The West Wing: The Indians in the Lobby
"The Indians in the Lobby"
Originally aired on November 21, 2001
There are so many ridiculously great episodes of The West Wing, trying to pick one out is like trying to pick out the best note in a piece by Mozart. But since it's November, I figured I'd choose the best of the show's Thanksgiving Day episodes, "The Indians in the Lobby" (and yes, fans of "Shibboleth," I love that one too, but this one has just a little bit more.)
It's Thanksgiving, and President Bartlet is making the stuffing ...
It's a different type of episode, since there isn't one main story that the whole cast is involved in, even as they're involved with their own plots. In fact, I'm not even sure what the main plot is supposed to be in this episode, since they all seem like separate stories. Since the title refers to two Native Americans staging a sit-in in the lobby of the White House because they've been waiting over 15 years for an answer to a land dispute problem, I guess that's the "A" plot, but the other ones are great too: Josh trying to get Italy to send back a kid who shot his teacher in Georgia; Sam trying to figure out a way to make new poverty numbers sound good and not bad; and President Bartlet ticked off about a poll that political strategist Bruno commissioned asking voters where they want the President to have Thanksgiving.
This last plot is OK in and off itself (and involves a really bizarre story from Bruno about boat racing and kelp), but it's what starts during President Bartlet's talk with Bruno that really makes this episode standout. Because he's making stuffing for Thanksgiving, Bartlet calls the Butterball Hotline to ask how he should prepare the stuffing, safety-wise, and what temperature the stuffing and turkey should be when fully cooked. This scene is a masterpiece combo of script and acting (even Richard Schiff and Dule Hill in the Oval Office with Sheen, just reacting to the phone call and helping him conceal his real identity to the Butterball lady). It's quite simply one of the most entertaining five minutes of TV I've ever seen.
As for the subplots, Sam has to meet with Bernice from OMB and convince her to hold off on announcing the new poverty numbers. After all, changing the formula as to how people are designated as poor means you get more poor people, and a President doesn't want that. You learn a lot in this scene: how Molly Orshansky came up with the formula (Sam: "You mean our cost of living formula for the past 40 years has been based on life in Poland during the Cold War?" ), that Bernice doesn't like to be called Bernie, and you also hear this joke from Sam, trying to break the ice:
"So three statisticians go hunting. The first hunter shoots at the deer and misses to the left. The second one shoots and misses to the right. The third one jumps up and down and says 'I hit it!' "
Come to think of it, there are a couple of more mini-subplots in this episode, but the way they're presented is so natural they don't feel squeezed in (this is not only the writing but the rapport the cast members have with each other - this was the third season). Josh has to talk to the Italian embassy and the Georgia D.A. about the kid while still getting to his mom's house in Florida in time for Thanksgiving (Donna is helping with that), and Bartlet is boring C.J. and Toby and Charlie with his perfect recipe for brining a turkey (apparently it involves anise and coriander). The West Wing was a show about politics, sure, but it's basically a workplace drama with lots of comedy, and lots of plots and characters and words swirling about in the air. I still don't know how they accomplished this week after week.
The West Wing was always great at combining seriousness and humor flawlessly, in a way that wasn't jarring or out of place, and anyone who wants to see a textbook example of Aaron Sorkin and gang at their peak should watch this episode. Maybe while you're brining a turkey next week.