Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The West Wing: "Shibboleth"

Premiered November 22, 2000.

It’s almost Turkey Day and in the West Wing of the White House, Communications Director Toby Zeigler (Richard Schiff) and his deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) are working on the President’s annual Thanksgiving address to the nation.  Toby isn’t impressed with Sam’s early drafts.  

White House spokesperson C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) is surprised when she discovers two live turkeys in her office.  They’ve been brought for the President's annual “turkey pardoning” ceremony.

President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) wants a new knife for carving the Thanksgiving turkey, so he sends his personal aide Charlie Young (Dule Hill) out shopping for one.  Charlie struggles to find a carving knife that meets the President's exacting standards. 

On a more serious note, a container ship carrying 100 Chinese refugees has been detained off the California Coast.  The refugees claim to be evangelical Christians who have fled to America seeking religious asylum.  When Pres. Barlet is told of this, he’s reminded of the Pilgrims’ journey to the New World where they sought to worship according to their beliefs.  

Bartlet is sympathetic to the refugees, but the complex nature of U.S.-China relations and immigration laws prevent the President from welcoming them to America.   There are also questions about the veracity of their claims of religious asylum.  Bartlet interviews one of the refugees, a professor named Jhin-Wei (Henry O), in order to determine if they are truly fleeing religious persecution.  

C.J. starts to grow attached to the turkeys, who are named Eric and Troy.  She learns that the President will pardon the turkey that is more photogenic and send it to a petting zoo.  C.J. decides Eric is the more attractive turkey and he will receive the pardon.  

Unfortunately, C.J. soon learns that Troy has been purchased and will be served as Thanksgiving Dinner!  This prompts C.J. to seek a Presidential Pardon for both turkeys.

Will the Chinese refugees be allowed to stay in America?  Will Troy be pardoned?  Will Bartlet finally settle on a carving knife?

J.A. Morris says: 

“Shibboleth” is an enjoyable episode of a now-classic series.  Immigration is still a serious issue and this episode handles it in a respectful and realistic manner.  The parallels between the Chinese refugees and the Pilgrims’ voyage in 1620 are obvious, but never come off as heavy-handed. 

Bartlet's inability to immediately grant asylum to the refugees is a reminder that Presidents are not gods or kings (though some Presidents act like they are) and their powers are limited by Constitutional and international law.

The plot involving the turkeys provides a nice contrast to the serious parts of “Shibboleth.”  Allison Janney is my MVP for this episode, since she has the difficult task of acting beside a duo of turkeys.

One thing that’s refreshing about “Shibboleth” is that it avoids the usual Thanksgiving TV tropes.  We don’t get any scenes of food preparation disasters, annoying relatives or even the traditional shot of a family seated at a table covered with food.  

I don't want to spoil too much of this episode, but Bartlet and Charlie's interactions are touching.  Charlie was dating the President's daughter Zoe and Jed uses Thanksgiving as a time to welcome formally welcome Charlie into his family.  

Like other episodes of The West Wing, “Shibboleth” reminds viewers that White House employees don’t have a lot of free time.  Toby, Sam and Josh (Bradley Whitford)   are spending Thanksgiving together watching football, presumably because their demanding jobs don’t allow them time to visit family. 

Toby chases down C.J. in one of The West Wing's patented "Walk-And-Talk" scenes!

A note about this episode's title:
Webster's dictionary defines the word shibboleth as "a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning."  In the Old Testament Book of Judges, it was used as a password for those who wanted to cross the river Jordan.

“Shibboleth” is a memorable episode of a great series that’s full of drama, comedy and holiday sentiment and it’s highly recommended.

J.A. Morris’ rating:

4 pumpkin pies!

RigbyMel says: 

This episode from season two of The West Wing is a great holiday episode.  

We get to see everyone's preparations for Thanksgiving amid the usual high pressure of working in the White House.  C.J. has to wrestle with the moral conundrum of which turkey to pardon and which to send off for dinner.   

There's some great absurdist comedy here, like when C.J. is very seriously trying to determine which turkey is the most photogenic or arguing the legality of a second turkey pardon.  (I also quite like the solution to the conundrum that makes use of Presidential Powers, but I won't spoil it.)   C.J.'s  utter horror at having to lead the children in song (with lute accompaniment!) at the turkey pardoning ceremony is also pretty funny. 

Poor Charlie is being run ragged in aid of Bartlet's obsessive search for the "perfect" carving knife, which has quite a sweet (but not cloying) payoff.  

I like Sam's riffing on his trouble writing the Thanksgiving proclamation as well: 
"A small band of pilgrims sought out a place in the New World where they could worship according to their own beliefs ... and solve crimes."   To be honest, I think I'd quite like to see that developed! 

Josh, Toby, and Sam plan to watch football together -- and don't want anyone to let Bartlet know they have no big Thanksgiving plans lest the President lecture them on "the history of the yam in Latin." (For the record, the Latin word for yam is "dioscorea" -- Bartlet knows all!) 

There's some great thematic parallelism going on in this episode.   Thanksgiving commemorates the Pilgrims coming to the New World in order to worship as they wish, so the Chinese refugees seeking religious asylum fits right in.   There's an additional subplot where Toby is trying to get Leo's sister a recess appointment to a minor federal education position where we get into the notion of the complexities inherent in the notion of "freedom of religion," which provides an interesting contrast. 

There's a nice balance of the serious and the comedic in "Shibboleth" and as J.A. Morris says, it manages to skip most of the typical turkey-day TV tropes, while still managing to preserve the sense of tradition and family (in this case, a work family) associated with the holiday.  
This is a most enjoyable holiday episode of a fantastic series and is well worth seeing. 

RigbyMel's rating: 

4 pumpkin pies.