Every few years or so I get to roll around in Aaron Sorkin’s twisted little mind and worship his sense of character and story telling ability.
I’m talking about the television series West Wing, which – while it was awarded and highly rated – I still believe was under-rated and under-appreciated by vast tracts of television viewing audiences because it lacked weekly doses of gun-totting villians, sex and violence. It didn’t have a lot of romance, either – not right out there in your face stuff, anyway. You had to be really paying attention to pick up the serial and sometimes naughty affairs that were going on behind the scenes.
CJ Cregg, the woman who started the series as the White House press secretary and then made the amazing and fabulous leap to the President’s Chief of Staff, probably had the most discreet affairs in the series, including the first Vice President, and Danny Kincannon, a journalist who later returned to the series and became her live-in lover.
But the best affair she did have was one that wasn’t consummated and lasted a whole four episodes in the third season. It was a hot, short and tragic affair that nevertheless raised the hairs on the back of your neck with sexual tension, and made your breath catch a little.
Of course it helped enormously that the man she was looking up at (unusual for six foot tall actress Allison Janney) was Mark Harmon, a few years before he started working on NCIS. Mark Harmon has always been one of my favourite actors, ever since Meg Ryan seduced him on the hood of his car in the middle of a San Francisco street, and he coaxed her to defy her terrifying military father (Sean Connery) to continue the relationship, in The Presidio. Mark Harmon just gets better with age. In West Wing, he was playing Secret Service agent Simon Donovan.
There’s a few key scenes in West Wing that I can probably paraphrase from memory. Two in particular always have me holding my breath, the first one in delight:
CJ is getting death threats, so a body guard is assigned to her: Simon (Harmon). She resents him, but he wears down her resistance, until she concedes he has his uses, when he offers to let her use the Secret Service gym so she can vent some frustrations. Afterwards, she finds him on the gun range. The interchange between the two is an absolute delight — both the dialogue and the chemistry, thanks to Sorkin and the actors. So I’m going to more-or-less quote the dialogue:
CJ: “You guys have a shooting range here? . . . Let me try one of those. . . . let me see what all the fuss is about.”
Simon: “Have you ever shot a gun before?”
Simon: “What kind?
CJ: “Well, I haven’t shot one as much as I have seen others shoot them in the movies. . . . Give me your gun.”
Simon: “Let me get you a .25 caliber.”
CJ: “What’s wrong with yours?”
Simon: “It’s a .357 Magnum.” He draws his gun.
CJ: “I’ve heard of that. That’s a good brand. Let’s go. I’m feeling twitchy.”
Simon (very dry): “That’s good news for me. I’m going to stand behind you and hold your shoulders.”
CJ: “I don’t need training wheels.”
Simon: “Okay.” He stands back.
CJ fires, and the kick-back knocks her on her ass.
Simon: “Be careful, that .357 has a bit of a kick.”
CJ: “That thing practically broke my arm.” She gets herself back up again. “What have you got, marksmanship-wise?”
Simon: “Well, I can fire a gun without falling down, if that’s what you mean.”
CJ has him show her, betting him that he can’t put three in the center. He fires them so dead centre they’re passing through each other’s bullet holes.
CJ: “How do you shoot like that?”
Simon (with a shrug): “They give us lessons.”
You can see the relationship shift between them right there.
The second scene is not long after this. He’s escorting her and they’re out in the open, on a street at night. But they’re talking and the talk becomes personal. Until eventually they’ve halted, facing each other. Oh man…the tension! You can see they want to kiss. Their body language screams it. But Simon shakes his head a little. “I can’t,” he says, his voice low. He’s guarding her.
Immediately the tension snaps as CJ steps back and laughs it off, pretending that of course it’s okay, it was a silly moment, a passing weakness, pay it no mind, you misunderstood anyway…and she strides off, her head up in the air.
I won’t spoil the rest of this storyline in case you haven’t seen it and want to try and catch up with it. Despite the whole series being nearly ten years old now, it doesn’t seem to date at all. It’s still very, very watchable TV.
But this was one of the most explicit and most powerful romances in the series, for all it last only four episodes. It streaks ahead of the Josh and Amy romance that always makes me want to burn my eyes out with a hot poker.