Ah, The West Wing. In this politically uncertain world of presidential monologues delivered via tweet, there is no better time to slip into the idealized and Aaron Sorkin-penned version of D.C. Yet despite seven seasons of soaring speeches, inter-wing romance, and all of the Emmys, there is one episode of the NBC drama that never got its proper due. The most underrated episode of The West Wing is Season 1's "Six Meetings Before Lunch."
When cycling through the greatest hits of the landmark show, it's easy to find the merits in major episodes like the two-part "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen", where our beloved President Bartlet faces an assassination attempt, or "Two Cathedrals", in which the Commander-in-Chief debates a second term under the shadow of his advancing multiple sclerosis.
But often, the corridors of The West Wing shine brightest during a "typical day" in the White House, though as any loyal viewer knows, there is no such thing. In these episodes, nothing quite speaks to the soul like a well-placed walk-and-talk, and there are plenty of those in "Six Meetings Before Lunch". The hour is one of the final five episodes of the series' fantastic first season, and it sees our favorite staffers in flux.
Press Secretary extraordinaire C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) is attempting to minimize press coverage of First Daughter Zoey's (Elisabeth Moss) attendance at a fraternity party that ended in a drug bust. Meanwhile, Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), meanwhile, high off of the administration's recent nomination of a new Supreme Court judge, is brought down to Earth when he must negotiate the arrival of a panda at the National Zoo for the sake of U.S.-China relations.
And while animal-fueled stress infiltrates one corner of the office, a more serious matter occupies another. Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) meets with the pick for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights to discuss financial reparations for slaves. Plus, Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) debates school vouchers with public school teacher/ love interest/daughter of the Chief of Staff Mallory. (The West Wing did love its tangled webs.)
"Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense," says Sam in the episode. "That's my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet."
It's a typically great speech, and just one of many in the episode; "Six Meetings Before Lunch" delivers 45 minutes of expertly calibrated soliloquies on Important Issues, but never misses the opportunity to teach us about the complexities of pandas, either. (Side note: how does Josh not know the difference between a koala bear and panda?!)
However, if there is one reason alone to add this episode to your Netflix queue, it is Janney's epic performance of "The Jackal." Does it make any narrative sense in the episode? Not really. Do we care? Nope. Vulture reports that this impromptu musical number was added after Sorkin caught Janney lip syncing the song in her trailer. Luckily, his random run-in became the cabaret number we didn't know we needed. (Janney even performed the song again on The Arsenio Hall Show in 2013.) The performance also allowed for perhaps the whitest and nerdiest thing to happen on TV ever:
And in the words of super smooth dancer Sam Seaborn, "If you haven't seen C.J. do 'The Jackal,' then you haven't seen Shakespeare the way it's meant to be done."
Come to "Six Meetings Before Lunch" for the political manifestos and pressroom intrigue, stay for the panda trades and Lip Sync Battle: The West Wing Edition.