June 9, 2015

The West Wing: "A Proportional Response"

A journalist has discovered Sam has befriended a call girl. Josh interviews a candidate to be the President’s new personal aide. Meanwhile Bartlet threatens to fly off the rails with the Joint Chiefs when a Syrian attack takes down a United States military aircraft – an attack Bartlet has taken personally.

“A Proportional Response” has its origins in The American President, where Aaron Sorkin had President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) ask the exact same question as President Bartlet – what is the value of a proportional response? With so much of The West Wing derived from that film, and with so many scenes of the American President screenplay cut before production, it's not surprising to see Sorkin pick parts of it up and re-purpose them.

It is an episode in which all three central plot threads – Bartlet and the Joint Chiefs, Sam and CJ, and Josh and Charlie – concern themselves with perception versus reality. For Bartlet, the retaliatory strikes offered to him seem meaningless and insufficient until he is presented with a scenario for what the US military could actually do. For Sam, the difference between the reality of his friendship with Laurie and the perception it will create in the media is intolerable. For Josh, the concern is how Charlie Young – an Africian American – will look holding the President’s bag and opening the door for him. Three separate plot strands, all with a single core problem – whether to care about how things look over what they actually are.

A frightening new light is cast on President Bartlet here. In the previous episode he had admitted to Morris Tolliver how uncomfortable he felt around the Joint Chiefs. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) are a committee including a Chairman and Vice-Chairman (both appointed by the President) as well as the Chiefs of service of the four branches of the American military: army, navy, air force and marine corps. For Bartlet, an economist with no history of military service, they seem as intimidating as anything he might encounter as President.

Here Tolliver’s death sends him on a vengeful path, out of control, upset and willing to wreak havoc on the Middle East just to receive some piece of mind. Sorkin is willing to show the character’s faults, not just quick to fly off the handle but also far out of his depth and running dangerously out of control. In the pilot Bartlet noted his wife urged him not to ride his bicycle while angry – it turns out he shouldn’t run the USA while angry either.

In an interview with Irish America, Martin Sheen said of this episode ‘President Bartlet is often a vengeful president when it comes to the Arab world, which troubles me, Martin, greatly. I’m always fighting for diplomacy rather than military intervention. This is a constant debate we have on the show. But we do have to satisfy the other side sometimes, give a voice to the right.’(1)

‘There’s no way that I could be President,’ Sheen told the Calgary Herald, ‘you can’t have a pacifist in the White House and you can’t have one in a White House on television, either.’(2)

The episode acts as an enlightening insight into how the American government works. While China continues to grow as a global power, the USA remains generally regarded as the single-most powerful nation of Earth - how that nation engages with its enemies internationally is a very real concern, and "A Proportional Response" goes some way into exploring why using the full strength of its military might is never a logical or appropriate action. This is one of the strengths of The West Wing: I suspect Aaron Sorkin only includes so much detail of the political process because it's dramatically interesting, but at the same time it's extraordinarily informative and educational.

The sparky relationship between Josh and Donna gets a further work-out here, played very much – as most of their future conversations will be – for laughs. Donna’s deliberately not informing Josh that first C.J. and then Mandy are waiting for him in his office, while simultaneously demanding a raise, establishes a kind of playfully combative, highly flirtatious vibe. It’s something that Bradley Whitford and Janel Maloney each grab with both hands and play to the hilt.

From here on in, Josh and Donna are one of the absolute highlights of The West Wing. At the time Janel Maloney was particularly pleased with how her role was developing, telling the Desert News ‘it was so much fun for me, and I just knew that there was a lot more to be seen in terms of the relationship.’(3)

Dulé Hill joins the regular cast in this episode, as a nervous Charlie Young is picked out of a group of messenger applicants to be the President’s new personal aide. Charlie mentions that he was singled out by “Miss DiLaguardia” for the interview – remember this name, as the character unexpectedly turns up at the end of Season 3 (see “Posse Comitatus”).

The character of Charlie Young was specifically created after an early screening of the series pilot was criticised by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for lacking African Americans in the cast. Talking to the Philadelphia Enquirer, Aaron Sorkin said ‘when the dust settled from our initial hiring, I said “Gee, we’re looking awfully white here.” We didn’t want to replace people, so we added more roles. Believe me, we get it. We’re in no way resentful of the NAACP tapping us on the shoulder and pointing it out.’(4)

Casting director Kevin Scott later claimed Hill was one of his best casting discoveries: ‘I’m proud that he was put on the map through his part on The West Wing.’(5)

Born Karim Dulé Hill, Dulé Hill was born in New Jersey in 1975. He initially trained as a dancer, working as an understudy to Savion Glover in The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway, and later performing on stage with Jimmy Slyde and Gregory Hines. The West Wing marked Dulé Hill’s first major television role – he had previously performed as a child actor in a number of shows, including American Playhouse, All My Children and Cosby. He had also played the role of Preston in the 1999 teen comedy She’s All That.

Looking back on the series in 2006, on The Ellen Degeneres Show, Hill said ‘I was very nervous. I was coming in as a young actor working with all of these people... I didn't want to be the person who looked like he didn't know what he was doing.’ He later added: ‘When I came in, one of the first things that happened when I met Martin, it was like “Wow, this is Martin Sheen!”, you know? And he taught me the handshake that Larry Fishburne taught him back during Apocalypse Now, and it kind of made it very... it made me feel like I was at home.’(6)

Despite being a late introduction to the cast, Charlie Young became of the series most rounded and believable characters, combining a sort of nervousness with a youthful bravado – but both carefully maintained under a veneer of calm. ‘Charlie was very controlled,’ Hill said, ‘very contained.’(7) Charlie also allows a necessary outlet for the series, as he does not come to the story with a strong background in politics or policy. He is one of the two best viewpoint characters for the audience that the series gets (the other is Donna).

Political correspondent Danny Concannon makes his first appearance, as played by Timothy Busfield. Busfield’s immediate chemistry with Allison Janney made the character an increasingly significant one as the show went on, with Danny and C.J. flirting the edge of a full-blown romance for the entire seven seasons on air. Timothy Busfield remains best known for his Emmy-winning performance as Elliot Weston in thirtysomething. Prior to that he had played the role of J.T. McIntyre in the M*A*S*H spin-off Trapper John, M.D. Other roles included Arnold Poindexter in Revenge of the Nerds and Revenge of the Nerds II, Mark in Field of Dreams, Dick Gordon in Sneakers and Sam Byrd in the short-lived drama series The Byrds of Paradise (opposite a young Seth Green).

Behind the camera Busfield has established a strong career as a director, starting with thirtysomething and moving on to Sports Night, Lizzie McGuire, Ed, Lyon’s Den, Joan of Arcadia, Without a Trace (on which he also served as a co-executive producer), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Damages and Lie to Me. Curiously, despite a lengthy career in TV direction – including eight episodes between Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night and Studio 60 – Busfield never directed an episode of The West Wing (although he came close during the third season).

Busfield was invited to appear in The West Wing by Sorkin, who had known him for almost nine years. ‘In 1990,’ explained Busfield, ‘I auditioned for A Few Good Men (on Broadway). I played Lieutenant Kaffee, the Tom Cruise part. I’m so lucky. Aaron is very loyal. He’s one of two people writing letters for my daughter applying to Brown and Cornell. I would say that with Aaron, it’s like being a violinist for Mozart. You get the music, and you know what he wants. You know when he wants it soft and when he wants it stupid.’(8)

Commitments to producing and directing the series Ed kept Busfield away from The West Wing from early in the second season to midway through the fourth. Subsequent producing commitments to Without a Trace saw the character disappear again shortly into the fifth season, only to return to wind up his and C.J.’s story in Season 7.

Also making his series debut here is John Amos as Admiral Percy “Fitz” Fitzwallace, As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Amos would make another 21 appearances as Chairman Fitzwallace, culminating in the fifth season’s “Gaza”. Born in New Jersey in 1939, Amos shot to fame in 1974 as the star of Good Times, network television’s first-ever series created by African Americans. He left the series in 1976 after it shifted away from stories about family values and towards the slapstick humour of co-star Jimmie Walker. In 1977 he starred in the phenomenally successful TV miniseries Roots, which earned him an Emmy nomination. Despite this success, further strong roles were thin on the ground, leading Amos to take numerous supporting parts in television and film through the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the more notable productions included The Beastmaster, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, and one-off appearances on Murder She Wrote, The A-Team, The Love Boat and Touched by an Angel. Since appearing on The West Wing, Amos appeared in recurring roles in the TV series Men in Trees and Two and a Half Men.

Ivan Allen makes the first of 27 appearances as news anchor Roger Salier, credited here as merely “Newscaster”. A production assistant turned actor, Allen has made small appearances in a number of films and television programmes. Christopher Kriesa plays a military officer here for the first of three times: he returns, with the name Mitch, in “He Shall, From Time to Time…” and “Lord John Marbury”.

Director Marc Buckland had previously worked on the drama series NYPD Blue, Murder One and Felicity, as well as Sports Night.

It was during the orchestral recording session for this episode that a proper version of the main theme was recorded. Despite this, it still doesn’t turn up in the series until “The Crackpots and These Women”. The main theme was actually developed from a musical sequence written at the episode’s conclusion, as Bartlet begins to make a Presidential address. According to W.G. Snuffy Walden, ‘Tommy heard it and said “That's our theme”.’(9)

If you want to read more, all West Wing posts have been indexed here.

1. Tom Dunphy, “The President Acting”, Irish America, October/November 2000.
2. Bob Blakey, “West Wing drama battles real scandal”, Calgary Herald, 21 September 1999.
3. Scott Pierce, “TV relationship takes Wing”, Desert News, 20 December 2000.
4. Gail Shister, “NBC’s West Wing runs political gamut, holds the scandal”, Philadelphia Enquirer, 2 August 1999.
5. Bonnie Gillespie, “Casting Qs with Kevin Scott”, Back Stage West, 1 November 2001.
6. Interviewed on The Ellen Degeneres Show, 11 May 2006.
7. Rachel Thomas, “An Interview with Dulé Hill”, About.com, March 2008.
8. Elyssa Lee, “Riverfront Q&A: Timothy Busfield”, Sactown, February/March 2007.
9. Lynn Elber, “TV Shows Hum With Walden’s Tunes”, Associated Press, 5 March 2001.


  1. John Amos had a supporting role in American Flyers with Kevin Costner. Always loved that film - I had taped it off the tv onto VHS sometime in high school and used to rewatch it often.

    The penultimate scene of A Proportional Response - when Leo and the President have it out in Leo's office before the televised address to the nation - is almost structurally perfect. When I'm doing writing workshops I often use it as an example of narrative structure applied at a scene level.

    1. I've used bits of The West Wing in writing workshops myself!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.