'West Wing': Terrorism 101

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A lot of pundits have wasted a lot of breath lately wondering if, in the new America after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, irony is dead. Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is for sure. After "Isaac and Ishmael," Wednesday night's special, terrorism-themed episode of "The West Wing" — earnest in its tone, admirable in its charitable intent and God-awful in its condescending pedantry — if irony had been dead, it has by now clawed itself out of its coffin and is roaming the moonlit countryside looking for revenge.

Of course, earnestness has reigned for two years running in the fictional administration of Josiah Bartlet. So it was unsurprising, if a little disappointing, to see the show's creator/writer, Aaron Sorkin, taking the grave events he was inspired by as license to ratchet up the show's already problematic preachiness to levels you couldn't reach with a 50-foot pulpit.

For better or worse, The West Wing has always been a didactic series, but it took finally the urgency of the recent news events for Aaron Sorkin to write an episode that was literally didactic — that is, teacherly — by setting it in what was for all intents and purposes a classroom. The set-up: in response to a reported security breach, the White House "crashes" — no one is allowed to enter or leave — just as aide Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is speaking to a class of honor students.

Whatever the deficiencies of the script, the very idea of interrupting a serial drama and using its characters in a one-time-only "play" for this cause or even a lesser one is the kind of fresh, quick-response thinking most of TV could use.

The class decamps to the basement; the nervous kids only want to ask Josh questions about terrorism. And from here on out, for the bulk of the episode, class is in session for Professor Sorkin, who doesn't need to bother even with the scanty dramatic figleaves he usually knits together in order to deliver himself of soliloquys through his characters. Here, the kids just serve up one setup question after another — "Why are they trying to kill us?" "What do we do now?" — that allows for a series of well-meaning, well-expressed, but by now well-worn disquisitions on how Islam does not teach terrorism, spy satellites can't replace human intelligence and killing innocent civilians is not noble. After a few questions, Josh announces that he needs to get "some of my friends" to field the tougher questions, allowing him to usher in the rest of the White House staff cast. It's a little like the scene in a kids' dental-hygiene film where the host says, "Now I'm going to get our old pal Mr. Floss to sing us a song about tooth decay!"

After a while, the real fun of the show becomes seeing what unnatural questions Sorkin will plant in the student's mouth so as to free, Open-Sesame-like, another imprisoned piece of canned wisdom from the staff members. "What was the first act of terrorism?" one student asks — and look! Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) happens to have on the tip of his tongue an anecdote about the Muslim assassins of the 11th century. A girl asks Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), "What do you call a society that has to just live every day with the idea that the pizza place you're eating in can just blow up without any warning?" It's a locution that's never dribbled from the mouth of any high-school girl not formed in the mind of Aaron Sorkin, but it does allow Sam to retort — c'mon, you know the words! — "Israel."

At one point Sorkin also indulges his love of cribbing speeches from the Internet. You might recall the episode in which President Bartlet tells off a Dr. Laura figure who's been preaching that the Bible calls homosexuality an abomination, reeling off a list of petty misdemeanors that some passages of the Bible advocate punishing with death; the rant cam pretty much verbatim from a widely circulated anti-Laura e-mail. In "Isaac and Ishmael," Toby explains that the people of Afghanistan are not to be blamed for the excesses of the Taliban. The Taliban, he says, are like the Nazis, ordinary Afghans like Jews in concentration camps. It's a provocative, if hyperbolic point. And if you're really interested in it, you can read the widely-discussed and -mass-e-mailed Salon article where Tamim Ansary coined it three weeks ago.

Was the classroom setup the product of an understandable rush job? Maybe. Was it Sorkin subordinating the needs of drama to get out a message? Sure, but post-disaster charitable feelings aside, it's not as though he's never done that before. In the end, you have to wonder whether it ever occurred to Sorkin that it might be the slightest bit insulting to essentially represent the home audience, within the story, as schoolchildren, who need to be gratefully taught his lessons.

There are a few aspects of the special that deserve praise. The first and obvious one is that the producers and NBC not only encouraged viewers to donate to charity but pledged to give away the "profits" — and we'll assume that's not an accounting weasel word but that most of the commercial money will actually find its way to the victims. The second is the other running storyline, in which the chief of staff (John Spencer) interrogates an Arab-American staffer wrongly accused of being a terrorist mole (Ajay Naidu, whom you might remember from "Office Space"), which occasionally achieves a nuance and unresolved ambiguity that Mr. Sorkin's Civics 101 doesn't.

But most important is that it was attempted at all. Whatever the deficiencies of the script, the very idea of interrupting a serial drama and using its characters in a one-time-only "play" — for this cause or even a lesser one — is the kind of fresh, quick-response thinking most of TV could use. At the least, it should serve as an example to other creative artists, who've thrown up the white flag, refusing to deal creatively at all with a time that demands their talents, pleading the irrelevance of art at a time like this — which is an insult to their art and their audience.

You might understandably ask why I should even bother criticizing "Isaac and Ishmael." It's timely, and was written and produced in record time. It contains a lot of sentiments, however hamhandedly expressed, that we need to hear now. It benefited charity. And it's undeniably a heartfelt response to an unimaginable tragedy.

Of course, precisely because it's so timely and urgent, it would have deserved to be singled out if it had been brilliant — which Sorkin is capable of when he stows his soapbox — so to overlook its less-than-brilliance would be condescending charity that Sorkin does not need from me. Besides which, I live in New York City. I claim no special victimhood, but I've seen firsthand the effects of the crimes of Sept. 11 on neighbors, friends, complete strangers. Which is to say, I need no reminder that these are horrible times, times that demand kindness and goodwill, that challenge your faith in anything decent. But if "returning to normal" means anything, it means not swallowing the cheap idea that being right must mean being good. It will mean that nobody, from the President to creators of fictional presidents, can use these sad times to be shielded from criticism. And more important, if we're going to make sense of this mass violation we've experienced, it won't be through easy speechifying.

Nor will it be through the kind of uplifting wrap-ups that "The West Wing" specializes in, which rang a little more hollow than usual last night. At the end of the episode, after the White House is declared safe, Josh Lyman tells the students to go back, live their lives, pursue their dreams and be kids, without letting fear of terrorism dominate their existence.

Josh could say that. In the fictional world of this playlet, everyone got a good scare, but no one got hurt, lost parents, saw dozens of office workers jump a thousand feet rather than burn to death. It was a lot easier for the fictional class on the screen to take his advice than for the figurative one at home. But that's one problem, with drama and with life, that even I can't blame Aaron Sorkin for.