Aaron Sorkin’s seminal White House drama premiered 20 years ago today. I had never watched it until Trump began his clumsy reign of terror, so seeing an extremely intelligent fictional president was even more jarring, especially as he actually compromised with his political opponents and even admitted when he was wrong. So here are my top 10 episodes, with even some latter seasons represented.
10. “In God We Trust” (Season 6, Episode 20)
Could America have a non-Christian president, or even a non-religious one? Technically we do now, but he had to convince the Evangelical Christian base of the Republican Party that he was, even though he’s about as far away from Christ as you can get. But if the candidate was a decent person, just not into going to church? We certainly could, but both parties would have a hard time nominating that person. Arnold Vinick is a rare “good Republican” that Aaron Sorkin, Joe Biden and some others still believe exists. But as he has to navigate the treacherous waters of a party that demands not only just religious fealty, but also rabid anti-abortion views, he feigns duty, but swipes back at the end, telling reporters he’ll answer any question they have honestly, as long as it’s not about his faith or lack thereof. That should be the gold standard for any politician.
9. “The Debate” (Season 7, Episode 7)
An hour-long debate that Parks and Recreation lifted wholesale for its fourth season, this was a riveting subversion of format (see also: “Access”) that was more than a gimmick. It revealed nearly everything each character believes. What’s made it age so well (in an upsetting way) is how many topics brought up in this episode we’re still debating, nearly 15 years later.
8. “An Khe” (Season 5, Episode 14)
The very best episode from a transitional Season Five finds Leo in the midst of a personal crisis. His best friend (Jeffrey DeMunn), who saved his life in Vietnam, is in hot water with Congress after low-balling a bid for a defense contract. Leo rushes to his defense, but then has to deal with the immense betrayal when he realizes it’s not partisan politics that’s caused the scandal, but simple greed. Meanwhile, Bartlett has to activate a covert rescue mission to recover five pilots from North Korea, and C.J. beats down a “gotcha” journalist (played by Jay Mohr).
7. “Celestial Navigation” (Season 1, Episode 15)
Told in a flashback structure favored by Sorkin, Josh reveals a day at the White House in which everything goes wrong. It all starts when C.J. has to have an emergency “woot kuh-now,” causing Josh to fill in at the press briefing, where he jokes about the President’s “secret plan to fight inflation.” But the heart of the story is Josh and Toby heading to Connecticut to bail out their Supreme Court nominee after he’s pulled over on suspicion of drunken driving. It features an exceptional performance of quiet dignity from guest star Edward James Olmos, touching on systemic racism in our nation’s police forces.
6. “Take This Sabbath Day” (Season 1, Episode 14)
One of the best aspects of the show, especially in its Sorkin-led years, is how deftly it blended humor with deeply serious topics. Smelly, hungover Josh constantly running into people at work (on a Saturday, no less) is comedy gold. But the show’s debate over the death penalty (even when it’s for a guilty person) brings out the best in many of its characters. And then the show really brings it home in its final scene, featuring Karl Malden as a priest (in what I have to assume is a nod to On the Waterfront), to whom Bartlett confesses his sins.
5. “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” (Season 2, Episode 16)
Rob Lowe’s only Emmy nomination came for this second season episode, one of its regular “Big Block of Cheese” days. This episode has everything: an arrogant Toby dealing with WTO protestors, C.J. learning our globes and maps are all jacked up, and Sam trying to get a woman’s grandfather posthumously pardoned. It’s that latter section that makes this one of the show’s very best. What at first seems like CIA subterfuge actually goes much deeper for both the U.S. government and for Sam himself, who’s dealing with his own familial betrayal.
4. “Life on Mars” (Season 4, Episode 21)
The entire three-episode arc (from this to “Twenty Five”) is one of the best stretches of any show ever, but I couldn’t bring myself to let all of them take up space on this list. So I cut out “Commencement,” which is mostly memorable for its thrilling abduction scene set to Massive Attack’s “Angel,” but kept this prologue, which sets the whole constitutional crisis in motion. Matthew Perry (in his best non-Friends role) guest stars as the new Associate Counsel, investigating what seems like a frivolous report on aliens and ends up uncovering a massive scandal. The episode begins with the big shock, then flashes back to show how we got to this point.
3. “Twenty Five” (Season 4, Episode 23)
I do often wonder what the show would have been like had Aaron Sorkin not left between Seasons Four and Five. It would have almost certainly been better (even though the last three seasons are still quite good), but if you’re going to go out, at least he went out on a high note. It’s a breathless episode that also features the birth of Toby and Andrea’s twins, which causes a literally breathless Toby to suggest what everyone else has always realized: Bartlett has to invoke the 25th Amendment on himself. He can’t make any rational decisions while Zoe is still MIA. But leaving those decisions to the extremely conservative Speaker of the House (guest star John Goodman) isn’t necessarily any better.
2. “Posse Comitatus” (Season 3, Episode 21)
In making a list such as this, there are only two acceptable answers for the show’s finest hour: the Season Three finale or the Season Two finale. This masterfully crafted episode brilliantly weaves all the big plotlines of the season into one magnificent piece of work. The intellectual Bartlett’s feud with “man of the people” Ritchie, the threat of terrorism and the appropriate reaction, and C.J.’s flirtation with her protection detail (an excellent Mark Harmon). The latter ends in tragedy and one of the few effective uses of Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah.” I gotta go. They’re playing my song.
1. “Two Cathedrals” (Season 2, Episode 22)
It’s remembered for Martin Sheen’s incredible monologue in the National Cathedral, which somehow failed to net him an Emmy. He lost yet again to James Gandolfini (which is better than losing to James fucking Spader, which also happened), but I still don’t understand how voters didn’t start engraving his name on the award the second the credits rolled. Yet the episode has so much more going for it: the flashbacks to Bartlett’s long relationship with Mrs. Landingham, his confrontation with her ghost (which sounds like it would be cheesy, but is actually quite effective), a tremendous use of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms,” and that incredible cliffhanger ending. That’s how you do a finale.