The West Wing – 6×04 – Liftoff

I wrote some thoughts after seeing this episode last year, which now claw their way from the grave seeking to devour your brains…

The West Wing – 6×04 – Liftoff

Debbie: “She still nervous?”
Bartlet: “I don’t think so, no.”

Although I gave a positive review to last week’s episode, I suspect that it benefited from my immense relief that it was not the depressing and out-of-character mess it threatened to be. “Liftoff”, however, stood entirely on its own merits, and I’m pleased to say it was a highly enjoyable installment.

The episode has a number of obstacles to overcome, not least that this kind of “first day on the job” story has been done before in many shows (notably ER), and that structurally it adds little to the familiar formula of initial success, set-back, and regrouping. However, that’s not to say the writing is a bland knock-off – merely that the underlying format is well-established.

Another thing that counts against it is the basic implausibility of the premise. I’m still far from certain that CJ is the logical choice for the job, and I’m far from certain that anything in the character’s past demonstrates the strength of will, impartiality or composure to start managing the people around her.

Nonetheless, this episode managed to convince me that she could do the job, and do it well. It’s a measure of the writing that the script rises well above the well-worn premise. The dialogue is sparkling, and full of too many lovely touches for me to mention them all. Things like: CJ’s home being overrun by agents; her refusal to use the connecting door to the oval office until Charlie practically drags her to it; her wobbly relationship with Margaret (“you’re a strange woman”); Toby’s cringe-makingly awful press conference; his “watchable quality”, the confusion over Leo’s flowers; the resignation joke; and Bartlet’s reaction to Debbie’s “Is she still nervous?” There are also plenty of quirky non-verbal touches, like Toby and Josh shuffling their chairs around when CJ starts the staff meeting from the back of the room. These and many more human moments made the whole thing a pleasure to watch.

One other thing to note is the sudden and surreal appearance of Jimmy Smits in the opening credits, before we’ve even met his character. Even more confusing is that there’s nothing here that would lead you to suspect he was a recurring character, except perhaps Josh being rather smitten with him. It’ll be interesting to see where this leads.

When I saw this episode I’d recently watched the classic S5 episode “The Supremes” and couldn’t help noticing that the same writer, Deborah Cahn, wrote both episodes. A quick glance at her resume shows
that she also wrote 5×09 – “Abu El Banat” (Bartlet’s daughters visit for Christmas) and 5×20 – “No Exit” (the staff interact during a lock-down), two of last season’s stronger offerings, and I think this week cements her position as one of the sharpest of the show’s post-Sorkin writers. Liftoff lacks a strong central issue, and isn’t in anywhere near the same league as The Supremes, but it is a witty, inventive, fast-paced episode, with sharp dialogue and quirky moments.

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