The accused: The West Wing, “Isaac and Ishmael”
The crime: A rushed didactic response to the September 11, 2001 attacks
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
Today’s #TVFail is going to be an interesting one and I probably need to preface a few things before I get into the meat of the subject and the context surrounding it. Never before on the blog have I voiced my political leanings or really anything related to politics. This is not the place for those kinds of discussions and no matter what a series’ ideologies are, I try to discuss them in the most even-handed way possible. Today, however, will probably be different. What you find below won’t be a sermon or intentionally political rant, but there’s no way to address The West Wing’s “Isaac and Ishmael” without dipping into the pools I try to avoid on a regular basis.
“Isaac and Ishmael” is of course the series’ one-off “play” response to the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 and with the 10th anniversary coming this weekend, I felt it was smart to tackle this episode now. Many of us are in a certain kind of mindset that makes turning back the clock to the weeks following 9/11 appear…easier. If we want to remember what happened on that day, we should be able to do the same for the popular culture texts that came soon after.
Clearly, there are strong feelings about the events of 9/11, what came after and where our country is today in the decade following. I plan to discuss some of those events and perspectives, but I won’t promise to touch on every side of the story. I can promise that what you’ll read below is from my perspective and my perspective alone. If you think I’m an idiot or I am wrong, that’s absolutely fine. If you don’t want to read anything from me that hints at a specific political ideology, maybe don’t read this at all. The events of 9/11 are extremely important to all people for loads of different reasons and I know that many of our feelings towards said events are even more heightened this week because of the anniversary. I get it. But I’m not sure how to talk about this episode without looking at both how it played then and how it looks now, 10 years gone. So all of that baggage in mind, let’s discuss The West Wing’s “Isaac and Ishmael.”
Last month, I did a little crowdsourcing on Twitter, asking folks what were some obvious candidates for examination under the #TVFail umbrella. I received nearly 50 tweets that day and the one episode that has the unlucky distinction of being called out the most is “Isaac and Ishmael.” Somewhere around 18 or 20 people suggested it, some with exasperated language and punctuation. As someone who was slightly too young to catch the series on a regular basis in its early years, I had forgotten that The West Wing did a rushed response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But the fact that so many people, including those who I know love the series, were telling me that this offering had to be covered, was telling. Perhaps just as telling is that none of those tweets explicitly mentioned the 9/11 context or were coded with a certain political ideology. I might be able to assume that most of them were somewhat liberal considering they enjoyed The West Wing to begin with, but I didn’t ask and I don’t want to know. The point is that a number of people had such a strong reaction to “Isaac and Ishmael” that they just had to tell a random person who they may or may not be close to about its presumed lack of quality, finesse and subtlety – even 10 years later.
So, what the hell is wrong with “Isaac and Ishmael?” Well, unsurprisingly, a lot of things. I am a big fan of the first two seasons of The West Wing (that’s all I’ve seen so far), but I will readily admit that Aaron Sorkin’s idealism and proclivity for swelling speeches and rhetoric that appear to solve real, tactile issues sometimes doesn’t work. He’s done lots of great work in his career, but in certain contexts, the speeches feel more like lectures – see my not-so-positive thoughts on the pilot episode of Sports Night, all of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – and it is pretty clear that “right after a major terrorist attack on United States soil” is one of those contexts. Although The West Wing didn’t shy away from military operations and discourse in its storylines, the discord between the deaths of many real people and the overwrought speeches given by fictional communications officials is awkward and somewhat uncomfortable no matter how long it has been. Viewers were/are willing to forgive Sorkin’s issues when it is all in the name of intelligent, but still completely “unreal” entertainment. But I can see why that when things became very “real,” those at home were less open to giving him the benefit of the doubt.
One of the biggest problems with this episode is that Sorkin (through his actors) tries to couch the episode as a “play” completely detached and unrelated to the continuity to the first two seasons of The West Wing and yet he uses the characters to emphasize points that everyone could basically expect him to emphasize.* It’s as if he wants it both ways. Sorkin doesn’t want to deal with narrative or character continuity, but he’s certainly OK with using Josh, Leo, CJ and company to teach America a lesson – literally – in such a way that all the characters feel like more patronizing, less intelligent versions of what the audience is used to. In most West Wing episodes, the team at least has to square off with officials, pundits and media members with intelligent, opposing viewpoints. Josh, Sam and Toby are (completely unbelievably) fantastic at convincing people they know what is right for the American people, but Sorkin typically gives them someone to spar with and run over with their words and super-educated opinions.
*And clearly, no matter how many of the series’ stars the episode paraded at the beginning, every member of the audience is going to compare the events here to what happened before. Yeah, you’re telling me it’s a “play,” but why is CJ much less levelheaded than normal? That sucks. This is most certainly why so many of the series’ biggest fans hate this episode.
But in “Isaac and Ishmael,” Sorkin doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he thinks his characters (and therefore, himself) are the smartest people in the room. Instead of a lively debate between two political sides, Sorkin traps Josh, Donna and eventually everyone else in a room with a bunch of young and confused students. Gone are the frantic walk-and-talks and in come long sequences of static blocking that literally replicates a classroom setting. The students’ teach is stuck in the back while the real educators make sure the young minds are shaped properly. Sure, a few of the kids raise important questions and smart off just a bit, but those moments are few and far between and nothing more than pivot points for the lecturing to begin. The West Wing is always didactic, but this episode takes it to new levels. It’s not too hard to see that at that time, Sorkin viewed the rash, rage-filled outpouring of vitriol towards Muslims and anyone who looked generically “Middle Eastern” as the work of uneducated boobs who needed to be set straight. Clearly some people gravely overreacted to what happened on 9/11 and maybe they did need that lesson. However, I cannot imagine those people regular West Wing viewers and/or would have responded any differently once Josh Lyman provided them with the SAT analogy of Muslim Extremists: Muslims::KKK:Christians. Josh/Sorkin might be right in that analogy, but framing it in such a way is
so condescending that I can absolutely see why fans of the series wanted to vomit.
Nevertheless, the episode does a make a few salient points, delivery method aside. Leo’s mostly random* racialized profiling of the very innocent White House staffer ultimately makes him look like an overly aggressive dolt. The point made by the story was still obvious, but Sorkin’s ability to develop it through more than cumbersome speeches to children makes it easier to swallow in context. Well, that and John Spencer can make any material seem weightier and more respectable than it probably should be. Additionally, Sam’s point about terrorism’s ineffectiveness makes sense, was well-written and well-played by Rob Lowe. It also feels like a way to calm these kids (and America!) down, but it is still thoughtfully considered and presented just the same. Though I still think the episode is too demeaning to the audience, there is little doubt that many of us made stupid statements, assumptions and decisions in the days and months after 9/11. It’s a point that shouldn’t have had to been made in this way, but I’m fine with it being made at all.
*From the outset, Leo was positioned as the pro-military force in the Bartlett administration, so his attitude here is less insane than we might expect. He fought in Vietnam!
There is certainly something to said for Sorkin’s attempt to even react to 9/11 in such a rapid, timely manner, but in his mission to engage with the context of real-world discourse, he discarded the context of his well-developed fictional world discourse and it just doesn’t feel…right. The halcyon sheen of the Bartlett presidency didn’t fit into the grimmer, confusing world of the Bush presidency. In the time before 9/11, we could at least pretend that our world and our president operated with similar competency as Bartlett (no matter your political leanings, there was more of a general confidence in the executive branch), but those attacks, it was clear that our country was very, very screwed up and the outlook was far from bright.
Which brings me to today. We are now 10 years removed from September 11, 2001 and from my perspective, time hasn’t been kind to either this episode or our country. No matter your political beliefs or who you voted for in the elections after 9/11, I think most of us would agree that things haven’t really gotten any better. We might be more aware of the distinction between Muslim Extremists and Muslims, but the fear of terrorism still reigns over us and arguably has been used to systematically take away our rights, among other things. We’ve spent trillions of dollars in two wars that were initially supposed to be part of our response to the 9/11 attacks, though we all know that’s not really the case. Our economy is in shambles, major industries and pillars, from education to health care, are similarly disfigured and the trust in politicians is at an all-time low. 9/11 was a terrible singular day in our nation’s history, but the subsequent 10 years haven’t been that much better – just more suck spread across more time.
At the end of this episode, Josh tells the kids to not worry about terrorism and to continue to live their lives and chasing their dreams. In 2001, that moment surely played like an overly saccharine platitude from someone who didn’t have to deal with the real tragedy. There’s no attack in “Isaac and Ishmael,” it’s a false alarm. 10 years later, Josh’s final bit of advice looks even worse and disconnected from reality. If those kids lived in the real world, they probably would have $40,000 in college loans, would have lost their house in the mortgage crisis and likely would have lost their jobs as well. Terrorism might not have disrupted their days, but it certainly led to a bunch of terrible things that did.
And so, watching “Isaac and Ishmael” I can’t help but laugh (you know, so I don’t cry). Sorkin’s script is patronizing and discouraging, but it is also pointedly naïve and hopeful. He might have thought random citizens were acting like thugs, but 2001 Sorkin had more confidence in the government than he clearly should have. The Bush administration took the exact opposite approach from Sorkin’s idealized, tempered “everyone calm down” reaction. Fear rules. But at the same time, I don’t really know what perspective is worse. Current circumstances suggest that President Bush didn’t pick the right route for the people, but talking it all out probably wouldn’t have worked either. I know that President Bush looks like a fool, but so do these guys. 9/11 was such a complicated, screwed up event that I’m not sure what exactly should have happened in the aftermath.* This is of course the difference between solving fictional crises and policies and handling them in the real world.
*Well, you know, except for going into Iraq. That was…misguided.
Ultimately, we could write this episode off as a rash, idealized response to a traumatic event. It’s certainly not very good, particularly 10 years later. But despite all of its flaws, I’m happy that I watched “Isaac and Ishmael” and very happy about when I chose to finally watch it. Too often popular culture avoids pushing buttons in the direct aftermath of a tragedy and even with all this time passed, there still hasn’t been much of effort to directly interrogate the impact of 9/11 in a fictional television setting. Certain series touch on it, but it never feels real. I don’t really like this episode, but I wish more people were as naïve and idealistic as Aaron Sorkin so that they’d try to at least try to talk about this stuff. We shouldn’t need the 10th anniversary of a major event or even a presidential election to discuss what the hell has happened here.