"Information is the currency of democracy."
-- Thomas Jefferson
Entertainment television has been struggling to find its place on the airwaves since the events of 9/11. Just when things felt like they were getting back to normal, the U.S. and Britain began bombing Afghanistan on Sunday. As a result, the 53rd Annual Emmy Awards, postponed following 9/11 and rescheduled for 10/7, was postponed for an unprecedented second time. In addition to security concerns, it just didn't seem like a time to celebrate.
While most programs are rethinking their content in consideration of current events, Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing came out front and center to address the issue in a bold, preseason premiere episode on 10/3 that received wildly mixed reviews.
Titled "Isaac and Ishmael," the episode could have easily been titled "Aaron Sorkin Explains It All To You." Well, he gave it a good shot. Critics called the episode everything from pedantic, neo-liberal, and preachy, to undramatic. I couldn't disagree more. While the episode did have its rough edges (it was put together in two weeks), it was nonetheless a noble effort to give an even-handed and mostly thoughtful meditation on the U.S. role in global politics and how we find ourselves in the predicament we find ourselves in today.
The West Wing is known for its swift camera action, following characters as they careen down White House corridors toward the next big decision. The "Isaac and Ishmael" episode found itself anchored between two stationary locations -- the White House cafeteria where a room full of high school students and staffers found themselves in lockdown following a breach in White House security and a dark office where White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) was interrogating a staff member of Middle Eastern descent who was the cause of the lockdown (his name appeared on a routine check of suspected terrorists).
The episode was mainly talk, but hey, who better than Aaron Sorkin to put words in your mouth, I say. One high point for me was when the show attempted to draw parallels between the "foreigners" half a world away that "inexplicably" hate us, and the disenfranchised in our own nation, namely poor urban youth who resort to gangs. In one of the most passionate monologues of the episode, presidential aide Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) offered the comparison to those gathered in the cafeteria. The response? Vacant expressions, which in my mind, was as close to reality as anything else has come.
The episode ended, perhaps unceremoniously, with the suspected staffer set free (he was clean), McGarry offering a lame apology for his animosity during the interrogation, and the high school students and staffers released with tummies full of apples and peanut butter to ponder their lesson on world politics in the White House. There was no happy, "We Are the World" ending, no lighting of candles or flag waving. Just a quiet appeal to stop and think about our perceptions of the world and our place in it. For those who didn't at least come away from "Isaac and Ishmael" with that, I have no recommendations except to return to your favorite news network and drink in some more from the filtered fountain of information.
The West Wing airs on Wednesday nights, 8pm, on NBC.
More on 9/11 Third Watch, the NBC drama featuring New York City firefighters and rescue workers, is another in a handful of shows set in the Big Apple that have been forced to rethink their new season in the wake of 9/11. Pending changes in world events, the series will address 9/11 in several weeks' worth of special episodes. The 10/15 episode will be an unscripted tribute to NYC rescue workers, with Third Watch cast members interviewing their real-life counterparts. The 10/22 episode is titled "September 10," and the 10/29 episode is titled "Aftermath."
Third Watch airs Monday nights, 9pm, on NBC.
Creature of the Night Local actor and horror movie fan Joseph Fotinos, otherwise known as Prof. Anton Griffin, stars in a new, cable access show, Prof. Griffin's Midnight Shadow Show. Readers may remember Fotinos featured here in the Chron in "Raising the Dead: Actor Joseph Fotinos Wants to Resurrect Local Television" (7/6/01). After some near-deals with local affiliates, Fotinos decided to take his late-night horror movie show to cable access. Have a horror movie trivia question? Get your fix from Prof. Griffin, whose knowledge of the genre is prodigious.
The Midnight Shadow Show airs Friday nights, 11pm, on cable channel 16.
TV News Anyone who's lamented the state of local television news will find troubling insights from one station's behind-the-scenes challenges in Local News ... One Station Fights the Odds now airing on KLRU. Shot in 1999, this surprisingly compelling five-part documentary focuses on WCNC-TV, an NBC affiliate owned by Belo (which owns Time Warner Cable) located in Charlotte, N.C. Given the mandate to raise the news program's ratings from third place, a recently hired news director and staff reporters confront the desire to provide quality news coverage in a medium that has become increasingly dependent on the sound bite, ad sales, and the "if it bleeds, it leads" dictum.
The series continues Tuesdays through 11/6. All screenings are at 9pm, with repeat screenings on KLRU and KLRU2. Check the KLRU Web site for synopses and program air dates: www.klru.org.