if Will's dead candidate wins. And the debut of...Snuffin!!! Elsie (Danica McKellar - THE WONDER YEARS) is wonderful, funny, and knows how to watch Sam walk away better than anyone in the biz. Sigh. If Sam hadn't left the show...
-Election Night ***
As Bartlet wins in a landslide (and romances Abbey to candlelight, Dean Martin, and Commander-in-Chief innuendo), Sam watches the unthinkable happen...a deceased democrat win a heavily-republican district. Debbie's first scenes as Bartlet's new secretary are funny and seamless. Toby's ex-wife finally gets pregnant (using his sperm). He pressures her to re-marry, as she re-wins her congressional seat. Donna accidentally votes for Ritchie, and stands for six hours in the cold trying to get a republican to swap votes. A charming way to meet the charming Jack Reese (Christian Slater - HEATHERS, PUMP UP THE VOLUME), the stranger who finally says yes...just as he's on his way to assume his new military post at the White House. Even though a part of us wants him nowhere near Donna, he's perfect in his role. Bruno couldn't care less when a pollster takes undue credit for the victory...he's trying to get his post-victory mack on.
-Process Stories ***
Never has Rob Lowe been more smooth and precise than in this story arc that will end his run as a WEST WING regular. As he scrambles to get out of his well-intentioned commitment to run for congress, he and others start to reconsider. In a sweetly funny scene, Toby tells Jed and Abbey that Andrea is several months pregnant, and has to explain why he waited so long to tell them. The Andrea pregnancy/courting is the perfect plot line to give our Mr. Schiff. The post-election party continues, and Bruno's celebratory womanizing is a thing of beauty - dialogue doesn't come any sharper. Leo and Jordan continue their beautiful banter. Jack explains to Donna why the military needs a $400 ashtray...and suddenly my protests about military wastefulness seem silly. Don't worry, i'm already over it, but it's a great moment nonetheless.
-Swiss Diplomacy ***
The all-time funniest moments of playful, imperious Bartlet braggadocio? Through back channels, the Ayatollah comes to the U.S. for help, when his son needs a heart operation available only in the U.S. Complicating matters, the Ayatollah condemns the U.S. when word gets out, and the only doctor available (Bernard White - THE MATRIX RELOADED) is a reluctant persian refugee who was persecuted by Iran.
Josh has to corral Hoynes, who is (apparently) trying to lock up the nomination for the next election, only days after the last one. Toby fights to get an appointment for an outgoing congressperson (Lucinda Jenney - G.I. JANE), who lost her seat because she spearheaded a White House fossil fuel package. Plus, some Snuffin!
-Arctic Radar ****
A female pilot faces charges for disobeying an order to cease a romance with an inferior officer - an order that never would have been given to a male. Women's groups (and all the women of the White House) are up in arms, as the senior staff dances around the issue. Some prime Fitz, and some nice Amy. Sam is alarmed to find that Will won't lead his campaign, but he makes lemonade by diverting Will to the White House, where he knows Toby is getting nowhere with the inauguration speech, but averse to having anyone replace Sam. Will and Toby reject the matchmaking, until they stop being polite. It's Josh Malina's finest scene in WW history - before he's even an official regular. The Donna/Jack romance begins in earnest, as she gets Josh to talk her up. The underlying discomfort he feels is so skillfully buried, it feels like only the audience is privy to it. Some prime Bartlet comedy as U.N. diplomats try to get out of paying parking tickets.
-Holy Night ***
On paper, one of the best WEST WING episodes ever. The return of Zoey (Elizabeth Moss), with a snooty french boyfriend who taunts Charlie. The return of Adam Arkin, for a Bartlet/Keyworth scene! The return of Danny Concannon, with a Santa kiss for C.J.!! Plus...Whiffenpoofs! But it never rises above disjointed goodness, mostly because of the A plot, in which Toby is begrudgingly reunited with his estranged father (Jerry Adler - MAD ABOUT YOU, THE SOPRANOS), an ex-con. Flashbacks show the day Toby was born, in Brooklyn.
-Guns Not Butter ***
Danny pursues a lead in the Shareef murder. Josh Malina renders up the greatest goat-take in show history (its place in the pantheon of television's great goat-takes is less certain). The staff struggles (and fails) to get the votes for a foreign aid bill. They take a (symbolic) group photo with said goat.
-The Long Goodbye ***
Exquisitely acted, beautifully written. They aimed for transcendent...and fell short. The sum isn't equal to the parts, and it's hard to say exactly why. The most C.J.-heavy episode of the series, and Allison was of course up to the moment. She returns home for a school reunion and to see her Dad (Donald Moffat - THE THING, CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER), who is spiraling into Alzheimer's dementia. Matthew Modine (FULL METAL JACKET, VISION QUEST) is the third side of this tremendous thespianic triangle, as an ex-punk/jock into whose arms the lonely, miserable Claudia falls. Verna Bloom (ANIMAL HOUSE) plays the step-mom who deserted her husband. C.J. gives an interrupted reunion's all so very good that you probably won't care it's not excellent. The first (hazy) sex scene in show history.
-Inauguration ***
A fine episode that lacks sharpness. As the staff prepares for the inauguration (and the speechwriting thereof), tensions mount as genocide erupts in Africa. The high point is an hysterical scene between Will and Asst. Sec. of State for Public Affairs Bryce Lilly (Granville Van Dusen - SOAP, JUDGING AMY). Malina's strained respect is the perfect foil for Van Dusen's unctuous snobbery. Will also has a great scene with Jed. In the big picture, Malina will never quite fully leave Sam's shadow, but that's through no fault of his own. Danny returned several episodes ago, but this is the first one in which he REALLY returns, in an office scene wherein C.J. demonstrates what she would to to "have" him.
-Inauguration: Over There ***
At Will's spurring (to Toby's great displeasure), Jed is forced to admit that kundunese lives are less important to him than american. This ultimately leads to a re-write of the inauguration speech at the 11th hour, announcing a global doctrine of oppression intolerance. Will is promoted from temp to Deputy Communications Director. It's all well done, but not without a little gulp at the realization that Sam is really gone (even though he has a couple more episodes). The flirtation between Josh and Donna on the way to the ball is more brazen than any bawdy that it feels like something that can't be backtracked (though they manage to for several more seasons). Plus Jill Sobule!
-The California 47th ***
The President and staff travel to Orange County to campaign for Sam. Toby and Charlie get arrested in a bar, defending Andy's honor from a man who don't like single mothers. Some well-placed Fitz, Fiderer, Snuffin, and Zoey (with aggravating french boyfriend). Will is left to work alone on a budget speech, which gets fast-tracked, requiring him to turn to the interns after the writing staff quits (on account of him). Nice banter with Cassie (Claire Coffee) and the three Laurens. Jed fires Sam's campaign manager (Matthew Glave - THE WEDDING SINGER, ROCK STAR), and installs Toby.
-Red Haven's on Fire ***
And...fare ye well, Sammy Seaborn. Rob Lowe's last appearance before departing to, um...DR. VEGAS (and the ten episodes they produced prior to cancellation). One last sweet scene with Toby, by his side as he prepares to get creamed in the election. Josh dismisses Abbey's attempts at legislative input, so she hires Amy as her chief of staff. Jed sends troops to stop the genocide in Kundu. Three american soldiers are captured; he and Leo have some touching scenes with their relatives (including Carrie Snodgrass - PALE RIDER), as they wait for news.
-Privateers ***
And the post-Seaborn era starts with a lift from...Marion Cotesworth-Hay! A dowdy new englander (Helen Slayton-Hughes) is organizing a boycott of Zoey's induction into the Daughters of the American Revolution, because Abbey's ancestor was a pirate. C.J. can't keep a straight face. Charlie refuses to stop pursuing Zoey. Amy gets liberally hazed her first day. A corporate whistle blower (the thoroughly competent Jeff Perry - WILD THINGS, NASH BRIDGES) uses his friendship with Toby to get immunity, a bit disingenuously. Is it a coincidence that Sorkin left his post as head writer only six episodes after Sam leaves? Probably. Did Sorkin only stay through season 4 to ease that transition? Probably not.
-Angel Maintenance ***
The President, C.J., Will, and Charlie get stranded on Air Force One, when a landing gear light malfunctions. Josh meets with a liberal republican congressman (Matt McCoy - THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE) to work on a bipartisan bill, but members of both parties cripple the bill and the congressman's career. Toby has a meeting with congressman Mark Richardson (Thom Barry, in his third and final appearance), who wants to reinstate the draft in order to balance the skin colors among military casualties. George Wyner (HILL STREET BLUES, SPACEBALLS) plays a petty congressperson. James Morrison (24) pilots Air Force One.
-Evidence of Things Unseen ***
The most poker-rich episode in show history (and that's a very good thing). Late at night, shots are fired at the White House, which goes into crash mode. Jed is on the phone with the russian president, talking about a lost spy plane. Josh is interviewing a counsel's office applicant (Matthew Perry - FRIENDS, STUDIO 60) who is mum about his republican affiliation. Keep your sidelong glances and snide sneers, Matt does an impeccable job. The position he's applying for is Ainsley's...the first time we learn that she's gone. At first, one is quite sad upon hearing this...but when you think about it, did you really want to have her live in a Seaborn-less world? Lily is a delight at the poker table. Plus a lil' Butterfield, a little Zoey...just very nice.
-Life on Mars ****
On his first day, counsel Joe Quincy uncovers a White House security leak that leads to the Vice President. A torrid scandal forces Hoynes to resign. Powerful work between Matheson, Sheen, and Spencer. Cassie and the Laurens help Will conceptualize a political ad. C.J. has some snappy repartee with Mr. Perry, and talks to Stu Winkle (the greatest unseen voice in show history...the fact that the actor's name is Sam Pancake is just an unexpected little gift from the gods). Toby buys a house for Andy, and proposes to her once more. In one of his most poignant scenes ever, she rejects him because he's too sad and angry. Like he, we thought she was just playing hard to get. Searing.
-Commencement ****
The run of non-great episodes that marked the second half of season 4, is resolutely over. As Danny prepares to go public with the truth about Shareef's assassination, intelligence loses track of a terrorist sleeper cell. After rejecting Toby's proposal, Andy's water broke. Ayre Gross (SOUL MAN, ELLEN) plays her wonderfully cheeky doctor. Donna explains Josh to Amy...making Amy realize what we all already knew. And in the most powerful payoff to seeds sown seasons ago imaginable, Zoey prepares to go to France with her amoral boyfriend. She gets a new security detail, headed by Agent Wesley (a wonderful two-episode appearance by Taye Diggs - CHICAGO, HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK). At a nightclub graduation party, she is given ecstasy. One of her agents gets a bullet in the head, and Zoey is kidnapped. The song "Angel", by Massive Attack, provides the emotional texture for one of the most startling, disturbing sequences in show history.
-Twenty Five ****
Sorkin and Schlamme's swan song. Has there ever been a send-off more...okay, pardon the alliteration, i won't say "sensational". But the wallop of this one is breathtaking. Retaliatory strikes against the bahi are prepared, though Zoey's kidnappers remain unknown. Distracted and obsessed, Jed temporarily abdicates the Presidency. With no Vice President, the republican speaker of the house, Glenallen Walken (the redoubtable John Goodman - THE BIG LEBOWSKI, MONSTERS INC.) steps in. He's perfect. Emilio Estevez plays the young Jed in home movies. Toby meets his twin babies, and has an amazing scene with them. Harry Groener is back for a quickie as Roger Tribby. The pediatric nurse is played by Vernee Watson-Johnson, who was lovely on CARTER COUNTRY (1977-1979), a fact remembered by me and three others, all of whom actually live in Carter country. A million and three thanks, Tommy and Aaron.