`West Wing' returns with a risky move

Preview: It's unclear how this storyline, which addresses the attacks on the United States but exists in a `parallel universe,' will work.

Fall TV 2001

October 03, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It's daring, but is it wise? It seems like socially conscious television, but could it wind up being seen instead as an act of unrestrained ego?

Those are the kinds of questions that greet the return of The West Wing tonight with a special episode written by creator Aaron Sorkin in response to terrorist attacks on America Sept. 11.

NBC has chosen neither to make the episode available for preview nor to offer many specifics. But, given the enormity of the events to which it promises to speak and the incredible risk Sorkin and NBC are taking with one of America's most beloved series, a little context couldn't hurt. The episode, titled "Isaac and Ishmael," does, after all, have the potential to shape the way the rest of the entertainment industry responds to a cultural landscape changing from postmodern to post-bin Laden in the wake of the attacks.

The clearest indication of how the episode will differ from all that came before on The West Wing is offered by John Wells, the co-executive producer of the series with Sorkin. While Wells also declined to discuss specifics, he did say it would not be a dramatized replay of the attacks in any way.

"It [the episode] exists in a parallel universe [to the regular West Wing narrative] in which the country is in the same emotional state that we are now - but without necessarily saying how it got there," Wells told the Hollywood Reporter. "It will also say something about the need for tolerance of other ideas and cultures."

Wells justified the episode by saying, "It seemed difficult to go forward without taking a pause to acknowledge the feeling in the country."

Tonight's broadcast will open with cast members, out of character, addressing the audience before the scripted story in the "parallel universe" begins, Wells said.

That seems downright dangerous for a series that depends as much as The West Wing does on the illusion of being realistic to life in the real White House.

"It's going to be fascinating to watch, but I don't know if you can do that without destroying the integrity of the series," said Dr. Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

"I mean, what we have is Sorkin, with the ultimate hubris that he's got, just deciding, `OK, I'm putting my series on pause, and I'm taking the universe that I created for my series and using it for this one thing. And, then, we'll go back to normal with the series next week.' It's going to be something to see if he can do it," Thompson said.

The only precedent for such a total disruption of narrative continuity in a network series is found in Medic, a drama starring Richard Boone that aired on NBC from 1954-1956, he said.

"Medic did a show about civil defense - what one does when the bomb falls. And, in this episode, the Soviets and the Americans launch nuclear missiles at one another, and the world essentially ends by the end of the episode. I mean, it's clear that all cities have been hit, and the world as we know it is gone. And, then, the next week the series just went back to normal like the week before never happened," Thompson explained.

Beyond matters of credibility, NBC also runs the risk of offending sensibilities by airing commercials during the broadcast.

Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, said in a statement that he's confident Sorkin will "interpret" the attacks "in a manner that will make this an important hour of television."

Should such an hour about such a sensitive subject carry commercials? How important does such an hour have to be to make it commercial-free?

`According to Jim'

On paper, under the heading "love is crazy," I'm willing to accept the possibility of Courtney Thorne-Smith and Jim Belushi as a couple. I'm even willing to try to swallow the ABC press release that describes their relationship as, "She's champagne and strawberries to his beer nuts and bratwurst - but they're in love."

On screen, though, there isn't a glimmer of a spark or a note of intimacy that rings true between them as Jim and Cheryl, the husband and wife at the center of the ABC family sitcom According to Jim, premiering tonight on ABC.

The writing holds promise. Tonight's pilot finds tenderness and laughs in the couple dealing with the separation anxiety of their 6-year-old daughter, Ruby (Taylor Atelian), as she starts kindergarten. But writing alone is not going to carry this series. In the end, neither Belushi nor Thorne-Smith is a good enough actor to make us believe in and care about this couple.

According to Jim airs at 8:30 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

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