So The West Wing is my favorite show. It’s off the air, but I have the whole series in a boxed set for my viewing pleasure. Well, tonight, in my third re-watch of the whole series, I happened to be at the point in season 2 where I watch the episode titled “17 People.” Once I got through the whole series the first time, I realized that this was my favorite episode. However, not until tonight did I really think about why it was. Here’s what I came up with as my reasoning as to why “17 People” is my personal favorite episode of the whole series:
The episode flips back and forth between two story lines: one with two of the senior staff members, Sam and Josh, along with some of their aides, and one with two other senior staff, Toby and Leo, along with the President. Now, these two story lines are vastly different. Sam and Josh are working on a speech for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The speech was written by other staffers and was supposed to funny, but it turns out that it is, in fact, not funny at all. So Sam and Josh gather some aides and try to make the speech seem less dull. This story line has a light-hearted feel to it; it’s jovial and there are jokes being thrown around, along with some friendly debates.
The Toby/Leo/President storyline is of a much different caliber, however. Toby senses that the Vice President is gearing up to run for President, which he doesn’t understand because the current President is going to run for re-election, and the VP doesn’t ever oppose the incumbent on the ticket. So, needless to say, Toby knows there’s something wrong and goes to see the President and Leo (chief of staff) about it. It’s from his conversation with them that Toby learns the President has Multiple Sclerosis. The President has only told 16 people, now including Toby, about his diagnosis. The public doesn’t know and other senior staff don’t know, and Toby takes issue with the lack of disclosure for various reasons.
I believe the reason I love this episode so much is because of Toby. Though it’s strange to me, I think I relate the most to Toby. Toby is quiet and doesn’t like to make a big fuss about things, but he’s like the steady force within the senior staff, keeping everyone together and in line. He sarcastic and witty, but deep down he truly a cares a great deal about what he does and who he works with. I see a lot of myself in Toby, though if you saw his character in action, that may seem strange (it still is to me…). When Toby finds out the President has MS, he wants to know everything about the disease and how it affects the President. He also brings up the point that because the President hasn’t told the public about it, it looks like he’s committing fraud. Toby’s demeanor is one of anger and betrayal, yet he cares so deeply. He comes off as upset, but it’s mostly because he’s afraid of what the public will do when they eventually find out, whether or not the President will be impeached, and what would happen if the President had an attack. It’s this side of Toby that I truly love, and I think Aaron Sorkin did a beautiful job portraying the realistic consonance of betrayal and a deep care for loved ones.
So not only do I love the Toby story line and how well it was written and portrayed, but I also love the opposing storyline of trying to make a script funny. The two halves made a perfect whole, even without CJ (the press secretary and the only one who’s a woman) in the episode.