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.
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
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
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
given at the end of the episode.
It turns out, they should have been hectoring Leo, whose racist remarks
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.