Previously, not on The West Wing: the United States was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001.
The show starts with just a brief shot from the normal credits, of the White House and a flag waving gently, accompanied by a snippet of the opening theme music played on a piano. Against a black backdrop, and in widescreen format, Martin Sheen appears, as each primary cast member will, to take turns introducing this Very Special Episode. Martin Sheen tells us that we won't see the season premiere until next week; Rob Lowe says that they're eager to get back to their "continuing story lines," but that they wanted to stop and do something different. Allison Janney mentions that instead of the opening credits, they'll be showing the contact information for organizations which are accepting donations for victims and survivors of the September 11th attack. John Spencer says, "By now, no one needs to be convinced that when they named 'New York's Finest' and 'New York's Bravest,' they knew what they were talking about. So we're pleased to tell you that the profits from tonight's episode will be donated to the New York Firefighters' 911 Disaster Relief Fund, and the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund." Dulé Hill adds, "A helping hand...from our family to theirs." Bradley Whitford reassures us, "Now, don't panic...we're in show business. We'll get back to tending our egos in short order. ["'Back'? What do they think they're doing right now?" -- Wing Chun] But tonight we offer a play: it's called 'Isaac and Ishmael.'" He explains that it doesn't fit into the timeline of the show, calling it a "storytelling aberration, if you'll allow." Richard Schiff tells us that this season's story lines include "a re-election campaign, an MS disclosure, an embassy in Haiti..." Stockard Channing adds, "Repealing the estate tax..." Lowe: "A fight against Big Tobacco..." Hill: "A fight to get our friends back..." Spencer: "Funding the NEA..." Janney: "A veto override..." Channing: "A marriage in trouble..." Janel Moloney suddenly appears and delightedly concludes: "And I get a boyfriend." I briefly wonder how the extremist anti-spoiler contingent feels about this last bit. Sheen's back: "That's all for us. Thank you for listening."
Before we go much further, I think this would be a good place for me to get a few things out of the way. I don't think it's much of a secret that I love The West Wing and admire Aaron Sorkin's writing a great deal. I've loved or liked almost every episode of the show produced thus far, and even the episodes that didn't do much for me certainly weren't what I would describe as bad. I consider myself fortunate to cover a show of this calibre. But I think this episode was a failure on several levels, and I hope this recap will give some idea of why I think that. There's an Arabic word: niyah. It means "intention," and in Islam, your niyah is the foremost criterion of your actions. I don't know if I could overstate its importance in Islam. I think about niyah a lot -- my own and that of others. I think about its Islamic application because it helps to remind me to apply "loving kindness" in my judgments of others. I believe that in this case, Sorkin's niyah was generally the best, although given the final product, I can't help wondering whether there wasn't some small degree of egotism involved in pushing so hard to be the first to tackle the topic after September 11th, or to be the one to try to create a magical, unforgettable episode that would somehow heal the deep and profoundly painful rift in North American society, as if any hour of fictional television could do that. I don't think even a thousand hours of television could, no matter how well-meant or well-produced. Still, we'll probably never know everything that was in his heart when he decided this had to be done, and that's okay. I give him credit for the best intentions, and I'll leave it at that. But recaps aren't about intentions: they're about the results. And while I think that the talented cast and crew did the very best job they could in the very short time frame available to them (ten days), and while I believe everyone involved sincerely had high hopes and good intentions for this project, I do think it failed in some significant ways.