Should NBC have delayed the hostage episode? Any connection between the show and the Wall Street Journal reporter's kidnapping was a coincidence, says Bruce Fretts
Allison Janney, Carmen Argenziano, ...

Should NBC have delayed the hostage episode?

Any resemblance to an actual person was strictly coincidental, but the parallels were disturbing: An American journalist is kidnapped by rebels in a foreign country, and the White House races to rescue him. As the condition of Wall Street Journal staffer Daniel Pearl remained unknown following his abduction in Pakistan, NBC’s ”The West Wing” opted on Feb. 6 to air an episode entitled ”Night Five” in which a newspaper reporter is ambushed and killed in the Congo.

Concerned the story might seem exploitive, the Peacock net pulled promos teasing the plotline. Unlike Aaron Sorkin’s quickie post-Sept. 11 lecturefest, this wasn’t a case of the creator ripping from the headlines; the script was reportedly written in December, long before Pearl was taken hostage. The real issue is: Should NBC have delayed the episode out of respect to Pearl and his family?

Such a move would’ve meant bumping the installment for at least two weeks (until after the Olympics) and replacing it with a lower-rated rerun — in the midst of February sweeps. It also would’ve meant postponing the series’ strongest hour of the season so far.

The kidnapping storyline, ironically, was the weakest element of ”Night Five.” Most of the action took place off-camera, a conceit to set up a confrontation between press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) and the Congolese attache in which she accused him of a ”shakedown” and declared his nation’s government a ”myth.”

At the episode’s heart were the palpably tense scenes between President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and Dr. Stanley Keyworth (Adam Arkin, reprising his guest role), a shrink called in to treat the Chief Exec for insomnia. It turned out the Prez was losing sleep over the comment made by Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) four nights before. You know, the one about how Bartlet’s quest for public approval stems from his deep-seated desire to please his abusive father. The real joy here was the masterful interplay between Sheen and Arkin, an old hand at playing TV doctors from his days on ”Chicago Hope.”

The long-overdue return of Republican counsel Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) was also a welcome development. She was ostensibly brought in to review a proposal for the U.S. to pay its back dues to the U.N. Yet more screen time was devoted to a lively discussion of an allegedly demeaning comment made by Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) about his blond cohort (”you’re enough to make a good dog break his leash”). You could hardly blame Sam for drooling, as Ainsley looked fetching in a low-cut-in-the-back black dress (and Procter has clearly spent a good deal of her ample free time at the gym).

In short, ”Night Five” was almost entertaining enough to make you momentarily forget those horrifying, widely-circulated pictures of Daniel Pearl with a gun to his head.

Do you think NBC should’ve delayed this week’s ”West Wing”?

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