Aaron Sorkin's hastily written script highlights the drama's strengths and weaknesses, says Bruce Fretts

By Bruce Fretts
Updated October 05, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
The West Wing: Warner Bros

The West Wing

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EW.com rates the special terrorism episode

It was the best of ”West Wing”s; it was the worst of ”West Wing”s. In an act of monumental hubris, series creator Aaron Sorkin crashed a special episode of the NBC White House drama that purported to address some of the issues raised by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Judging from the self-important opening sequence, in which cast members addressed the audience directly to explain this out-of-sequence gimmick, there was every reason to expect an hourlong cringeathon.

Instead, ”Isaac and Ishmael” (Sorkin loves those Biblical allusions) spotlighted the writer’s considerable strengths and weaknesses. The set-up for the Oct. 3 show was simple: When the building is sealed off because a terrorist may have infiltrated the administration, the staff holes up in the White House mess with a group of inquisitive high school students. This Q&A format (e.g., ”Where do terrorists come from?”) gave Sorkin an excuse to indulge in the kind of didacticism that so often mars ”West Wing.”

But it also allowed him to unfurl bits of brilliantly crafted political rhetoric, especially when President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) briefly entered 45 minutes in: ”We don’t need martyrs right now. We need heroes. A hero would die for his country, but he’d much rather live for it.” If only our real-life leaders were this eloquent; for better or worse, the most quotable line to come out of the real-life crisis thus far is a cliché: ”Wanted, dead or alive.”

Crisply directed by Christopher Misiano, the episode crosscut between White House scenes and the interrogation of the suspected mole (well played by Ajay Naidu, late of NBC’s political sitcom ”Lateline”). The guy was clearly innocent, a conduit for Sorkin to transmit the heavyhanded message that We Shouldn’t Judge People By The Way They Look. Yet the plot bravely cast one of the show’s most beloved characters in a harsh light, as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) was the one most guilty of racial profiling. Even his final-scene apology was stumblingly insufficient.

The ”West Wing”ers went to great pains to remind us this wasn’t a typical episode — in the intro, costar Bradley Whitford (Josh) called it both ”a play” and ”a storytelling aberration.” And in a positively Clintonian act of phrase-parsing, NBC’s promos insist that next week’s episode is REALLY the season premiere, even though this was the first new episode of the season. Yet in many ways, this was a quintessential ”West Wing,” with stellar ensemble acting, fluid camerawork, and maddeningly uneven writing.

One thing did set this episode apart: Its profits are being donated to charities benefiting the families of New York City police officers and firefighters lost on Sept. 11. That’s a cause supporters of Jed Bartlet and George W. Bush alike can rally behind.

What did you think of this week’s ”West Wing”?

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