Seventeen People

A modest tribute to—and deconstruction of—my favorite hour of television.

by Jon White

Aaron Sorkin

This is Aaron Sorkin.

He created The West Wing (plus a bunch of other stuff*), but you knew that already. This was his best show, and “17 People” was its best non-Dire-Straits-featuring episode.

Unironically yapping about my love for this in 2014 is tricky, because my love for the series it belonged to has become so uncomfortably, uh, asterisk-laden lately. Back in those halcyon early-00’s days, I loved The West Wing. We all did! And now that it’s streaming to boot, freeing me from fiddling with those box-set envelope-sleeves, it’s even easier to revisit—which creates a nostalgia problem. The West Wing’s faults are glaring in the harsh light of day, but “17 People,” having aged tremendously well, remains a knockout. We’re given 45 minutes in which there’s no Mandy, there’s still a Sam, and there’s still (for now) a Landingham. At no point does Bartlet affirm Donna’s folksy economic centrism. At no point does Toby try to “save” Social Security by cutting it. At no point are we asked to root for Jimmy Smits’ or Alan Alda’s Broderian distaste of the “tone” of politics. Instead, “17 People” is just Sorkin caught momentarily at peace with the world, and producing a fun hour of too-clever, too-tired characters bouncing off each other.

I love this episode despite its mistakes (Sorkin has Emily Procter say article when he meant amendment). It shows off my favorite computer, which would have been mere days old at the time of shooting (Toby’s erstwhile TiBook). It contains my favorite West Wing punchline, which I keep waiting for a chance to use at parties (“I could’ve countered that, but I’d already moved on to other things in my head”). It sports not just one, but two grammar jokes (Josh’s indefinite article before “h”; Bartlet’s “surgeons general”). Even the sound editing stands out—listen for the unseen doors closing; the bourbon glasses clinking; the metronome thok of that incessant rubber ball.

But more than anything, it’s the acting across its five disparate stories. In words said and unsaid, a lot happens in this hour, though it never feels rushed. It just unfolds, convincingly, over the course of one late evening. It is, simultaneously: a story of intrigue, of persuasion, of drama, of comedy, and of romance.

“What’s going on, Leo?”

Isometric outlay of the facility.


In which John Hoynes plans a camping trip.

The Timeline of Toby’s Thinking.

I have no kind of investigative mind. Zero. it took me six days and 23 minutes to figure it out.
Stackhouse’s filibuster**
Still Thursday


In which Ainsley is unconvinced by the ERA, and Sam is unconvinced by Ainsley.

  1. Josh Why are we talking about the ERA?
  2. Sam She’s doing a thing.
  3. Josh Yeah, but it’s not back or anything though, is it?
  4. Sam Certainly, not if Phyllis Schlafly here has her way.

What was the ERA?

The Equal Rights Amendment, intended to guarantee legal equality for women, would have been—and very nearly became—the 27th Amendment to our Constitution. Whether American women would have benefitted from the ERA is up for debate between Sam (yes) and Ainsley (no).

The history of the ERA (from the 1920s to the end of the 1970s) roughly aligns with, and is reflective of, the rise and then fall of America’s midcentury liberal consensus. It was introduced during the rising tide of the women’s suffrage movement, then didn’t see significant progress again until the wake of the mid- and late-1960s civil rights successes. In 1972, it sailed through both houses of Congress, and received President Nixon’s signature. As the ERA moved to the states for ratification, it swept the first 30, crawled to secure its next 5, but then—through a coordinated, intense campaign that echoed the larger rise of social conservatism coming into vogue—failed to reach its required 38. In 1982, the Supreme Court officially declared the ERA dead.

The full text of the ERA.

Section 1.

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Section 2.

The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3.

This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

The Food That Ainsley Anticipates Eating.

We also like beef.
Decent Pizza At Smith College, after her ERA panel
Kung Pao Chicken Stipulation for staying on Sam’s team to write jokes
Beer Prerequisite for listening to Josh’s joke pitches
Cheesecake To be offered by the all-night pastry chef (later revealed to be a lie)
Peach Self-congratulatory prize after having out-debated Sam

Point / Counterpoint

Sam & Ainsley on the ERA

Sam’s Arguments For.

Ainsley’s Arguments Against.

    1. Nobody can have a rational objection to the ERA.
    2. The 14th Amendment makes the ERA redundant.
    1. Pay disparity exists between men and women.
    2. Pay disparity is already covered by 1964’s Pay Equity Act (“when women were making 59 cents to the dollar”).
    1. But women today are only making 79 cents to the dollar.
    2. Pay disparity doesn’t happen because of institutional sexism—rather, that women choose to make less.
    1. Women are actually “financially punished for having kids.”
    2. But women “made a choice to have kids.”
    1. Hypocrisy of conservatives’ contradictory stances regarding regulation, particularly regarding media censorship versus handgun restrictions.
    2. Humiliation for women of the ERA needing to be made explicit, as though their rights were not already established and upheld.


In which Jed and Toby share a drink.

Toby’s Five Possibilities.

I mean it. What do you think will happen?
He can decide not to run.
He can run and win.
He can run and not win.
He can resign.
He can be impeached.

What Makes This Night Complicated.

Bartlet isn’t just dealing with Toby; he also has one hour in which to respond to a potential terror plot.

Reda Nessam, an Algerian-born A terrorist, was stopped at the Canadian border B in a U-Haul transporting nitroglycerin C. (In response, Bartlet closes the embassies in Tanzania D and Brussels E.) This leaves Bartlet with the decision of whether to order FAA chief Hal Garreth F to set the now-imperiled airports to a state of “heightened security” G. Eventually, this choice is made easier once Bartlet learns of a second suspected rental car that’s bound for a safe house in New Jersey H. He gives the order, telling Leo (and Toby) that he “didn’t know enough.” (Toby replies that he knows the feeling.)

Diagram of the Reda Nessam plot.

The Sixteen People.

You knew. We weren’t counting you.
Herman Vikram
Diagnosing specialist Physician
Abbey Bartlet
First Lady Family
1st doctor / radiologist Physician
2nd doctor / radiologist Physician
3rd doctor / radiologist Physician
4th doctor / radiologist Physician
5th doctor / radiologist Physician
Elizabeth Westin
Eldest daughter Family
Ellie Bartlet
Middle daughter Family
Zoey Bartlet
Youngest daughter Family
John Bartlet
Brother Family
Adm. Fitzwallace
Chairman of JCoS Staff
Leo McGarry
Chief of Staff Staff
John Hoynes
Vice President Staff
David Lee
GWU anaesthesiologist Physician
Toby Ziegler
Communications Dir. Staff


In which we have an hour to find the funny.

  1. Josh Alright, so uh... we’re gonna be fine here.
  2. Sam No! We’re doing great! [to the rest] We’re doing great everybody, right?
  3. Ed Sam, we’ve got one here but it involves a John Wayne impersonation and a sock puppet.
  4. Sam Yeah, we’re eating it.

Proposed Jokes, their Authors, and their States of Inclusion into the Final Draft.

Sam and Josh have been tasked with punching up the terrible jokes for this year’s Correspondents’ Dinner. This will involve rounding up funny people who are still in the office.

Submission. Proposed by. Notes. Status.
“I haven’t seen an audience this dead since…” Donna Go-to in case a joke doesn’t work. Out.
“Just don’t stick me… with… the… dinner check.” Breech / Lippman / Kyle Compared to Bartlet playing Grossinger’s. Out.
“All I can say is ‘no te preocupus.’ Breech / Lippman / Kyle It's the Spanish kind of Latin. Out.
“And I’d also like to thank our host, Bill Maher…” Breech / Lippman / Kyle We’re not making fun of the host. Out.
“I only wish the Speaker were here tonight, but he’s held up in negotiations on the Hill. He’s demanding his latest pre-nup include a line-item veto.” Sam In, then out after Josh speaks with Charlie. Out.
“I hear the Bloomberg party is gonna be hard to get into this year but I’m not worried. I’m going to the party with the 82nd Airborne.” Josh Spurned by Donna. Out.
“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Sam and his prostitute friend.” Donna Diagnosed as “misdirected anger.” Out.
(Something that Sam wrote for an earlier speech titled Government-wide Accountability for Merit System Principles.) Sam Assured to be a real barn-burner. Ambiguous.
“See, the thing about me is that mine is a dry wit. And a dry wit, like a fine martini, is best enjoyed…” Donna Punchline unfinished. Out.
“So, the President was asked to pick tonight’s menu and he says, ‘Oh, just serve anything you want except lame duck.’” Larry Unclear reaction from Toby. In.
“I know times are tough. The NASDAQ just filed for not-for-profit status.” Larry Unclear reaction from Toby. In.


In which flowers are sent.

Josh’s Interpretation.

  1. I started working for you in February. This is April, and you’re an idiot.
  2. Well, you started working for me once in February and then you stopped for a while.
  3. Yes!
  4. Then you started working for me in again in April. That’s the one I choose to celebrate, because it’s the only one where you started working for me and it wasn't followed by your not working but rather going back to your boyfriend, and how, in comparison to that and him, you can call me mean is simply another in a long series of…
  5. Oh, shut up! Honest to God, do you ever get tired of the sound of your own voice?
  6. No. No, no, no.

Donna’s Interpretation.

Upon Donna’s return to work for Josh in April, Josh recalls that she had a bandage on her ankle, which he mistakenly believed was the result of an icy slip A caused by her failure to spread cat litter on the sidewalk B. In truth, her fall was actually the product of being in a car accident C, for which she was taken to the hospital D. Donna had called her (then-reunited) boyfriend for consolation, who eventually arrived E, but not before stopping to meet his friends for a beer F. As a result, Donna subsequently ended that relationship G (not, as Josh believed, the other-way-around), and returned to work for Josh H on her own volition—secretly grateful for his unconditional acceptance.

Diagram of Donna’s retelling of the story.
  1. Donna Yes, you are better than my old boyfriend.
  2. Josh I’m just sayin’ if you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop for a beer.
  3. Donna If you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop for red lights.

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Rubber ball