And it was a pleasure to see C.J. finally strike back, says Bruce Fretts
Allison Janney
Credit: The West Wing: James Sorensen

Bartlet’s White House staff is forced to ‘fess up

One of the great things about ”The West Wing” is that even an average episode like Oct. 24’s ”Ways and Means” is so packed full of stuff — guest stars, speeches, statistics, jokes — that you can’t help but find something to enjoy as well as annoy. The main plotline, about the Special Prosecutor (Nicholas Pryor) handing out subpoenas to the White House staff on the President’s MS, felt reheated from the Clinton scandals (in fact, the episode’s story was cowritten by one of Bubba’s ex-economic advisers, Gene Sperling). Yet a host of intriguing details floated around the script’s periphery.

Who knew Toby Ziegler’s middle name is Zachary? We found that out when Richard Schiff’s character was named to the witness list. Or that Sam (Rob Lowe) can speak Spanish? He showed off his bilingual skills in a heated meeting with a union honcho (Miguel Sandoval) whose support for Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet is wavering. Or that Josh (Bradley Whitford) wanted to be a ballerina when he was four years old? After refusing to discuss it, he told the Prez that he didn’t know what it meant at the time — he just liked the word.

Also adding spice to the proceedings was the first appearance this season of the show’s token likable Republican, associate counsel Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter). She fixed up Donna (Janel Moloney) with a GOP congressional staffer (Mark Feuerstein), who developed a quick case of cold feet after realizing his new committee assignment would have him investigating the administration’s alleged coverup. Late of ”Fired Up” and ”Conrad Bloom,” Feuerstein becomes another survivor of NBC flops to enter ”Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin’s career rehab program, joining Ron Silver (”Veronica’s Closet’), Oliver Platt (”Deadline”), and Connie Britton (”The Fighting Fitzgeralds”).

The hour also benefited from the emergence of press secretary Claudia Jean Cregg (Allison Janney) from a self-imposed stint in the doghouse following her verbal gaffe two weeks ago. It was a kick to see C.J. back on her feet and swinging away at the opposition again, maneuvering behind the scenes to sway public opinion against those who are trying to drive the Chief Exec out of office. As she explained it, ”If you’re not on offense, you’re on defense.”

The sports metaphor seemed apt, compared to the ill-timed martial imagery employed by Josh. ”I just don’t know on how many fronts we can fight a war,” he told Toby when they were debating how to respond to the Republicans’ attempts to repeal the Estate Tax. Later, he appealed to the loyalty of fellow presidential-campaign vet Sandoval, reminding him that ”we fought a war together.” The U.S. troops currently in combat might disagree.

What did you think of this week’s ”West Wing”?

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