This is part two of my list of top ten TV shows with a focus on dialogue, which (as I explained previously) I decided I could create from the one show that towers over all others when it comes to this topic – The West Wing.
You might notice that all the episodes I’ve used are from the first three seasons. However, this is not a show that ever gets anywhere near to jumping the shark. All seven seasons are equally terrific and equally jam-packed full of wonderfully witty dialogue. I could have had an entry for every episode. In fact, I could have had a top ten list of dialogue from just the show’s first episode.
For anyone who is serious about mastering the art of writing dialogue, I would highly recommend watching The West Wing – over and over and over again.
Season Two, Episode Eight – Shibboleth
In this Thanksgiving episode, CJ Cregg must choose the more photographic of two turkeys to participate in the traditional pardoning of the turkey ceremony.
Donna Moss: CJ, this is Morton Horn. He’s from Jasper Farms. He’s here to take one of the turkey’s back.
CJ Cregg: What do you mean?
Morton Horn: Well, I gotta take one of the turkeys back.
CJ Cregg: No. No. These turkeys are going to a petting zoo in Delaware.
Morton Horn: Well, one of them is.
CJ Cregg: Yeah, but I’m gonna send both of them.
Donna Moss: CJ, Jasper Farms donated one turkey and then the other one…
CJ Cregg: Right, but I’m going to take them both.
Morton Horn: No, I’ve got to take a turkey back.
CJ Cregg: I’m going to buy it from you. What is it, thirty bucks?
Morton Horn: These turkeys are two hundred and seventy five dollars.
CJ Cregg: For a turkey?
Morton Horn: They’re specially raised.
CJ Cregg: At the Waldorf?
Morton Horn: Ma’am…
CJ Cregg: I’ll pay it.
Morton Horn: It’s already been sold.
CJ Cregg: Give them a different turkey.
Morton Horn: Well, all the turkeys have been sold.
Donna Moss: CJ, I think…
Morton Horn: Ma’am, it was my understanding that one of these turkeys was to be pardoned, the other one sent back to Jasper Farms.
CJ Cregg: Yes, and I chose Eric because Troy doesn’t like to be touched, which surely we’re not going to execute him for.
Morton Horn: Ma’am, I have a job and I need to…
CJ Cregg: Come with me, please.
Morton Horn: Ma’am!
CJ Cregg: Grab the turkey and come with me.
And then a few moments later in the Oval Office:
CJ Cregg: Mr President?
President Josiah Bartlet: Yes?
CJ Cregg: Hi.
President Josiah Bartlet: Hi.
CJ Cregg: I’m sorry to ask you this, sir, but…
President Josiah Bartlet: It’s not too late to stop yourself.
CJ Cregg: I need you to pardon a turkey.
President Josiah Bartlet: I already pardoned the turkey.
CJ Cregg: I need you to pardon another one.
President Josiah Bartlet: Didn’t I do it right?
CJ Cregg: You did it great but I need you to come out here and pardon another one.
President Josiah Bartlet: Aren’t I going to get a reputation for being soft on turkeys?
CJ Cregg: Sir, can you come out here and just get this over with?
President Josiah Bartlet: No, I’m not just going to get this over with. What the hell’s going on?
CJ Cregg: They sent me two turkeys. The more photo-friendly of the two gets a presidential pardon and a full life at a children’s zoo. The runner up gets eaten.
President Josiah Bartlet: If the Oscars were like that, I’d watch.
CJ Cregg: Mr President…
President Josiah Bartlet: Just buy the second turkey.
CJ Cregg: They already sold it.
President Josiah Bartlet: Then there’s not much I can do.
CJ Cregg: You can pardon the turkey.
President Josiah Bartlet: The turkey hasn’t committed a crime.
CJ Cregg: Sir…
President Josiah Bartlet: CJ, I have really no judicial jurisdiction over birds.
CJ Cregg: Yes, I know that and you know that but Morton Horn doesn’t know that.
President Josiah Bartlet: Who’s Morton Horn?
CJ Cregg: He’s the high school kid from the turkey place.
President Josiah Bartlet: He’s in high school and he doesn’t know that I can’t pardon his turkey?
CJ Cregg: That’s what I’m betting.
President Josiah Bartlet: CJ, if we don’t and I mean completely overhaul public education in this country…
CJ Cregg: Yes, sir, but maybe this is not the best time to…
President Josiah Bartlet: Where the hell is he?
CJ Cregg: Right out here. Morton, this is President Bartlet.
President Josiah Bartlet: Hey, Morton.
Morton Horn: Wow.
President Josiah Bartlet: Well said. Is that the turkey?
Donna Moss: Yes.
President Josiah Bartlet: You’re pardoned.
CJ Cregg: Sir…
President Josiah Bartlet: What do you want?
CJ Cregg: Well, you know…
President Josiah Bartlet: By the power vested in me by the Constitution of the United States, I hereby pardon you.
Morton Horn: Okay.
President Josiah Bartlet: No, it’s not okay!
CJ Cregg: Sir!
President Josiah Bartlet: Morton, I can’t pardon a turkey. If you think I can pardon a turkey, then you have got to go back to your school and insist that you be better prepared to go out in the world.
Donna Moss: You can’t pardon a turkey?
President Josiah Bartlet: No. I’ll tell you what I can do. I’m drafting this turkey into military service. In the meantime, somebody will be drafting a cheque, which will have my signature on it so the folks can buy themselves a butterball.
Morton Horn: Okay.
Season Two, Episode Nineteen – Bad Moon Rising
This episode opens with the following scene, introducing the new White House Counsel, Oliver Babbish. The President and Leo McGarry meet with him to discuss whether concealing the President’s multiple sclerosis was a criminal offence.
Female staffer: Go home.
Oliver Babbish: No.
Female staffer: You were up all night.
Oliver Babbish: Do you know why?
Female staffer: Oliver…
Oliver Babbish: Because my staff’s work on the analysis of HR-437 ignored the fourth amendment implications and instead, became fascinated with the third, seventh and eleventh.
Female staffer: Please.
Oliver Babbish: Like you gotta be a prime number to get the attention of the US Supreme Court.
Female staffer: You should really go home and get a few hours’ sleep before you go to the airport.
Oliver Babbish: That’s why I was up all night. Where am I going?
Female staffer: You’re going on vacation.
Oliver Babbish: Wait. It’s coming back to me.
Female staffer: Oliver…
Oliver Babbish: It’s not a vacation. It’s a forced vacation.
Male staffer: In Borneo.
Oliver Babbish: It’s an international law summit where I’m supposed to show my support for… I’m not certain. Do I have that in my notes someplace?
Female staffer: Yes.
Oliver Babbish: I need the amicus brief on sovereign immunity.
Female staffer: It’s there.
Oliver Babbish: Federal land use.
Male staffer: It’s there.
Female staffer: Would you like us to pack your big hammer?
Oliver Babbish: Don’t make fun of the big hammer. The big hammer happens to be a gavel given to my father’s father by Justice Louis Brandeis. I need a Dictaphone.
Female staffer: You’ve got one on your desk.
Oliver Babbish: It doesn’t work.
Male staffer: What’s wrong with it?
Oliver Babbish: It doesn’t work.
Female staffer: He’s asking…
Oliver Babbish: It’s stuck on record. It won’t stop recording things. So it’s just what you want lying around the White House Counsel’s office because there’s never been a problem with that before.
Female staffer: I’m putting mine in your bag. We’ll have that one fixed.
Oliver Babbish: Yeah, you know what else?
Female staffer: You’re going to go home and sleep until your plane leaves.
Oliver Babbish: I’m fine sleeping ’til well after that but somebody call me when the car’s on the way.
Assistant: Excuse me, Mr Babbish?
Oliver Babbish: I’m going home.
Assistant: That was Mr McGarry’s office. He’s on his way down with the President.
Female staffer: You should fix your tie.
Oliver Babbish: Yeah.
And a few moments later:
Oliver Babbish: Good morning, Mr President.
President Josiah Bartlet: Hey, Oliver.
Oliver Babbish: Come on in.
President Josiah Bartlet: What are the bags for?
Oliver Babbish: I was just heading out on vacation.
President Josiah Bartlet: Oh. Oh, gosh. Oliver, this…
Leo McGarry: Sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: This can keep.
Leo McGarry: Mr President…
President Josiah Bartlet: The man’s bags are packed. Where are you going?
Oliver Babbish: Sarawak.
President Josiah Bartlet: Asia’s best kept secret.
Oliver Babbish: Sir, is there something you’d like to…?
President Josiah Bartlet: It’s really not even… I don’t want you to worry that much about it.
Leo McGarry: Sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: I’m easing in.
Leo McGarry: Okay.
President: Well, Oliver, it really boils down to this. I’m going to tell you a story and then I need you to tell me whether or not I’ve engaged sixteen people in a massive criminal conspiracy to defraud the public in order to win a presidential election.
Oliver uses his gavel to destroy the Dictaphone on his desk that won’t stop recording and then says, “Okay.”
Seasons Three, Episode One – Isaac and Ishmael
This episode was specially written in response to the September 11 attacks. The first episode of season three of The West Wing was due to air the same week the planes were hijacked and crashed. Aaron Sorkin wrote this episode as a commentary on terrorism and it focuses on a man employed by the White House who has the same name as a known terrorist as well as a group of high schoolers who are trapped in the White House while the building is in lockdown.
Toby Ziegler: Kill ’em all.
Male student #1: All the Islamic extremists?
Toby Ziegler: No, I mean everyone. You’re all bothering me. I want to be left alone. Clearly the only way that’s going to happen is to be alone so I’m sorry but I’m going to have to let you all go. Except the Yankees and the Knicks. The Yankees and the Knicks are going to need someone to play so keep the Redsocks and the Lakers. And the Laker girls. And the Palm. And we’ll need to keep the people who work at the Palm. That’s it though. The Yankees, the Redsocks, the Knicks, the Lakers, the Laker girls and anyone who works at the Palm. Sports, Laker girls and a well-prepared steak. That’s all I need. Sometimes I like to mix it up with Italian. And Chinese. Alright, you can all stay but don’t bug me. You’re on probation. Don’t forget, I was this close to banishing you.
Josh Lyman: This is Toby Ziegler and actually he’s in charge of crafting our message to the public.
Toby Ziegler: And today that message is…?
Male student #2: Don’t bug me?
Toby Ziegler: That’s right.
Female student #1: Nice beard.
Toby Ziegler: My choice, sister. And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with a religion whose laws say a man’s got to wear a beard or cover his head or wear a collar. It’s when violation of these laws becomes a crime against the state and not your appearance that we’re talking about lack of choice.
Season Three, Episode Nine – The Women of Qumar
In this scene, the two most high profile women in the Bartlet administration, CJ Cregg, the White House Press Secretary, and Nancy McNally, the National Security Advisor, discuss the recent sale of weapons to the country of Qumar (a fictional nation state modelled on various Mid East countries), in which the violent and oppressive existence of the Qumari women is a daily reality. CJ has been troubled by the choice to make the sale and uses the African American heritage of Nancy to make her point.
CJ Cregg: Hi, Nancy.
Nancy McNally: I understand you’re troubled by the arms sale. The Nazis were a bad analogy. We’re not fighting a war with Qumar.
CJ Cregg: Well, this isn’t the point but we will. Of course, we will. Of course, we’ll be fighting a war with Qumar one day and you know it. So. Well, at least we’ll be familiar with the weapons they’re using.
Nancy McNally: We need Khaleifa Air Base. We refuel there and we keep AWACS radar.
CJ Cregg: We don’t need it. It’s convenient.
Nancy McNally: CJ…
CJ Cregg: We don’t need it. We’ve got Turkey, we’ve got Bahrain, we’ve got Diego Garcia. Qumar’s convenient.
Nancy McNally: Yes, it’s convenient.
CJ Cregg: They beat women, Nancy. They hate women. The only reason they keep Qumari women alive is to make more Qumari men.
Nancy McNally: So what do you want me to do about it?
CJ Cregg: How about instead of suggesting that we sell the guns to them, suggesting that we shoot the guns at them? And by the way, not to change the subject, but how are we supposed to have any moral credibility when we talk about gun control and making sure the guns don’t get into the hands of the wrong people? God, Nancy, what the hell are we defining as the right people?
Nancy McNally: This is the real world and we can’t isolate our enemies.
CJ Cregg: I know about the real world and I’m not suggesting we isolate them.
Nancy McNally: You’re suggesting we eliminate them.
CJ Cregg: I have a briefing.
Nancy McNally: You’re suggesting…
CJ Cregg: I’m not suggesting anything. I don’t suggest foreign policy around here.
Nancy McNally: You are right now.
CJ Cregg: It’s the twenty-first century, Nancy. The world’s gotten smaller. I don’t know how we can tolerate this kind of suffering anymore, particularly when all it does it continue the cycle of anti-American hatred. But that’s not the point either.
Nancy McNally: What’s the point?
CJ Cregg: The point is that apartheid was an East Hampton clambake compared to what we laughingly refer to as the life these women lead and if we had sold M1A1s to South Africa fifteen years ago, you’d have set the building on fire. Thank God we never needed to refuel in Johannesburg!
Nancy McNally: It’s a big world, CJ, and everybody has guns and I’m doing the best I can.
CJ Cregg: They’re beating the women, Nancy!
Season Three, Episode Twenty-Two – Posse Comitatus
In this scene, President Bartlet and the Republican nominee for the upcoming presidential election, Governor Ritchie, cross paths at a New York charity performance of The War of the Roses. The bodyguard of CJ Cregg, who has been protecting her as a result of recent death threats, has just been murdered in a convenience store robbery gone wrong.
Governor Robert Ritchie: Mr President.
President Josiah Bartlet: Governor.
Governor Robert Ritchie: You enjoying the play?
President Josiah Bartlet: I am. How about you?
Governor Robert Ritchie: Well, we just got here. We were at the Yankee game. We got, you know, hung up in traffic.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yeah, I know. Listen, politics aside, and I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but you probably insulted the Church. You can head it off at the pass if you speak to the Cardinal tonight.
Governor Robert Ritchie: Well, I didn’t mean to insult anybody.
President Josiah Bartlet: No.
Governor Robert Ritchie: It’s a baseball game. It’s how ordinary Americans…
President Josiah Bartlet: Yeah. No, I don’t understand that. The centre field for the Yankees is an accomplished classical guitarist. People who like baseball can’t like books?
Governor Robert Ritchie: Are you taking this personally?
President Josiah Bartlet: No. Something horrible happened about an hour ago. CJ Cregg was getting threats so we put an agent on her. He’s a good guy. He was on my detail for a while and he was in Rosslyn. He walked into the middle of an armed robbery and was shot and killed after detaining one of the suspects.
Governor Robert Ritchie: Oh. Crime. Boy, I don’t know.
President Josiah Bartlet: We should have a great debate, Rob. We owe it to everyone. When I was running as a governor, I didn’t know anything. I made them start Bartlet College in my dining room. Two hours every morning on foreign affairs and the military. You could do that.
Governor Robert Ritchie: How many different ways do you think you’re gonna find to call me dumb?
President Josiah Bartlet: I wasn’t, Rob. But you’ve turned being unengaged into a zen-like thing and you shouldn’t enjoy it so much, is all. And if it appears at times as if I don’t like you, that’s the only reason why.
Governor Robert Ritchie: You’re what my friends call a superior sonofabitch. You’re an academic elitist and a snob. You’re Hollywood. You’re weak. You’re liberal. And you can’t be trusted. And if it appears from time to time as if I don’t like you, well, those are just a few of the many reasons why.
President Josiah Bartlet: They’re playing my song. In the future, if you’re wondering, “Crime. Boy, I don’t know,” is when I decided to kick your ass.