'West Wing' lectured more than entertained
                 By Robert Bianco, USA TODAY

                 We were afraid it was too soon.
                 We were right.

                 Less than a month after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington,
                 NBC's The West Wing attempted to address a nation's pain and anger
                 through fiction, in a hastily constructed special episode that aired Wednesday
                 night. Written by Aaron Sorkin, the show was designed to deal with the
                 questions and issues currently facing the world, but not with the specific events.

                 It was reverent. It was, or at least it was intended to be, educational. And it
                 also was a crashing and often condescending bore.

                 Titled "Isaac and Ishmael," this well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing
                 hour was almost entirely built around static conversations. As it opened, Josh
                 Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is speaking with a group of high school students
                 when a red phone flashes and the White House is locked down. "Something
                 happened," he tells them but he doesn't know what.

                 The crisis, we learn, was triggered by the discovery that a man who has the
                 same name as a suspected terrorist is employed at the White House. You
                 might expect the show to follow the search for the suspect, but he's easily
                 caught. Instead, the show alternates between his interrogation by chief of staff
                 Leo McGarry (John Spencer) and the rest of the staff lecturing the
                 captive-audience students.

                 We start with Josh expounding on the dangers of succumbing to prejudice
                 against Muslims. He gives way to Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), who
                 compares the people of Afghanistan to Jews in Nazi concentration camps.
                 They're then joined by Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), who helps Toby explain the
                 origins and history of terrorism, and C.J. (Allison Janney), who defends the CIA.

                 By this point, you could be forgiven if you began to fear that a quiz would be
                 given at the end of the episode.

                 It turns out, they should have been hectoring Leo, whose racist remarks to the
                 Arab-American suspect would have been offensive if they were not so
                 unbelievably out of character.

                 Given the rushed schedule, many of the episode's flaws from the
                 claustrophobia and lack of movement to the absence of plot and dramatic
                 urgency may be understandable. Yet as quickly as the show was
                 completed Sorkin scrapped the show's planned premiere and put this
                 episode into production less than two weeks ago events have moved more
                 quickly still. Tolerance for American Muslims is an incredibly important issue,
                 but it's one that has been addressed on television by everyone from President
                 Bush to Muhammad Ali. Sorkin always has been preachy, but this time, he's
                 preaching to the choir.

                 Though some may have feared that West Wing was using the tragedy as a
                 ratings stunt, there was nothing exploitative about this special episode. There
                 may even be some who found the lessons useful. But many more, I suspect,
                 would have preferred an hour of typically stirring West Wing entertainment to
                 a pedantic, undramatic series of speeches.

                 Now, more than ever, TV needs to tread carefully. If West Wing can't handle
                 this subject, perhaps the time has not yet arrived for anyone.
 
 
 
 

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