Shiny Shelf


By Jonn Elledge on 16 December 2006

Early on in Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’, there’s a passage in which the narrator describes his feelings of exclusion as a Jew in a New Jersey Christmas. He complains that his Christian neighbours all “seemed to be in on it – in on Christmas… It was the month of the year when the heart of my birthplace was sublimely theirs and theirs alone.”

Quoting from a paranoid novel about anti-semitism in an alternate US is, admittedly, a decidedly odd way to kick off an article on a show that idealizes America as much as ‘The West Wing’ does. But that sense of exclusion is the only explanation I can think of for why most of the Christmas episodes of that most Jewish of shows are so unremittingly bloody miserable.

The first season, for example, gives us ‘In Excelsis Deo’, in which Communications Director Toby Zeigler organizes a military burial for a homeless veteran the police have found dead in his coat. If that’s a little too cheery for you, the next Christmas show (‘Noel’) sees Josh Lyman coming to terms with the fact that getting shot through the chest is the kind of thing that can still be putting a dampener on your mood six months later.

The year after that, in ‘Bartlett for America’, we get flashbacks to chief of staff Leo McGarry’s history of alcoholism, conducted largely in front of a congressional committee that’s after his neck. And in season four’s ‘Holy Night’, Toby’s up again, this time learning to love his elderly no-good Brooklyn street-thug dad.

A notable thing about these episodes is that not one of them treats the festive season as the time of hope and goodwill to all mankind that American TV tends to specialize in. What we get instead are characters coming to terms with the traumas of their past, or the pain of being on the outside during the holidays. These stories aren’t about hope or love, but about atonement: given that three of the four episodes focus on the show’s Jewish characters, they’d almost make more sense as Yom Kippur episodes, if they weren’t three months late.

At the end of the fourth season Aaron Sorkin, the show’s troubled creator, left the show. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, after that, the show seems to get a lot more relaxed around December: of the two Christmas episodes from the post-Sorkin seasons, one is primarily about parenthood (‘Abu El Banat’), the other the hope of a new presidential campaign (‘Impact Winter’).

They’re not bad episodes, and they’re still far from the traditional festive fare. But somehow they lack that sense of seeing Christmas from the outside the characterized the previous offerings. If you want a different take on the true meaning of Christmas, stick to the early episodes.

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By Jonn Elledge

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