West Wing episode ignites conflict before it airs

The decision to air a special West Wing episode tonight dealing with a terrorist attack represents, in the words of today’s Boston Globe, “a major test of the public’s willingness to embrace artistic, fictionalized responses to a very real national trauma.”

The newspaper quoted former West Wing writer/producer Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., whose father was a key figure in the Kennedy White House, as saying, “Doing a drama that is set in the place where now a war on terror is being managed and launched, it just would have been impossible to go into the third season without some reference to what life in the real West Wing is like now. … Up to now, The West Wing has been able to preserve its parallel-universe status. But this event is just too large to ignore.”

On the other hand, University of Texas communications professor Roderick Hart told the Globe: “It is dangerous. It could certainly backfire. There’s just so much tragedy associated with this, and it’s a living, ongoing tragedy to the American people.”

In today’s New York Post, politically conservative TV writer Adam Buckman wondered whether “the liberal powers-that-be behind the series … will use their primetime pulpit to offer a Bartlet plan for combating terrorism that will fly in the face of the tactics being adopted by the real-life Bush administration.”

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the episode will begin with Martin Sheen and fellow cast members directly addressing the audience about the content of the episode, titled “Isaac and Ishmael.” Details of the plot were not disclosed, but NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker told AP that it would not refer specifically to the WTC and Pentagon attacks.