The West Wing

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to: navigation, search
Can't you just smell the idealism?

Bartlet: There's a promise that I ask everyone who works here to make: never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. You know why?
Will: It's the only thing that ever has.

—"Inauguration: Over There" (also, Margaret Mead)

Political drama (1999-2006) created by Aaron Sorkin, starring Martin Sheen as the idealized President of the United States, nerdily intellectual Democrat Jed Bartlet. The real focus, however, is on his smart and dedicated staff, who roam the White House endlessly discussing the pressing political issues of the moment. In fact, the President wasn't even originally intended to appear very often, but Sheen was so impressive in the pilot that he was made a regular instead of the original four-episodes-a-season plan.

As per Sorkin's style, the show is wall-to-wall dialogue. The characters spend the entirety of every episode having lengthy, pointed arguments about real concerns such as public education, foreign aid and gun control, in a style of patter which carefully balances sober and didactic with nutty and didactic. All sides of an issue are covered (the show even gave the reason for the US Navy's infamous four-hundred-dollar ashtrays), although the show still has a distinctly liberal bias, with more than a few Republicans being portrayed as arrogant and out of touch. It did get a fair bit of criticism from conservatives for this, but many saw it as the best attempt to date to try to be a truly fair and balanced drama about Washington DC. The show is notorious for the Walk and Talk -- to create the illusion of activity in the midst of all this discussion, the characters constantly walk around the White House as they talk, despite the fact that they rarely have any place to go. Its nickname on Television Without Pity was "pedeconferencing", which was also picked up by Sorkin and Schlamme, among others.

It's also notorious for its vanishing characters. The characters played by Rob Lowe and Moira Kelly never officially left, they merely were never seen again, despite the fact that Lowe in particular was an integral part of the White House social order (and had just had a running plot which gave him a perfect way out). This is just a quirk of Sorkin's which even his most ardent fans find irritating and inexplicable. Lowe, it should be noted, returned close to the finale and had his resignation and intermezzo period explained. Mandy is still on her bus to Mandyville.

In the minds of many fans, the first four seasons often reached moments of truly sublime television; the best example is likely in the second season finale, where the President paces in the National Cathedral and curses God. In untranslated, unsubtitled Latin. The show's elevated subject matter meshed perfectly with Sorkin's idealism and, if you're less inclined to be kind, self-importance.

At the end of the fourth season Sorkin (and director Thomas Schlamme, who was Sorkin's number one director) left, to be replaced as show-runner by co-executive producer and ER mastermind John Wells. Wells took something of a defeatist attitude to the show, deciding that trying to emulate Sorkin's style would be futile, so instead he would take the show in a new direction, with fewer political crises, more personal ones. As a result, the show's identity changed from an idealistic look at politics to a far more pragmatic one, while at the same time dealing realistically with current events issues. After NBC moved the show up against the inexplicable ratings juggernaut Extreme Makeover, ratings declined to the point where, in 2006, it was cancelled. It did get a Grand Finale.

The West Wing never really underwent a Retool, but as discussed above, the show steadily evolved after Sorkin left. The most dramatic changes came in the sixth season, when Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits were added. While a rather obvious bit of Stunt Casting, the two did solid jobs portraying politicians seeking to succeed Bartlet (Alda actually won an Emmy for his role, which tied the show with Hill Street Blues as the most honored drama in the history of the Emmys). The second half of Season Six and all of Season Seven saw the program slowly move to more of a focus on the campaigns, with occasional trips back to the more familiar White House setting.

Sorkin was fond of making homages to and referencing musical theater, most impressively from 1776. It could be argued that there are references in every single episode due to one character being a descendant of a character in 1776 (Pres. Bartlet, and his three daughters as well, of course) and through Sorkin's taking Josh's last name from a minor 1776 character (Dr. Lyman Hall of Georgia).

A small, but interesting point: a political ploy tried by House Democrats in one episode (involving hiding in the Capitol building so the Republicans would think they'd gone home and organize a vote they would otherwise lose, then turning up and voting) was tried by the British Conservatives a while ago. And worked.

Many, many commentators noted just how similar the West Wing's penultimate season election plotline was to the actual 2008 U.S. Presidential election, with the charismatic young minority Democrat (Santos / Obama) facing off against the veteran western-state Republican senator known for "straight talk" and saddled with a VP candidate designed to appeal to the Republican right wing (Vinick / McCain). In several interviews, the writers said that Santos was directly based on Obama, after his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Obama did have a much easier time of things than Santos on election day, however, largely because Vinick's status as a populist California Republican made finding a plausible scenario for his defeat far more difficult.

We're still not exactly sure what was supposed to happen with that election; executive producer Lawrence O'Donnell said Vinick was originally scheduled to win, but once John Spencer (portraying Santos' VP candidate and former White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry) died, the writers decided to throw the election to Santos. Wells later said that wasn't true.

Here is a Character Sheet.

Tropes used in The West Wing include:
  • Aborted Arc: Charlie talks to the President about marrying Zoey towards the end of Season 6. The Charlie and Zoey relationship is never brought up again after this.
    • Also, Joey Lucas originally showed up as a campaign manager for a congressional candidate in California whose funding got cut off. The President says that he doesn't like her candidate, and then has Josh tell her that he thinks she should run for office. In every other appearance, she is a pollster, and there is never any mention of her as a potential candidate for anything.
  • Absentee Actor: Rob Lowe during the middle of Season 4, right before he left. During Seasons 6 and 7, large sections of the cast were left out as the focus shifted between the campaign and the West Wing. Most notably Episode 7 of Season 7, where none of the original cast feature (the cast was Alan Alda (added in Season 6), Jimmy Smits (also added in Season 6), Janeane Garaofolo (special guest), Teri Polo (special guest), Ron Silver (special guest), Patricia Richardson (special guest) and Forrest Sawyer as himself). Richard Schiff also managed to have his episode count in Season 7 reduced to 11 but got paid for 22.
  • The Alcoholic: Leo. Vice President Hoynes is an interesting example. His father was an alcoholic and Hoynes himself frequently attends AA meetings (in fact, he hosts his own, attended by various congressmen and politicians and disguised as a card game to avoid attracting attention from the press), but only had a very few drinks in his life. He got drunk a couple times in college (haven't we all?) and, showing an insane degree of self-awareness, realized that getting drunk was a bit too easy for him and cut himself off entirely.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Maybe not evil, but certainly very bad. Bartlet, Santos, and Leo have to be talked into running for national office, and Walken confides to Debbie that he never wanted to be President. Hoynes and Russell, on the other hand, have their desire to be President as their defining character trait, and are treated as generally bad people, while "ambitious" congressmen looking to move up are the enemy of just about every third episode. Basically, the only politician who actively seeks out higher office and doesn't come off badly is Vinick.
    • In the episode "Undecideds", Toby delivers an eloquent rebuttal to this trope, arguing that the presidency requires someone who sees himself as a "man of destiny," and will therefore be comfortable making the hard and earth-shaking decisions the post requires.
  • Answer Cut: At the end of "Things Fall Apart", an extremely sensitive news story is leaked to the press, and Annabeth worriedly comments that whoever did it would have had to be very high up. The camera cuts to C.J. (watching another plot thread wrap up on television) as ominous music plays out the episode. We later find out that it was a Red Herring; Toby did it.
    • A "Jeopardy!" version with the answer preceding the question: Bruno (working for the Vinick campaign) finds a briefcase. Cut to Santos asking for his briefcase and his staff quickly realizing nobody knows where it is.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Sam Seaborn and Pres. Bartlet, as trained rhetoricians, have a talent for them, as does Danny Concannon the reporter.
    • Central to the second-season episode "Noel" is a trauma counselor asking Josh "how did you cut your hand?" over and over until he tells the truth.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:

Danny: I have covered the White House for 8 years and I've done it with the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and the Dallas Morning News! And I'm telling you, you can't mess me around like this!
C.J.: Danny, I gotta tell you, that was, seriously, that was a turn on when you said that, although I don't know why you decided the be your most haughty on the "Dallas Morning News" in that sentence...

  • Artistic License: The staff members last longer in their gigs than their real life counterparts tend to. For example, Chief of Staff is pretty much a one-and-a-half to two year job, and Leo's there for five or six years. And White Houses run through press secretaries like they come five to a nickel from a gumball machine, but C.J. was at that podium... until Leo's heart attack prompted her switch to his job.
  • Ass in Ambassador: Lord John Marbury takes it to a hilarious level: "Abigail! May I grasp your breasts?" Abigail, of course, is the First Lady of the United States and standing right next to her husband.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Religion is frequently central to the political conflicts and many characters are fond of quoting the Bible. President Bartlet, with his thoroughgoing Catholicism is fond of this, and it's part of his walking awesomeness.
  • Audience Surrogate: Donna often has Josh explain an issue to her in the early seasons.
    • The cop in "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail" has Toby explain the WTO protests to her.
  • Author Catchphrase: "What Kind of Day Has It Been", used as a finale episode in all three of Aaron Sorkin's shows.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Sam and Ainsley. Never sexier than when they're bickering.
  • Benevolent Boss: Both the President and Leo, although both are certainly capable of calling down fire and brimstone when necessary. Bartlet's summary dismissal of Toby in the final season was about as cold a decision as he was ever shown making.
  • Berserk Button: Almost everyone in the cast has at least one:
  • Betty and Veronica: The relationship between Josh, Amy (Veronica), and Donna (Betty).
  • Blatant Lies: Sam's description of the White House and Roosevelt Room in the pilot is hilariously wrong, and he's winging it the whole while.

Josh: No, I did not. Let me be absolutely clear, I did not do that. Except, yes, I did that.

  • Blown Across the Room: Subverted.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: A large number of the conflicts between the Democrats and Republicans had no moral sides and are just ridiculous convoluted partisan power struggles, often rooted in agenda hijackings by constituent groups or special interests (which is very much Truth in Television). Naturally, in the more serious of these situations, the White House staff feels obligated to rise above this and make their enemy as all the people, Democrat and Republican, who were wasting time and/or causing collateral damage with their battle.
  • Brooklyn Rage: Toby.
  • Buffy-Speak: A favorite of many senior staffers. Sometimes justified; Toby will name every punctuation mark in the English language from memory in another and then warn against "The wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing!" since he just finished writing both the acceptance and concession speeches. More than once he was shown to become mentally frazzled after big speeches or high stress moments.
  • Bulungi: Equatorial Kundu.
  • Call Back: In the fourth season, Sam's running for Congressman in California, and Toby is helping with his campaign. Toby gets into a fight with a guy at a restaurant when the man gets physically threatening towards Andrea, and after he's booked, he calls in to Air Force One about it, using a cell phone that apparently belongs to a hooker.

Sam: So on a call girl's phone bill, there's going to be a call to Air Force One?
Toby: You're really going to be teaching the seminar on call girl caution? Really?

    • In Season 6, Josh has trouble with his hotel key-card and Donna has to help him, just like in Season 1's "20 Hours in L.A.".
    • The series finale has a callback to the very first episode. The First Lady suggests the president may have "re-entry" problem after leaving office, rhetorically asking when the last time was he drove a car. He suggests that it's "just like riding a bike, only more horsepower." Of course, in the pilot, a major plot point is the president having ridden his bicycle into a tree.
  • The Cameo: Jon Bon Jovi appears as himself campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee in "Welcome to Wherever You Are", titled after his single.
    • David Hasselhoff appears at a Hollywood party in "20 Hours in L.A."
  • Canon Discontinuity: A unique example where an episode is intended to be this in production: "Isaac and Ishmael" was produced as a Very Special Episode in response to 9/11, and held up the return of the series proper for a week: Bradley Whitford states a disclaimer before the episode starts that the episode is a "play" and viewers shouldn't try to wrack their heads about where it takes place in the timeline, because it doesn't. It has the characters acting like they would generally, but not specific to any point in time. It can be considered to have happened in Season 2 if you have to place it somewhere, as Mandy is absent and the cliffhanger of Season 1 is referenced.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Poor, poor, Josh. C.J. and Bartlet as well, although that's only because its in their job descriptions.
  • Catch Phrase: The phrase "What's next?" floats around the White House, apparently started by Bartlet during their first campaign. Pretty much everyone's said it by the end of the series.
    • Also, "I serve at the pleasure of the President."
    • Anytime someone does not want to tell an outsider what is going on, they claim "It's about the trade deficit."
    • Code to get someone to immediately stop whatever they're doing, come quickly, and don't ask questions, a character would make a casual reference to an "old friend from home."
    • And Josh wouldn't be Josh without "DONNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"
  • Celebrity Paradox: In "20 Hours in L.A.", Donna gushes "ooh, Matt Perry" at a Hollywood Party. Matthew Perry later has a guest role as an associate attorney for the White House.
  • Character Development: Between Seasons 1 and 4, Donna gains self-worth, self-confidence, and political savvy after starting as a naive, insecure, Cloudcuckoolander Audience Surrogate. Other characters exhibit development too, but hers is the most dramatic.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: The British curator of art in the White House quips that the French "promptly surrendered" after a phone call from C.J. regarding art stolen by Vichy Nazis.
  • The Chew Toy: Both played (hilariously) straight and (brutally) subverted in the case of Josh. He always bounces back like a charm from all his misfortunes, because he's so used to them happening all the time. This very trait of his becomes the reason no one pays enough attention to him after he gets shot to realize he's headed for a full scale mental breakdown, and the fact that he's also a Woobie due to some exceptionally sadistic past uses of this trope cause some misfortunes to veer straight into Tear Jerker territory when they hit the wrong spot.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Martin Sheen mentioned that he asked his character to be made Catholic because he is. This becomes some minor plot seasoning on more than one occasion, most significantly after Bartlet fails (or chooses not to) to stay an execution.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: The entire senior staff (especially Bartlet), who can't for the life of them concede that anything is someone else's problem.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: The trope could be renamed Mandy-ville.
    • Certain one-off guest roles were in positions where we should've reasonably expected to see the characters again from time to time, particularly Senate Majority Leader Ann Stark and White House attorney Joseph 'Joe' Quincy.
    • Anthony, the kid Charlie took over as big brother for in the beginning of Season 4, was never mentioned again, but we can probably assume Charlie continued working with him offscreen.
  • Cliff Hanger: "Who's been hit?! Who's been hit?!"
    • Season 2 subverts this for those who paid attention to Mrs. Landingham, but otherwise plays it straight by ending on, "Mr. President, can you tell us right now if you'll be seeking a second term?"
    • Sorkin's departure episode in Season Four left the next writing team with a (temporary) Republican president, no VP, and Bartlet's daughter kidnapped.
    • Also, Donna goes back into surgery after Fitzwallace is killed.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Lord John Marbury, who sort of oscillates between a legit Cloudcuckoolander -ism and the Obfuscating version.
    • In the early episodes, Donna was written as an clever but very flighty Cuckoolander, until Character Development kicked in around third season.
    • Margaret, Leo's secretary, is a deadpan one of these.
  • Comes Great Responsibility: President Bartlet. He gets screwed by this on ironic and/or sadistic levels more than once.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Josh tries to give a thank you speech at the end of the Santos campaign at Lou's insistence, but quickly derails himself into a rant about stupid amateur mistakes and insists everyone call their families to report on conditions at the polls, without ever getting around to the phrase "thank you".
  • Completely Unnecessary Translator: The Portuguese speaking cook.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Sam has recurring run-ins with a conspiracy theorist of the "there really were aliens at Roswell and the government is covering it up" variety. He got it from his father.
  • Cool Old Lady: Mrs. Landingham.
  • Dating Catwoman:
    • C.J. and Danny. Although they're not supposed to be exactly enemies, their interests do conflict directly almost all the time, and they're both deeply committed to defending them from each other, so it boils down to the same problem.
    • Donna and Cliff Calley, the Republican lawyer who turns out to be part of the team investigating the President for hiding his MS.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: President Bartlet can't stand Jean Paul or Doug Westin.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Various characters at different points in the series, including Pres. Bartlet, Josh, Toby
    • ...and Will, C.J., Danny, Leo, Margaret, Mrs. Landingham, Kate, Charlie, Zoey... let's just say that "deadpan snark" is practically the default emotive state for anyone associated with the Bartlet administration. Heck, even Donna got in on the act by the end of the series as she gained in self-confidence.
  • Death Glare: The President and Leo gave a few of these.

(Margaret), look at my face, right now.

  • Did I Just Say That Out Loud?: During the teaser of "Enemies", Bartlet goes on and on about national parks while he has Josh as a (literally) captive audience.

Jed: Shenandoah National Park. Right here in Virginia. We should organize a staff field trip to Shenandoah. I can even act as the guide. What do you think?
Josh [under his breath but still audible]: Good a place as any to dump your body.
Jed: What was that?
Josh: Did I say that out loud?
Jed: See? And I was going to let you go home.

  • Did Not Do the Bloody Research: A weird example, but in the Season 3 episode "Dead Irish Writers", Lord John Marbury refers to Lagavulin as a 16 year old Islay single malt. The problem is that he pronounces it "Iz-lay", where the proper pronunciation would be "Ih-lah".
  • Did Not Do the Research: Seems to be an issue dealing with foreigners.
    • Lord John Marbury says that his full name is "John, Lord Marbury, Earl of Croy, Earl of Sherborne, Marquess of Needham and Dolby, Baronet of Brycey". There are several errors in that: a marquisate must be listed before earldoms, the barony ("lord Marbury") after earldoms, and baronetcies are not "of" anywhere and in any case aren't mentioned for people with peerage titles. Besides which, the inclusion of the personal name "John" in "Lord John Marbury" is the style suitable only to a younger son of a duke or marquess, and not possible for any person holding a title in his own right. With those titles, the character ought to be "Lord Needham", not Lord John anything.
    • People who speak German in the series (which happens quite a few times) have quite obviously no knowledge of the language. They're not even trying to make it sound legit.
    • In "Mr. Willis of Ohio", the widower of a congresswoman has been appointed to his wife's seat. Filling vacancies in House of Representatives requires a special election. Murder, She Wrote and Women Of The House made the same error.
    • As the document does not mention the cabinet, the U.S. Constitution does not require cabinet meetings.
  • Diplomatic Impunity: Part of a very important arc (a terrorist hiding behind diplomatic immunity) and a minor plot points (traffic tickets at the UN).
  • Dumb Is Good: Subverted at length. Beaten to a pulp, in fact.

Bartlet: In the future, if you're wondering, "Crime. Boy, I don't know" is when I decided to kick your ass.

  • Early Installment Weirdness: Some of the first season writing makes the characters and tone a little less sophisticated than they turn out to be. Of course, it doesn't make it any less satisfying.
    • The president tells some representatives of the Christian right to "get your fat asses out of my white house."
    • An agent of the secret service, ever after portrayed as an agency with the utmost professionalism and cool in action, tells a guy harassing Zoe at a bar "don't move! Swear to God I'll blow your head off" as he arrests him.
  • Easy Evangelism
  • Embarrassing First Name: People rarely use C.J.'s full name, which is Claudia Jean.
    • Bartlet, of course, does so on several occasions, likely just to bug her.
    • There's also Admiral Percy Fitzwallace. No wonder everyone calls him "Fitz" instead.
    • "Jed" Bartlet. His real name is Josiah Edward Bartlet.
  • Epiphany Therapy: There's a scene near the end of "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" that's very similar to this trope. Although it doesn't involve a deep-seated psychological hangup and it's the President who's repeating his new-found mantra while Leo coaches him along rather than a psychologist with an Armor-Piercing Question, it does have the distinct feel of a personal epiphany that will change Bartlet's approach to governing for the rest of his Presidency.

President Bartlet: I want to speak.
Leo McGarry: Say it out loud, say it to me.
President Bartlet: This is more important than re-election; I want to speak now.
Leo McGarry: Say it again.
President Bartlet: This is more important than re-election; I want to speak now.

  • Episode Title Card
  • Even the Girls Want Her: In Season Six, Toby gets a meeting with the Miss World winner and everyone is dropping by his office with painfully transparent excuses just to drop by. Then Margaret shows up with absolutely no excuse.
  • Everybody Is Single: Excluding the Bartlet and Santos families, the latter of whom are consistently shown to be young and vital.
  • Failed Attempt At Drama: After the President's complete smack-down of homophobic radio host Jenna Jacobs, everyone silently turns and follows him out of the room... except Sam, who steals one of her crab puffs.
    • Interestingly, in Season Two, Sam lampshades this trope with Ainsley Hayes, who undercut an eloquent destruction of some Republican opponents by asking for a muffin.
  • Fan Girl: Josh Lyman's "hos" on lemonlyman.com. In fact, he has college girls asking for his autograph and telling him how awesome he is as early as the third episode.
  • Fatal Family Photo: The President's Doctor shows him the photo of his wife and newborn daughter in Episode 2. At the end of the episode, we learn that the plane he was flying on with other soldiers to a peace mission has been gunned down by enemy army, sending President Bartlet on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge that almost starts a war.
  • Fiction 500: Franklin Hollis is an extremely rich celebrity philanthropist businessman, probably a fictional counterpart to Bill Gates.

Margaret: He just bought an island. And Montana!
C.J.: He didn't buy Montana, he just bought...most of Montana.

  • Flash Back: Several episodes inter-cut a past event with the present storyline
    • How We Got Here: "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" shows us how everyone came on board with the Bartlet campaign.
  • Foreshadowing: Season 1's President Bartlet foreshadows the Season 4 finale when he goes on a rant to Zoey in "Mr. Willis of Ohio", about how terrified they are that she will be kidnapped on the way to the bathroom in some bar and nobody will realize she's gone as she's being dragged away so terrified that she doesn't even notice the secret service agents lying on the ground with bullets in their heads. In "Commencement", she's kidnapped on the way to the bathroom in a club and the leader of her protection team doesn't realize what's happened until he finds an agent on the ground out back with a bullet in her head. It probably wasn't planned to be so on-the-money at the time.
    • In the "20 Hours in America" two-parter, Josh mentions it's Monday, and Donna relates the story of the song "I Don't Like Mondays" being written after a school shooter gave that as her explanation. At the end of the episode, Tori Amos' cover of the song is played over the aftermath of the news of a bombing at a university.
  • Forgotten Anniversary: Happens at one point.
  • Fox News Liberal: Ainsley Hayes and Arnold Vinick are conservative versions, and could well be the TropeCodifiers. Basically, pretty much any Republican we're supposed to like is this. If we're supposed to like them, they "come around" to the liberal positions of the main characters.
  • Framing Device: "Celestial Navigation" has Josh as a guest lecturer somewhere telling a story about the last 36 hours, while waiting to hear from Toby and Sam on the success of the A-plot.
  • French Jerk: Jean Paul, the Prince O' Jerk, who ends up drugging Zoey.
  • Freudian Excuse: Inverted all over the place. (In a series this idealistic, no one is actually a villain. Except Hafley.)
    • President Bartlet -- His father was an abusive prick.
    • Toby -- His father was a murderer.
    • Josh -- His sister died in a fire while he ran outside.
  • Freudian Slip: A number of examples.
  • Genius Ditz: Josh. Poor, poor Josh.
    • Sam and C.J. on occasion as well, but ultimately all three are geniuses much more than they are ditzes.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Bernard Thatch, the English head of the White House visitor's office telling C.J. about a disturbance involving a painting.

Bernard: Cayou was a contemporary of Corbet, who was considerably more gifted. This is a painting of the cliffs at Etritat, cleverly titled "The Cliffs at Etritat"; it is a minor work. It was on loan from the Musée D'Orsay to the National Gallery. The President, on a visit to the National Gallery, and possessing even less taste in fine art than you have in accessories, announced that he liked the painting. The French government offered it as a gift to the White House, I suppose as retribution for Euro Disney, so here it hangs, like a gym sock on a shower rod.
C.J.: [amused] You're a snob.
Bernard: Yes.

  • Gilligan Cut: West Wing likes the variant without an actual cut.

Josh Lyman: Hey, lunatic lady, trust me when I tell you there is absolutely no way you are going to see the President!
President Bartlet: [walks in] Hey, Josh.

    • Toby claims "nobody here is checking out!" after C.J. accuses them of senioritis-like behavior. Cue Josh walking in and announcing his run flipping tails on a nickel 16 times in a row.
  • Girl Friday: Donna until she quits working for Josh.
  • God Guise
  • Golden Mean Fallacy: Subverted. Democratic moderates are portrayed as weak and ineffective, stalling their party back. Republican moderates are portrayed as benevolent, though.
  • Good Ol' Boy: Robert Ritchie.
  • Government Procedural
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Toby Ziegler is very easy to annoy/anger/enrage. As the man himself once said, "There is literally no one in the world I don't hate right now."

Toby: Why do you call her my wife?
Leo: It bothers you.
Toby: Everything bothers me. But you pick that?

  • Hannibal Lecture: In an antagonistic rather than villainous example, Leo gets one of these from black Congressman Richardson when he tries to tell him how many young black men will be saved by signing a gun control bill. Richardson responds that Leo cares more about the White House's political capital than gun control, the bill is ineffective, meaningless, and not worth the paper it's printed on, and...

Congressman Richardson: In the meantime, please don't tell me how to be a leader of black men. You look like an idiot.

  • Happily Married: Jed and Abbey, which is impressive considering they go through (Jed went back on their MS deal and ran for a second term, she thought he got their daughter kidnapped, etc).
  • Head Desk: President Bartlet does this on the Resolute desk after being tormented for hours by the thrilling tales of an Old Soldier-esque retired diplomat while stuck in the Oval Office waiting on the phone during an international crisis.
  • Heroic BSOD: The second season episode "Noel" has Josh undergoing something like this, as it's revealed that he's been suffering from PTSD for three weeks.
  • He's Back: "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet": "This is more important than reelection. I want to speak now."
  • Heterosexual Life Partners: Ed and Larry.
    • Also, the President and Leo.
    • And Josh and Sam.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Leo warns Bartlet about this on a few occasions, most notably after Bartlet is coming apart at the seams over a terrorist attack in "A Proportional Response".
  • High-Class Call Girl: The series opens with Sam's (unpaid!) dalliance with one, and he keeps up a friendship with her through several seasons.
  • Holding the Floor: In "The Stackhouse Filibuster", a senator filibusters a health care bill for seven hours.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Averted with Arnold Vinick, who initially appears to have become an atheist because his wife died but who later explains that he was horrified at certain passages in the Old Testament to the point where he couldn't believe in the Judeo-Christian God any more.
  • Hot Reporter: Danny Concannon.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Conflicting opinion polls. From "Progress Stories":

Amy: This is what you do; you bounce off the subject.
A waiter passes by with a platter
Amy: Ooh! Shrimp!

  • Iconic Item: A bar napkin. A dinky little bar napkin. A dinky little bar napkin that has "Bartlet For America" in Leo's handwriting on it, highlighting who Leo felt should run for President. And it has a nice frame now.
    • Bartlet's pen. Placed in his pocket every morning by Mrs. Landingham in all the years she worked with him. When he cannot understand why he doesn't have a pen in his pocket after her death, it's Charlie who has to gently point it out to him. He has to get his own pen out of her desk. Now he's really on his own.
  • Idiot Ball: It's the only explanation for why Sam and Josh thought it would be fine to light a fire in a white house fireplace using some spruce logs that were just lying around the White House and some kerosene.
  • Idiot of the Week: Most often conservatives, although Josh tends to suffer his share of humiliations as well.
  • I Have Nothing to Say to That: Sam Seaborn gets his ass verbally handed to him by Blonde Republican Sex Kitten Ainsley Hayes.
  • Informed Ability: Josh's status as a Genius Ditz very often makes light of his political genius whenever he grabs hold of the Idiot Ball for the sake of funny. Like his secret plan to fight inflation.
  • Informed Attractiveness:
    • C.J., to an extent. Allison Janney is tall and attractive, but perhaps too many men on the show fall all over themselves singing paeans to the character's sexiness. This could potentially be explained by exceptional charisma.
    • In "The Wake Up Call", Miss World visits the White House and brings to a standstill the business of every male that crosses her path. While beautiful, she isn't particularly more mindblowing than many of the other actresses appearing on the show. Luckily, it still works because it's utterly hilarious.
  • Insistent Terminology: Political maneuvering involves a lot of this.
    • Episode 2x11, "The Leadership Breakfast":

Josh: I see won't be talking about the 993 tax cut.
Leo: We won't be. But we've agreed to call it "tax relief" instead of a tax cut.
Josh: We're calling it tax relief?
Leo: Yeah.
Josh: But we won't be talking about it.
Leo: No.
Josh: Leo, the Patient's Bill of Rights...
Leo: Which we'll be referring to as the "Comprehensive Access and Responsibility Act."
Sam: What's the Comprehensive Access and Responsibility Act?
Leo: It's the Patient's Bill of Rights, but the CARA was introduced in 1999. It's fundamentally the same thing and the Republicans have agreed to discuss changing the name back.
Josh: In exchange for calling tax breaks "tax relief."
Leo: Or "income enhancement."
Toby: Sick people, not getting proper medical care... because they can't afford it... probably don't care that we've agreed to change the name of the bill.
Leo: We've agreed to discuss changing the name of the bill.

    • In a more serious context, when Bartlet is getting ready to admit that he hid his multiple sclerosis from the voters, he insist that Abbey be referred to as "Mrs. Bartlet" or "the First Lady," not "your wife". Later, Abbey takes it a step farther by telling Babish to call her "Dr. Bartlet", emphasizing her medical credentials.
    • Sam's not writing a birthday card, it's a birthday message.
    • Overlapping with You Called Me "X" - It Must Be Serious below, do not refer to the President by anything other than his title unless you want a fight:

Hoynes: Leo, I have had it up to here, with you and your pal! I've been shoved into a broom closet--
Leo: Excuse me! Me and my "pal"?
Hoynes: Yes.
Leo: You are referring to President Bartlet?
Hoynes: Yes!
Leo: Refer to him that way.

      • One of the aversions that can be counted throughout the series on one hand occurs when the President and Toby are playing a game of chess in the Oval Office while waiting for news on the crisis du jour. Throughout the game, Bartlet teases Toby good-naturedly about his game until Toby comes back with, "You know, old man, the minute they swear the next guy in, you and me are gonna go 'round and 'round." Which makes for a Funny Aneurysm Moment in Season 7.
    • Early in the first season, Sam insists that people refer to Laurie as a "call girl", not a "hooker".
  • Inspector Javert: Danny Concannon, a sweetheart of a reporter for the Washington Post who's crushing on CJ - but still wants to get to the bottom of this "who was in charge after the President was shot?" thing, and the "how did that foreign leader die?" thing.
  • Insufferable Genius: President Bartlet tries not to be this too much. For instance, when C.J. is making him practice handing off Mars questions to NASA scientists instead of answering with all the trivia he may have memorized:

President Bartlet: Well Stevie, if one of our expert panelists were here, they would tell you the average temperature ranges from 15 degrees to -140.
C.J. Cregg: That happens to be wrong, it ranges from 60 to -225.
President Bartlet: I converted it to Celsius in my head.

  • It Got Worse: A staple of the show. Any problem (and sometimes not even a problem) introduced and joked over in the teaser has a 80% chance of worsening to a point somewhere between "huge tangled mess" and "soul-destroying tragedy".

Josh: Look, it's not going to be a big deal.
Donna: Isn't that what we always say right before it becomes a big deal?

  • Ivy League for Everyone: Not so much everyone, but Josh and Sam both went to Ivy League schools for their undergraduate education. Those who didn't attend Ivy League schools generally went to elite non-Ivy institutions; Bartlet attended Notre Dame and did graduate work at the London School of Economics, while C.J. went to Cal-Berkeley and Donna went to Wisconsin-Madison.
    • Actually addressed in a first season episode comparing two candidates for the Supreme Court. One attended Princeton and Harvard Law, the other took law classes at night from City University of New York. They go with the CUNY grad.
    • Toby's the vaguest educationally, but we know he went to CCNY (City College of New York) when a Supreme Court justice gave a speech there and he mentions he was a student.
    • Played with in the third season. Ainsley complains that the White House is full of Ivy League elitist Democrats, before Sam points out that Notre Dame, Bartlet's Alma mater, isn't in the Ivy League. He then points out that Ainsley herself attended Harvard Law.
  • Jerkass: While the show took pains to paint most political figures as complex and sympathetic and meaning well, some achieve jerk status:
    • Speaker Haffley. As close to a Strawman Political as the show gets.
    • Vice President Hoynes for his personal failings such as infidelity, but also because he's so calculating he rarely stands for anything (why former aide Josh defected to Bartlet). During the 2006 campaigns he still thinks he can wrangle the Democratic nomination from either Russell or Santos when the convention is deadlocked but Hoynes foolishly schemes his way out of contention.
    • And of course, the French Jerk Jean Paul.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Toby starts out like this. He softens up a bit over the course of the show. Josh to some extent as well.
    • Vice President Hoynes was usually portrayed as a scheming backstabber, but occasionally revealed a more likable side, such as sympathetically inviting Leo to his AA meetings when Leo's pill addiction was about to break the news, and admitting to the President that, despite the tension between them, he'd always liked Bartlet more than he let on.
  • Last-Name Basis: Mrs. Landingham.
  • Left Hanging: About a dozen subplots were simply and unceremoniously dropped when Sorkin left the show, the most notable being the fate of Sam Seaborn, last seen waging a losing campaign for Congress. Although Sam eventually did come back for the last few episodes, it never was explained why his promotion to Senior Counselor (decided on in the two-parter "Inauguration") never happened.
  • Like Parent, Like Spouse: Mallory tells Sam "you are so exactly like him" when Sam insists on perfecting an assignment Leo gave him to sabotage their date, rather than going out for coffee with the two of them. Any potential squickiness is avoided when Sam sincerely calls that the nicest thing she's ever said to him.
  • Little No: Leo, to Will Bailey when the three campaign managers can't stop bickering and maneuvering.

Will: Well I'd like a day to go over this.
Leo: No.
[[[Beat]]. Everyone gets to work.]

  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Particularly as the series would progress. The primary, secondary, and ancillary characters would number some 20+.
  • "Ma'am" Shock: Mrs. Santos suffers and discusses this with Donna at the end of the campaign.
  • Mamet Speak: Minus the swearing, since it was network television.
  • Married to the Job: Basically everybody, some worse than others. Quite a bit of Truth in Television; working at the White House is known to consume every ounce of a person's attention, skills, and often passion, leaving very little time or energy for anything else, like family. Notable examples:
    • Leo, to the point where it breaks up his actual marriage in Season 1, and nearly kills him with a heart attack in Season 6.
    • C.J. by the end of the show; she has to be beaten over the head with a stick to even consider that she may want to not keep doing this forever, and make some time to learn to let other people into her life.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Depending on your reading of the line, Hutchinson when C.J. asks about the military space shuttle.

C.J. Cregg: Is that the argument in favor of building it, or is that the argument in favor of not building it? Or is that the argument in favor of building it and not telling anyone?
Secretary Hutchinson: The answer to that would be yes.

  • Meaningful Echo: Repetition of lines within a conversation is used a lot for dramatic impact, especially in the Sorkin seasons. The common formula is for Joe to suddenly throw out something profound as if just realizing it, Bob to say "what was that?", and Joe to repeat the line more dramatically/reflectively. An alternate version has Joe make some statement and Bob repeat it solemnly as if the impact of the situation has just sunk in.

Josh Lyman: We talk about enemies more than we used to.
President Bartlet: What?
Josh Lyman: [sounding sadder] We talk about enemies more than we used to. I wanted to mention that.

    • A week before the election, Santos is on a rapid fire tour of several states a day. The press keeps asking him "who do you like in the game this weekend?" and he answers "Philly and New York both strong teams, should be a great game." After the first time he asks "we are in Pennsylvania, right?" After the third time, Donna tells him "we're in Ohio" (he covers with a quick "go Buckeyes!").
  • Meaningful Funeral: A scene in "Two Cathedrals" for Mrs. Landingham and the opening of "Requiem" for Leo.
  • Mood Whiplash: The ending theme music (originally planned to be the opening theme music) is a jaunty little tune. It was almost never actually heard by the broadcast audience, as the end credits tended to be covered by NBC's promo of some other show. Still, given how most episodes end, it can be quite jarring to hear it after a dramatic ending on DVD or in syndication.
  • Mr. Exposition: Mentioned in the special features as a necessary evil in order for the audience to even understand what happens.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Seems to be default stance of almost every character: Republicans and Democrats most often treat each other as a Worthy Opponent, at least to each others' faces. Notably the case between Vinick and Santos in the last two seasons, but there are plenty of other examples.

President Josiah Bartlet: We agree on nothing, Max.
Senator Lobell: Yes, sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: Education, guns, drugs, school prayer, gays, defense spending, taxes - you name it, we disagree.
Senator Lobell: You know why?
President Josiah Bartlet: Because I'm a lily-livered, bleeding-heart, liberal, egghead communist.
Senator Lobell: Yes, sir. And I'm a gun-toting, redneck son-of-a-bitch.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yes, you are.
Senator Lobell: We agree on that.

  • My God, You Are Serious: It takes a little back and forth for Bruno to convince Vinick that yes, this is not a joke, the briefcase he just slapped on the table really does belong to their opponent in the presidential election two weeks away.
  • My Name Is Not Durwood: Ed and Larry, Leo aka "Gerald", Josh's names for Donna.
  • Nobody Poops: Averted in "The Ticket", when Josh interrupts a Walk and Talk to point out a bathroom to extremely busy presidential candidate Matt Santos.

Helen Santos: You don't think that's micromanaging?
Josh Lyman: He went, didn't he?

  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Okay, so the show took place before Obama vs. McCain in 2008. But it's possible that Bartlett was based on Bill Clinton, House Speaker Haffley was based on Newt Gingrich, and his Senate counterpart on Bob Dole.
  • No Except Yes: Done a couple of times in "Celestial Navigation":

Toby: She called him a racist.
Josh: She didn't use that word.
Toby: What word did she use?
Josh: Well, yes, she used that word.

    • And then later, Josh does it again:

President Bartlet: You told the press I have a secret plan to fight inflation?
Josh: No, I did not. Let me be absolutely clear, I did not do that. Except, yes, I did that.

  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: The NBC character bio of Vinick said that he was born in New York before moving to California as a kid. This was probably a Hand Wave to explain why Alan Alda makes no attempt to tone down his thick New York accent, despite his character hailing from Southern California.
  • Not That There's Anything Wrong with That: The President stops short before entering his private dining room with Leo, with whom he's planning to enjoy the work of a famous French chef.

Jed: They thought I was gonna be eating with Abby, so, we'll just, you know, pretend there's no candlelight.
Leo: [dryly] And that we're not paranoid homophobes in any way.

  • Now You Tell Me: Toby has a meeting with an Indonesian official in "The State Dinner", and Donna arranges a state department translator. Unfortunately there are 742 languages and dialects spoken in Indonesia, and the translator's and official's are incompatible. At this discovery, they go to great lengths to find someone who can speak to the man, eventually finding a cook, who sadly does not speak English but does know Portuguese, which the translator speaks. They're several minutes into a double-translated conversation before the official finally suggests they just speak in English. One wonders why he didn't just tell the translator he knew it in the first place, but he was pretty pissed at Toby so perhaps he just enjoyed seeing White House staff running around cluelessly.
  • ObstructiveBureaucracy: While the show has an idealistic image of those public servants who are individually important, it does not shy away from lampooning the hell out of the entrenched, glacial, irrational bureaucracy of the federal departments.
  • Oh Crap: Charlie upon hearing "evening, Charlie". From the President. After leaving the first daughter's room. In the middle of the night, with his shirt unbuttoned.
    • Leo goes through most of "Bad Moon Rising" making the case that the President never withheld information about his MS in any way that would constitute a crime. But Charlie points out that the President's daughter Zoey was a minor when she filled out a college medical form, and so required a parent's legally binding signature as to the accuracy of the information, including her family medical history. Cue Leo's oh crap moment.
  • Old Soldier: Albie Duncan.
  • The Oner: Many examples of the Walk and Talk variety.
  • Our Presidents Are Different: Obviously. Bartlet is President Personable, occasionally President Iron and frequently President Geek. Matt Santos is President Minority.
  • Overprotective Dad: "Just remember these two things: She's nineteen years old, and the 82nd Airborne works for me."
  • Perfectly Cromulent Word:

Sam: You're not calm, Leo, you're acting like a nervous hoolelia.
Toby: [[[Beat]]] A what?
Sam: ...may not be a word; may just be somethin' my mother used to say.

  • Pet the Dog: Toby is so irritable and easily angered all the time that it's easy to forget he's a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, not a Jerkass. One of the earliest indicators of this was the episode "In Excelsis Deo", in which he goes to great lengths in order to get a homeless veteran he didn't know a proper burial, complete with military honor guard.

Bartlet: Toby, if we start pulling strings like this, you don't think every homeless veteran would come out of the woodworks?
Toby: I can only hope, sir.

    • Vice President Hoynes has a few moments that prove he isn't purely a scummy politician. The first is his constant support of Leo when he learns of his alcoholism. Another is dropping his name from a bill, meaning he can't campaign on it, because he wants it to pass as it will help rural Americans. Congressional leaders consider him a threat and will stall the bill if he doesn't take his name off it. This is something big considering it has been clear from the start that he really wants to be President.
  • Platonic Life Partners: C.J. and Toby, who never show any hint of being anything but very old friends.
  • "Previously On...": Played with, a few of them are just inter-cut scenes from various episodes announcing the characters names and jobs in a humorous fashion.
    • "Mr. Frost" ends with such a Wham! Line that the entire scene is replayed at the beginning of the next episode, after the normal previouslies.
  • Put on a Bus: Aaron Sorkin loves this trope. Ainsley Hayes, Sam Seaborn, and Danny Concannon are notable examples. The Bus Came Back for all of them.
  • Qurac: Qumar (Iran/Iraq) and Equatorial Kundu (any despotic African country).
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. claims (contradicted by John Wells) that the outcome of the election was changed due to the death of John Spencer; it was thought that having both Leo die and Santos lose the election would be too much of a downer for the audience.
    • The reason the awesomely wonderful Sam Seaborne got Put on a Bus is because Rob Lowe was leaving to star in his own show. Which sucks, because Sam rocked.
  • Relationship Reveal/Relationship Upgrade: In the cold open of "Election Day", every recurring Santos campaign staffer reveals who they "came on board" with (except for Bram, but he was mentioned to have hooked up with some "campaign groupies" in a previous episode). It's practically a parody of Shipping in general, and though it's all played very dramatically, the cut to the triumphant theme music of the credits after all the sex in the air is pretty hilarious.
  • Retcon: In the middle of Season 5, Bartlet's son-in-law Doug Westin announced over Christmas dinner that he was running for Congress in the 2004 midterms. At the beginning of Season 6 (actually the third episode -- the first two were filmed as part of Season 5) this was retconned to it having been seven years since Bartlet was first elected, and Westin planning to run for Congress in 2006.
    • The show was also continually quietly Retcon -ed to keep it in line with current events - while the 9/11 attacks never officially happened in the show and are never referred to, it was quickly apparent that the show was occurring in a post-9/11 environment from Season 3 on.
      • The crew taped a special episode named "Isaac and Ishmael" (that wasn't in continuity) that aired prior to the normal Season 3 starter.
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder:
    • More of a "rhetorical joke" - Margaret tells a half-paying-attention Toby about some issues with the White House e-mail when he runs into Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Fitzwallace, to whom he quips that there may be a major security breach.

Admiral Fitzwallace: [shrugging] White House computers aren't secure. [leaves]

Toby Ziegler: Well, *ehm* that, uh, explains that.

    • Josh demonstrates his character wonderfully after joking about some group Leo brought up.

Leo: You wanna mock people, or you wanna let me talk to Toby?
Josh: I wanna mock people.

  • Rousseau Was Right: Even Bartlet's Republican opponents are portrayed as having America's best interests in mind, and are at worst portrayed as Well Intentioned Extremists. They are usually portrayed even better.
    • The exception to this is Republican Speaker Haffley, who, while getting an occasional scene that portrayed him reasonably well, was petty, spiteful and obsessed with his own self-image. However, he was balanced out by his Senate counterpart, who was a decent man who wanted to make peace between Congress and the White House and who was disgusted at some of Haffley's more extreme political maneuvering.
      • Karmic Retribution has it where Haffley loses most of his battles against Bartlet and even loses a few fights to Santos in the House, and on Election night during the final season Haffley is seen losing House seats to Democrats, knocking him out of the Speaker's office while his Republican Senate Majority counterpart keeps his GOP majority intact.
  • Running Gag/Couch Gag: Gail the goldfish and its many, many, many change in aquarium decorations, which always fit the episode theme.
  • Sarcasm Failure
  • Sassy Secretary: Mrs. Landingham, Debbie Fiderer, Donna, Margaret, and Ginger, among others.
  • Savvy Guy, Energetic Girl: Laid-back, easygoing reporter Danny Concannon and hypercapable, on-the-go C.J. Cregg.
  • Say My Name: The various men (and C.J.) of the Bartlet administration usually solve their problems by bellowing for their secretaries.
    • The President: Mrs. Landingham! (or, depending on what he needs, "Charlie!!")
    • Leo: Margaret!
      • After Leo semi-retires and C.J. becomes Chief of Staff, she starts yelling for Margaret.
    • Toby: Ginger!
    • C.J.: Carol!
    • And, most famous of all, Josh: DONNNAAAAA!!!
  • She Is Not My Girlfriend: Josh and Donna had a couple of these moments.
  • The Shrink: Stanley.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very idealistic.
  • Smart People Play Chess: President Bartlet plays chess, even during international crises. Later, Leo insists that he continue to play weekly to make sure his multiple sclerosis isn't affecting his reasoning.
    • Both Sam and Toby play chess with Bartlet throughout the series as does Leo.
  • Sorkin Relationship Moment
  • Spiritual Successor: To The American President. Notably, some cast members were also transferred; Anna Deavere Smith moved from White House Press Secretary (C.J.'s role) to National Security Adviser, and Joshua Malina was originally an unimportant coworker of the heroine, and Leo's role was originally played by Martin Sheen! This makes re-watching the movie almost indescribably eerie, as one expects Sheen-as-Leo to just kick Michael Douglas out of the Oval Office.
    • Not only did they recycle most of the cast, they also recycled most of the situations, and even several of the lines of dialogue.
  • Spy Speak: "Leo McGarry would like you to meet an old friend." ("Bartlet's Third State of the Union")
  • Straw Affiliation: Used to great effect in an early episode, where Josh is arguing with a Republican congressman, Matt Skinner, over provisions in a proposed anti-gay marriage law. He is baffled by the congressman's refusal to vote against it, even though Skinner himself is gay. When Josh finally breaks down and asks why he doesn't vote against the bill, and why he's even a member of the party when the Republicans always have an anti-gay message, Skinner replies that yes, he is gay. But he is also for lower taxes, less government, and most other Republican positions, and he simply chooses not to let his sexuality, rather than his principles, decide how he should vote.
  • Strawman Political: It's clear on several occasions that the writers are making a genuine effort to not simply demonize their opponents as one-dimensional strawmen. How well they succeed in this, however, tends to vary depending on the viewpoint.
  • Straw Traitor: Josh accuses Congressman Matt Skinner of being this, wondering how he could be gay and also be a Republican.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Will Bailey.
    • Joshua Malina even described himself as a less handsome, cheaper Sam.
  • Talk About That Thing: One of the fan websites had The Page About The Thing, translating "thing" for each time it appears in the dialogue.
  • They Fight Crime: Sam jokingly discusses this in "Shibboleth" - "...a small band of pilgrims sought out a new land of liberty, where they could worship according to their own beliefs... and solve crimes." "Sam..." "It'd be good!"
  • Those Two Guys: Ed and Larry.
  • Three-Wall Set
  • Throwing Out the Script: A few examples.
  • Time Skip: The show misses a year between Christmas 2003, as shown in the middle of Season 5, and C.J.'s first day as Chief of Staff in early Season 6. This gives the show more ease in fitting the 2006 presidential primaries into season 6 and the election into Season 7. The most popular place for the lost year is after the episode "Access" (C.J.'s A Day in The Life episode), as the episodes after it are pretty close together.
    • Also, the gaps between Seasons 1 and 2, and 5 and 6, are quietly skipped, keeping Josh in hospital in the former and Germany in the latter for months.
  • To Absent Friends: Combined very effectively with the Meaningful Funeral in "Requiem". The first half of the episode, the funeral, mourns Leo's death. The second half, the wake, celebrates Leo's life and how much his friends loved him.
  • Trigger Phrase: Apparently nobody in Washington can stand up against Leo telling them "the President is asking you to serve" regardless of any reservations about working at the White House.
  • True Companions: A fairly direct example, with Jed and Leo as the parents, Sam, Josh, and C.J. as the elder children, Toby as the funny uncle, Donna as the girl who keeps coming around, and Charlie as the kid everyone looks out for.
  • Truth in Television: The show was painstakingly researched, especially when Sorkin was in charge, and the political Techno Babble is pretty much all accurate. Several Clinton White House staffers, most notably Dee Dee Myers, were consulted to create a White House as real as possible (while still sitting on Sorkin's preferred end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism). Many political professionals said the final, campaign-centric seasons accurately reflected their lives.
    • Of note is that the real "Leo" was Leon Panetta, and the real "Josh" was Rahm Emmanuel; when Obama won he appointed Panetta to the CIA and Emmanuel as Chief of Staff, meaning Rahm succeeded Leon, just like Josh succeeding Leo.
  • TV Genius: Subverted, President Jed Bartlet, Rhodes scholar and Nobel Prize winner.
  • Twenty-Fifth Amendment
  • Two Lines, No Waiting
  • Ultimate Job Security: Secretary of Defense Miles Hutchinson. Despite being a Jerkass from the word go (his first onscreen appearance involved using leaks to impede presidential foreign policy decisions he disagreed with, and nearly coming to blows with Leo in the Situation Room), he, for no adequately-explained reason, kept his job through the entire Administration.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Josh and Donna (eventually resolved, after about 150 episodes); Sam and several women; C.J. and Danny (although they acknowledge it and kiss a lot, also resolved just prior to the Grand Finale); Annabeth seems to feel this toward Leo, to his bemusement.
  • Verbal Tic: Not for nothing, but, you know, we're gonna have to get into the thing at some point. Yeah. Yeah. Okay.
    • "Donna." "Josh." "Donna!" "JOSH!"
    • "MARGARET!" "*appears from behind the door* What, Leo?"
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: Santos' son does the "duck offscreen" version in the doorway of their last trick-or-treat destination.
    • Mandy does this after she learns that a negotiator in a hostage situation, that she pushed for to avoid the bad press a raid would bring, has been shot and is in critical condition.
  • Walk and Talk: Trope Codifier, the show even parodied it at one point with a new White House Intern tripping during the scene.
  • The War Room: The White House Situation Room.
    • The show ran long enough that, during its first appearance, the West Wing Situation Room was far more advanced than the real location. By the end of the show the reverse was true.
  • The Watson: Donna, whose role in the early years was to badger Josh with questions like, "Josh, why is policy X important?" and "Josh, why should we spend millions to bail out Mexico?"
  • What Do You Mean It's Not Heinous?: In the pilot, although there are many things occupying Leo's time - including whether Josh will be fired for his remarks towards Mary Marsh, Cuban refugees heading towards the U.S., and a poll showing the President's popularity has sunk - he's also very concerned The New York Times crossword puzzle misspelled Khaddafi's name:

Leo: (on phone) Seventeen across. Yes. Seventeen across is wrong. You're spelling his name wrong. Who am I? My name doesn't matter. I'm just an ordinary citizen who relies on the Times crossword for stimulation. And I'm telling you that I've met the man twice, and I've recommended a preemptive Exocet Missile attack against his air force, so I think I know how to...
C.J.: Leo!
Leo: (stares at receiver) They hang up on me. Every time.
C.J.: That's almost hard to believe.

    • Lampshaded by Margaret earlier in the episode, when Leo tells her to call the Times:

Margaret: Is this for real, or is this just funny?
Leo: Apparently, it's neither.

  • Will They or Won't They?: Josh and Donna.
  • Workaholic: Josh - he's introduced in the pilot sleeping at his desk as the cleaning staff vacuums around him and he doesn't take a vacation until the last season of the series (and he has to be coerced/blackmailed into taking that one by Sam). He does try several times to take a holiday, but each time something happens.
    • Leo, too.
  • You Called Me "X" - It Must Be Serious: Excluding family members and pre-election flashbacks, only five characters in the entire seven-season run ever called President Bartlet by his nickname "Jed". And only Leo did it twice.
  • You Fail Logic Forever: Many, many, many occurrences, almost always at the expense of enemies.

Episodes of this series provide examples of:[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Accidental Kiss: Josh and Donna's first.
  • America Saves the Day: With a fair bit of Double Standards. If you're the USA, and someone shoots down a military plane with all of about five people on it, including someone the president quite likes, you almost go to war, and have to be argued down to merely killing a load of them in response (Season 1 Episode 3 "A Proportionate Response"). When a British civilian aircraft is shot by Iran, including a Nobel-prize winner and, we guess, about 200-odd other innocent people (Season 6 Episode 14 "The Wake Up Call"), Bartlet gets on the phone to tell the UK Prime Minister that she must do NOTHING, because that is what 'diplomacy means'. And he gets the strings playing in the background, which is basically the show's way of saying 'Bartlet is right, hooray!'.
  • Asymmetric Dilemma
  • Back for the Finale
  • Bait and Switch Tyrant: Speaker, later President Walken.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: How Donna gets her job.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Pres. Bartlet speaking untranslated Latin in "Two Cathedrals".
  • Bodyguard Crush: C.J. and Simon Donovan.
  • Bottle Episode: "17 People", which was actually the result of the show spiraling over budget and needing to do an entire episode on the regular set without any guest stars.
    • Would happen at least once a season, though 6 and 7 had more because of the election campaign, which demanded more location shooting.
  • Break the Cutie: The process of telling Donna that Josh has been shot and is in critical condition. It's made all the worse by the fact that she was so relieved that the President was safe mere moments before.
  • Bunny Ears Lawyer: Dear lord, Lionel Tribbey... for one, he's the page quote for the trope.
    • And his successor, Oliver Babish, whose first episode was pretty clearly written to be Lionel Tribbey, but John Larroquette wasn't available, so they recast and renamed the character.
    • At the time of the President's second inaugural, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court begins writing opinions... in verse. After having proposed that the court wear powdered wigs.
    • Bartlet himself.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Josh has to come with a spurious reason to meet with Amy as he can't bring himself to ask her out.
  • Can't Hold His Liquor: Josh.
  • Career-Building Blunder:
    • The pilot episode of has Josh get this treatment from Pres. Bartlet.
    • Leo does it to Paris after she leaks his former drug habit.
  • Chess Motifs
  • Confessional:

Father Cavanaugh: Jed. Would you like me to hear your confession?

President Bartlet: Yes. Bless me Father, for I have sinned.

First Staffer: We're gonna get to social security, Josh! It's a long campaign. For now, we focus on the tax cuts.
Second Staff: It's what magicians call "misdirection."
Josh: Really? 'Cause it's what the rest of us call bullsh-
Hoynes: Knock it off.
Doug: He's gotta stand up, and he's gotta declare, and he's gotta apologize... In Oregon, we like to see a man stand up and say he's sorry. Where are you from?
Toby: Me? I'm from the United States of suck my --
Josh: All right! Let's take lunch.

  • Cut Himself Shaving: Josh's hand (supposedly) cut up by a broken drink glass in the episode "Noel", when in fact he smashed his hand through a window during a particularly intense reaction to his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Dead Guy, Junior: Toby and Andy's daughter, named for the Secret Service agent who was killed during Zoey's kidnapping.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Pres. Bartlet and Mrs. Landingham.
  • Delayed Reaction: Ainsley, in reaction to the job offer.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: "I'm on hold. I'm in a mysterious hold world of holding."
  • Diabolus Ex Machina: The episode "18th and Potomac"; Mrs. Landingham spends the entire episode excited about buying her first new car, being hassled by Charlie and President Bartlet about paying the full sticker price, only to be hit and killed by a drunk driver at the end of the episode.
  • Diplomatic Impunity: Diplomats' NY parking tickets. Also is a much more serious plot device in the last three episodes of Season 3, where President Bartlet and his advisers debate carrying out an illegal political assassination of a foreign government official moonlighting as a terrorism kingpin.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The issue is debated in "A Proportional Response".
  • Drop What You Are Doing
  • Episode on a Plane
  • Escalating War: Charlie and C.J. battle over Charlie's attitude regarding a copy of the President's schedule.
  • Eureka Moment: Josh is trying to find a way to remove an anti-environmental amendment from a hard-fought banking bill, when Donna calls the computer files on the subject antiquated. He brings the President the solution - declare the land in question a National Park by the Antiquities Act.
  • Everyone Meets Everyone
  • Evil Gloating: An inversion, when Secret Service agent Donovan is so busy gloating about how stupid a hood is to try to rob a store within a few blocks of where the President is, that he never notices that the guy he's caught has a partner.
    • Fans cite his general behavior and lack of preparedness in that scene as epic failure on the writers' part.
  • The Exit Is That Way: Ainsley, who finds a closet is not a bathroom.
  • Expospeak Gag
  • Expy:
    • Admiral Fitwallace for Colin Powell.
    • Josh Lyman for Rahm Emanuel.
    • Leo McGarry for Leon Panetta.
    • Matt Santos for Barack Obama.
    • Arnold Vinick for John McCain.
    • C.J. Cregg, initially, for Dee Dee Myers, though Myers never became Chief of Staff.
    • Sam Seaborn for George Stephanopolos.
    • John Hoynes for John Edwards.
  • Faux Documentary
  • Finding Judas: A particularly awesome subversion with Leo's debate preparation.
  • Flash Forward: The start of Season 7 begins with a look at Bartlet's presidential library being dedicated.
  • Foreigner for a Day: Donna, in "Dead Irish Writers", hilariously capped off by Bartlet coming into the White House Ballroom to find the Canadian national anthem being played and bellowing "What the hell is going on!? I was gone for forty-five minutes, they were all Americans when I left!"
  • Gay Conservative
  • Geeky Turn On: The President showing off for the First Lady on election night, which she calls "hot nerd talk".
    • In Season 7, when Kate tells CIA analyst Charles Frost about her theory that the Russians are behind the international assassinations he had linked to al Qaeda, Frost, who had previously shown only minimal interest in her very existence, lights up and immediately asks her out for coffee.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: In Part 1 of "In The Shadow of Two Gunmen", as the limos arrive at the hospital you can see the nurse who answered the phone mouth "Holy shit!"
  • Glasses Pull: Josh (also Cool Shades).
  • A Glass in the Hand: Josh's story in the episode "Noel" (see Cut Himself Shaving below).
  • Head Desk: Bartlet starts doing this after listening to Albie Duncan's historical diplomatic anecdotes for a couple of hours. The desk in question is the Resolute. Doubles as a Crowning Moment of Funny.
  • How Many Fingers?:
  • If You Ever Do Anything to Hurt Her...: Pres. Bartlet regarding his daughter, Zoey.

Bartlet: Just remember these two things: she's nineteen years old, and the 82nd Airborne works for me.

"Toby, come quick! Sam's getting his ass kicked by a girl!"
"Ginger, bring the popcorn!"

  • Last-Minute Reprieve
  • Law of Inverse Recoil: Subverted (twice).
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In the episode "Debate Camp", when Josh and Sam are trying to find a room where a meeting is being held, Sam suggests they talk while they walk, Josh comments that they "may as well get used to having meetings in the corridors, it may be our only hope."
    • Then lampshade in the fifth season when Josh and Donna are being followed by Ryan, who asks "do you always walk this fast" before falling over.
  • Leno Device
  • Live Episode: "The Debate".
  • Locked in a Room: "Evidence of Things Not Seen".
  • Logical Fallacies: Specifically, C.J. thinks Bartlet lost Texas because he made a joke about their "big hats" before the primaries, an example of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Bartlet was doomed in Texas since the day he learned Latin.
    • Also, Bartlet's takedown of Jenna Jacobs' assertion that homosexuality is an abomination because the Bible says so.
  • Manly Tears: A great many times. "That was a nice thing you did", certainly comes to mind.
  • Meaningful Name: Lampshaded.

"His name is really Mr. Cravenly?"

  • Meaningless Meaningful Words: 'The watchword of all mankind'.
  • Murphy's Bullet: Subverted.
  • Musical Trigger
  • Naive Newcomer: Donna's first day in the White House.
  • The Nicknamer: C.J., in spades. Especially towards Charlie.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • "We already have enough trouble as it is with the First Lady and her Ouija Board."
      • Probably a reference to Nancy Reagan, a major influence on the President, and her astrologer, a major influence on her.
    • In "Bartlet's Third State of the Union", there's a running subplot about a cop invited to the speech at the last minute (who it turns out has a brutality citation on his record) for an act of heroism that is never explicated, apart from being "the thing at the elementary school."
    • Charlie has one of an apparently darker variety, in "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics", with the soon-to-be former ambassador to Bulgaria. Something about a country club where Charlie used to work.
  • Off the Wagon
  • Orbital Kiss: Josh and Donna.
  • Pass the Popcorn
  • The Password Is Always Swordfish:
    • Those in the know about MS use the password "Sagittarius".
    • Santos's little scheme to outvote Haffley uses Shave and a Haircut.
    • Leo leaks his tape using someone else's email; the password was her cat's name.
  • Plot Parallel
  • The President's Daughter:
    • Bartlet has three daughters (no sons), and all three receive some form of harassment by his political opponents at some point during the show. Zoey exemplifies this trope to a tee, however, by being the kidnap victim during the cliffhanger arc between Seasons 4 and 5.
    • One episode had Bartlet explain that during a trip to Egypt his guide kept describing him as "Abu el Banat" to Bedouins who would laugh at him but serve him tea. He finds out "Abu el Banat" means "Father of daughters" and that the Bedouins were giving him tea out of sympathy.
  • Privateer: First Lady Abbey Bartlet's status as a "daughter of the American revolution" is contested, as her "revolutionary" ancestor was in fact a privateer helping the revolutionaries for money. She's very insistent that he was a privateer, and not a pirate.
  • Profiling: Of the federal judge Roberto Mendoza in the first-season episode "Celestial Navigation".
    • Also in backstory, President Bartlet's first nominee for Attorney General fell through because he approved of profiling.
  • Radio Silence: In one episode, Washington loses track of a submarine off the coast of North Korea and is uncertain as to whether it's been destroyed or is just keeping silent.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Donna to Toby and Josh in "20 Hours in America", after being driven nuts all day by their incessant talking about the election:

Donna: I have such an impulse to knock your heads together. I can't remember the last time I heard you two talk about anything other than how a campaign was playing in Washington. Cathy needed to take a second job so her dad could be covered by her insurance. She tried to tell you how bad things were for family farmers. You told her we already lost Indiana. You made fun of the fair but you didn't see they have livestock exhibitions and give prizes for the biggest tomato and the best heirloom apple. They're proud of what they grow. Eight modes of transportation, the kindness of six strangers, random conversations with twelve more, and nobody brought up Bartlet versus Ritchie but you. I'm writing letters, on your behalf to the parents of the kids who were killed today. Can I have the table, please?

You're a son of a bitch, you know that? She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What, was that supposed to be funny? "You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God," says Graham Greene. I don't know whose ass he was kissin' there, 'cause I think you're just vindictive.

    • And he tops it off by cursing at God in Latin.

Bartlet: Eas in crucem!

  • Secret Test of Character: Will's start in the West Wing.
  • Sesame Street Cred: Abby went on the show.
  • Shout-Out: President Bartlet draws a pretty convincing parallel between Leo getting his hopes up every time the military wants to test their missile defense system only for something to go wrong, and Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy's football only to have it pulled away.
  • Shown Their Work: The show had a number of actual ex (and future) White House staffers available to advise them how things went, and the writers usually stuck very close to what they said, only making alterations where necessary for the sake of drama, or hilarity. The show was justly praised for its accuracy in how it portrayed the workings of the White House, although it definitely occupies the brighter end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism.
  • "Shut Up" Kiss: C.J. and Danny.
  • Slow Motion Drop
  • Smite Me Oh Mighty Smiter: President Bartlet shouting at God, in untranslated Latin, in the middle of the National Cathedral.
  • Smooch of Victory: Josh and Donna.
  • Smug Snake: Speaker of the House Haffley is the epitome of this, thinking himself to be smarter and gutsier than he actually is.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Many, many times, especially at the end of "Dead Irish Writers", where a rousing rendition of "O Canada" is being performed as Abbey tells Jed that she's going to forfeit her medical license.
    • Made into an ironic (and very dark) example of Suspiciously Apropos Music in "Posse Comitatus": as Bartlet is informed that Shareef has been killed, the triumphant, joyful "Patriotic Chorus" is performed loudly right below the balcony. "Evermore upon our country God will pour His great increase / And victorious in war shall be made glorious in peace."
  • Standard Female Grab Area: Charlie uses this in order to show C.J. that her new office has a door to the Oval.
  • Statuesque Stunner: C.J., as portrayed by Allison Janney.
  • Sublime Rhyme:

Bruno: "That's the brunette named Annette."
CJ: "Wouldn't you just give anything if she was from Tibet?"

  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: When Toby, Josh, and Donna stop at a club while road-tripping from Indiana to Washington D.C., "The Wanderer" is playing on the jukebox.
  • Suspiciously Specific Sermon: Toby's at temple on Friday evening, listening to his Rabbi say "Vengeance is not Jewish". He gets a phone call from Sam, who asks "By any chance, is your Rabbi giving a sermon on the death penalty?" Toby listens to another sonorous phrase demonizing the death penalty. "... yes?" This is not an accident.
  • Take Five: The phrase is, "Everyone, can we have the room for a minute?" And since it's the president asking, everyone leaves...
  • Take That: At one point, Democratic leadership requests that Bartlet say "the era of big government is over" in his State of the Union speech. The whole cast, but Toby especially, rants against that phrase, saying government should be big, and it should be a place where smart people come together to solve problems. Doesn't seem like anything but a slight against the small-government Republicans. But in 1996, then-President Clinton said the exact phrase in his State of the Union speech because the political winds changed after Democrats lost control of Congress.
    • Vinick is trying to convince Bruno that scandalous information they have on Santos shouldn't be a factor in the election, and should not be leaked, by saying if he had made up his mind to vote for someone, the scandal wouldn't change it:

Bruno: Good. That's you. And that's maybe most Santos voters. And it is every voter in France.

    • A throwaway one in "The State Dinner" has Josh toss in "The Redskins suck!" while looking for new business in his briefing papers before concluding the meeting. Somewhat odd given that the Redskins were leading the division with a 5-3 record at air time (and went on to take third in the NFC at 10-6).
  • Tempting Fate: Toby is constantly on the warpath to prevent this when they're about to celebrate a political victory before the votes are actually cast, as he explains in "Six Meetings Before Lunch" and demonstrates numerous times thereafter.
    • Sam's speech for the President includes an opening line about the magnificent vista, which Toby recommends being ready to change in case it rains. Sam goes on and on about how much faith he has in the forecast given to him by the Coast Guard, which is when the thunderstorm breaks, complete with well-timed lightning flash (naturally, the line change doesn't make it in).
  • Test Kiss: C.J. and Danny.
  • Too Soon: Toby is being prosecuted for leaking state secrets to the press. Josh says they'll talk again in six weeks. "That's election day." "I forget, in D.C, they let felons vote? [[[Beat]]] Too soon?"
  • Trigger: Josh's post-shooting PTSD is triggered by music.
  • Troll: A few times, people mess with others just for giggles.
    • Toby scorns trying to win votes for a vote they've already won.
    • Toby, again, goes to bat for PBS and Sesame Street. He admits he's having fun.

Toby: It's Fozzie Bear not Fuzzy Bear.

"You know, I'm so sick of Congress I could vomit."

  • Very Special Episode: "Isaac and Ishmael".
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Heaven help you if you didn't pay attention in the episode, or knew nothing about American politics.
  • Wham! Episode: Season One's "What Kind of Day Has It Been", Season Two's "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" and "18th and Potomac", and Season Four's "Commencement".
  • Wham! Line: "Commencement": "Did you put ecstasy in my drink?"
    • "Things Fall Apart": "Now that's the civilian shuttle." "...sorry?"
    • "Mr. Frost": "I did it", obviously.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Quite a few, particularly since there are Loads and Loads of Characters and a similar situation with plots.
    • Ainsley Hayes has a minor character arc, gets another appearance during the election, then vanishes. She's then replaced by...
    • Joe Quincy: the Spear Counterpart to Miss Hayes, who shows up for three episodes. Since he was played by Matthew Perry, who was still on Friends at the time, this is a case of Real Life Writes the Plot. Both he and Hayes worked for
    • The chief counsel of the White House. Two different men played two different roles, and apparently there was a third off-screen.
    • Any number of plots, such as Josh dealing with the monetary cost of his shooting.
    • Also Charlie wanting to marry Zoey at the end of Season 6.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Vinick faces this when Bruno brings him Santos' briefcase with devastating information inside, having found it completely accidentally with nobody else's knowledge.
  • Won't Take Yes for An Answer
  • You Are Number Six: The Laurens, told apart by the number on their sport jerseys.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: In a flashback, the first sign that there's something wrong with Bartlet's first nominee for Attorney General comes when a leader of the Christian right confides to C.J. that the nominee is the first black man he's ever heard "make sense" on racial profiling.
    • In the fifth season episode "Talking Points", Josh has only just realized that the free trade deal he helped to make is going to destroy jobs he'd promised to protect, when Republican Speaker Haffley praises him in a meeting for doing such a bang-up job on the trade deal.

"What's next?"