It was scary to watch "The West Wing" botch its special episode on the war against terrorism. It may be the best show on network television, but it completely failed to provide anything we want from drama at a time like this: either some kind of meaning and reassurance, or edgy honesty and insight, however unsettling.
Of course it would be wrong to make too much of the show's failure. The episode was pulled together in two weeks, and it showed. Plus, the national tragedy couldn't help but play to "West Wing's" weaknesses more than its strengths: the penchant for preaching, for sanctimony, for too much telling and so little showing. The very idea that the nation wanted, yea, needed the "West Wing" cast to weigh in at a time like this was incredible inflation. I figured out that these folks took themselves way too seriously, and were a little confused about their actual role in this country, when they were omnipresent at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles last summer, as though anyone cared about what these actors who played political leaders and staffers on TV had to say about politics. (Of course, the most horrifying thing was, people did care. The cast's little workshops were packed with star-struck delegates, while panels on policy and the Democratic platform were empty.)
But the self-importance was truly nauseating Wednesday night: The way the leading characters just showed up in the classroom to enlighten the rapt high school students -- no doubt stand-ins for Aaron Sorkin's vision of his rapt, ill-informed audience, waiting for his instruction -- was like a "Saturday Night Live" satire. You could feel each of the actors unconsciously pause as if to soak up applause. "Hurray C.J.!! (Allison Janney) Thank God you're back!" It was truly narcissistic and icky.
The biggest problem, though, was the show's message, or lack thereof. Sanctimonious Sam's (Rob Lowe) insistence that terror never works was reassuring bullshit; terror has succeeded in getting recalcitrant powers to the bargaining table, at least, from Ireland to Israel (and played an ill-remembered role in the push for a Jewish state in the first place). And history may find that the Sept. 11 attack completely reordered U.S. foreign policy, forcing a new multilateralism on the go-it-alone Bush administration, plus new sensitivity and attention to the growing Muslim world. I'm not defending it, but let's not be simplistic about it either.
Plus, the hapless Arab-American White House staffer detained and grilled by police was charismatic but confused. He was opposed to U.S. bases near holy sites in Saudi Arabia, and he was also opposed to Saudi oppression of women; he seemed like a straw man, a composite Arab -- just like us, but somehow other, too. I knew from the beginning his detention was going to turn out to be racial profiling, a case of mistaken identity, and Leo (John Spencer) would be kinda sad about that, but accept it too.
Let's face it: This is a liberal show, and it showed the limits of liberalism. I'm not part of the blame-America-first crowd, but a show with that much preaching could have had one sentence about the U.S. role in arming the mujahedin in Afghanistan, and then abandoning the country to its terror once the Soviet Union was defeated. It's not that I wanted Toby (Richard Schiff) to channel Noam Chomsky, but the situation is far more complicated and militarily bleak than the characters let on, and that was a huge dramatic letdown. But it also lacked the steely certainty about how to conquer this enemy that a more conservative-minded show might have portrayed.
The ultimate failure, though, was its inability to find a reassuring bigger meaning, or capture the emotional enormity of what the country suffered Sept. 11. I thought a show as skillfully manipulative as "The West Wing" would at least make me cry; I heard the music and felt the narrative beginning to swell, but it never delivered. And if "West Wing" can't even do that, it made me worry it just can't be done right now. Psychologically, spiritually, artistically, I think we're worse off than we know.