The economy may be in recession, but Bruce Fretts says that doesn't give Aaron Sorkin an excuse to let his White House drama slide
Richard Schiff, The West Wing
Credit: The West Wing: James Sorensen’s own State of the Union speech

My fellow Americans, I am here to report to you that the state of ”The West Wing” is…not all that strong. Sure, the Jan. 16 episode had its charms: The tension between Josh (Bradley Whitford) and feminist leader Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker) continued to crackle — especially after he claimed her Congressman boyfriend was using her to win the women’s vote against a distaff opponent. But ”100,000 Airplanes” (more on the episode’s title later) also pointed up some irksome weaknesses in Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama. To wit:

GUEST WHO? Oscar winner Marlee Matlin. Tony winner Mary-Louise Parker. ”Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place” and ”Boston Common” costar Traylor Howard. Which one of these is not like the others? ”The West Wing” has a tradition of top-quality guest stars, so how did a veteran of two of the worst sitcoms of the past decade end up with the role of Lisa Sherbourne, a Vanity Fair reporter trailing her ex-fiancé, speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), on the night of the State of the Union speech? Maybe no other actress would take such a dumb part: Lisa was shocked to discover the dude who dumped her was uncomfortable being followed around by her. Only Howard’s flat, blank-faced performance could’ve rendered such a doltish character believable.

TOBY OR NOT TOBY Who’s been slipping downers in Richard Schiff’s coffee? Communications Director Toby Ziegler has always been fairly uncommunicative, but I fear he may have slipped into a coma. Schiff seems to be trying to talk without moving a single facial muscle. Maybe he’s hoping you won’t realize he’s the same guy grilling mentally challenged dad Sean Penn in the cloying ad for ”I Am Sam” that ran during the episode.

FACTS MACHINES Okay, maybe a history buff like Sam would know that FDR pledged to build 50,000 planes in four years during World War II, then delivered double the amount. But are we really supposed to believe that Toby would know off the top of his bald head how many words are in the Ten Commandments? Or that pollster Joey Lucas (Matlin) would have a quote from an ex-director of the National Cancer Institute on the tip of her tongue? Methinks Sorkin has been spending too much time digging up obscure bits of data.

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES Would Amy say to Josh, ”I’ve got legs that go all the way down to the floor”? Would C.J. (Allison Janney) say to Sam, ”Get on the couch, I’m gonna do you right now”? Would porno actors be ashamed to say such lines?

FOUL POLLS The emotional climax occurred when Joey reported that after the speech, 69 percent of Americans now rated the freshly censured president a strong leader. Only someone who obsesses over his own ratings could get choked up by such a scene.

How would you rate the current state of ”The West Wing”?

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