It’s a testament to writer-producer Aaron Sorkin’s ability to create characters people love that the 25 million viewers who tuned in to Oct. 3’s special preseason premiere of NBC’s ”The West Wing” stuck around. After all, they found themselves watching what one of the actors introduced as ”a play” and — as if he were pointing vigorously toward the exit doors — ”a story-telling aberration.” The episode — set up as a ”lockdown” in the White House due to a suspected terrorist infiltration — wasn’t much as drama. A good chunk of the hour was spent among a class of visiting students being lectured by staffers Bradley Whitford, Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, and, making a special guest appearance as The President Wandering By In Search Of An Apple And Peanut Butter, Martin Sheen (talk about a disengaged leader). We viewers — forced by Sorkin’s structure to become part of the class — were reprimanded and corrected. We were given an uncredited paraphrasing of Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary’s widely distributed editorial equating Afghan citizens with Jews in concentration camps. And we were counseled to do our part in fighting terrorists by ”accepting more than one idea,” because doing so ”makes ’em absolutely crazy,” an unfortunate turn of phrase that trivialized the profound viciousness — not mere craziness — of recent events.

Most of the time I like ”The West Wing” a lot, but this one turned ugly a few times, most notably after John Spencer’s chief of staff Leo McGarry had grilled an Arab-American staffer (Ajay Naidu) under suspicion. After the man’s good name was reestablished and, rattled, he returned to his work, Leo was made to say to this grown man, ”Hey, kid — way to be back at your desk.” Kid? Sorkin’s condescension here was breathtaking.

But its static dramaturgy aside, the episode was significant: While most of network television is busy erasing any image or line that might carry an allusion to Sept. 11, Sorkin was the first TV series creator to address terrorism directly in prime-time entertainment, and he proved that a facility for writing stirring speeches can, in the new climate in which we live, sometimes be merely facile.

The West Wing
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