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An Idea Takes (West) Wing

Michael Gordon had an idea for the Emmy-winning show—and got it on the air

Published in 2008 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine

To practice environmental law is to devour countless documents. Michael Gordon has plowed through the stacks many times for clients, looking for evidence of corporate or government negligence. It’s not glamorous or well-publicized work.

Then Hollywood called.

Gordon had spent years pitching environmental-themed ideas to his sister-in-law, Debora Cahn, a writer for The West Wing. “I would regale her with my stories and ideas for an environmental TV show,” he says, which he envisioned as something like Captain Planet for grown-ups.

His ideas didn’t go anywhere until one day Cahn decided to write an episode on environmental policy. Michael, little help?

The research he produced became an episode that featured a whistleblower from a chemical company who reveals the company’s cover-up of carcinogenic toxins at disposal sites. The episode was based on Gordon’s own experiences. It isn’t difficult, he says, to find environmental law cases shocking enough for prime-time television.

If life isn’t as exciting as it seems on television, life working for television is even less so. His biggest task was to ensure that the lines of dialogue derived from the copious information he gave them was realistic in its context. Still, he did get to attend the Environmental Media Association’s awards ceremony in 2003, where the episode (which aired in March 2003) won top honors for best use of environmental themes in a television drama.

Then he went home. And just like that, his 15 minutes were over.

“It was a neat experience,” Gordon says. “I realized for the first time how much material was required for a short amount of time in the script. I also realized that with a few short words [of dialogue], television, as a visual medium, can have a huge impact.”

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