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Isaac and Ishmael

Original Airdate 10-03-01

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The White House confronts a crisis not unlike the September 11 terrorist attacks in this stand-alone episode.
From NBC:
A special episode of the Emmy Award-winning series, dealing with some of the questions and issues currently facing the world in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks on the United States.


Rob Lowe as Sam (Samuel Norman) Seaborn Deputy Communications Director
Stockard Channing as Abbey (Abigail Ann) Bartlet M.D. First Lady
Dulé Hill as Charlie (Charles) Young Personal Aide to the President
Allison Janney as C.J. (Claudia Jean) Cregg Press Secretary
Janel Moloney as Donna (Donnatella) Moss Assistant to Deputy Chief of Staff
Richard Schiff as Toby (Tobias Zachary) Ziegler Communications Director
John Spencer as Leo Thomas McGarry Chief of Staff
Bradley Whitford as Josh (Joshua) Lyman Deputy Chief of Staff
Martin Sheen as
Jed (Josiah Edward) Bartlet President of the United States
Guest Starring    
Ajay Naidu as Raqim Ali Staffer
Michael O'Neill as Ron Butterfield Head of POTUS' Secret Service detail
Jonathan Nichols as Agent Cleary  
Jeanette Brox as Student  
Cyd Strittmatter as Joan FBI Employee
Frantz Turner as Agent Greg FBI
Susie Geiser as Marjorie Mann Supervisor
Mongo Brownlee as Secret Service Agent  
Josh Zuckerman as Boy #1 Billy Fernandez / "Fred"
Ben Donovan as Boy #2 Student
Marcus Toji as Boy #3 Student
Arjay Smith as Boy #4 Student
Kristine Woo as Girl #1 Student
Chastity Dotson as Girl #2 Student
Dan Horton as Agent #1  
Willie Gault as Agent #2  
William J. Jones as FBI Agent  

Information Links


Media Quotes

NBC's "The West Wing" (Wednesdays, 9-10 p.m. ET) will present a special episode of the Emmy Award-winning series, dealing with some of the questions and issues currently facing the world in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks on the United States. The episode, "Isaac and Ishmael," is being written by the Emmy-winning writer and creator of the series, Aaron Sorkin, and will be telecast Wednesday, Oct. 3 (9-10 p.m. ET),


"Aaron is a brilliant writer who has something he wants to say. We have great faith in his abilities to interpret last week's events in a manner that will make this an important hour of television," said Jeff Zucker, President, NBC Entertainment.

The new episode has begun production and will be rapidly advanced through post-production in time for the October 3 airdate. Storyline details are not being released at this time.

"NBC'S 'The West Wing' to Produce Special Episode ..."
by Unknown
September 21, 2001

Sources said the episode will open with the "West Wing" cast members addressing the audience out of character before the scripted storyline begins.

"'West Wing' premiere postponed to address attacks"
by Cynthia Littleton
September 21, 2001
Hollywood Reporter

The episode title refers to two sons of Abraham, who was told by God to sacrifice his son as a test of faith. While the Bible states that Isaac, the son of Abraham's wife, Sarah, was the one to be sacrificed, most interpretations of the Qur'an, the holy scripture of Islam, say that Ishmael, son of his slave-woman, Hagar, was to be sacrificed.

"'West Wing' Addresses Terrorist Attacks"
by Unknown
September 21, 2001

"Aaron Sorkin wanted to do a very special episode which pertains to the issues we're facing," said Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC Entertainment. "This was the only way to get it done."

NBC executives said that Mr. Sorkin, recognizing that a show set in a fictional White House has special problems after real-life events so consuming to the nation and the current president, had requested the opportunity to produce an episode that somehow connected his series to the events.

But NBC had promoted the return of "The West Wing" for this week, and so waited until Mr. Sorkin delivered the script for the special episode before it decided to allow him to go into production with this additional episode.

"There are not many people in television who could pull this off," Mr. Zucker said. "But Aaron Sorkin is a writer of genius, and he has written an incredibly provocative script."

The production will be extremely rushed by normal television standards. An NBC executive said, "This will be the fastest production of an episode in television history." Without offering specifics, the executive said the episode would deal less with the direct facts of what happened last week than with broad issues raised by the terrorist attacks.

The executive said the episode would include many members of the show's regular cast but would be much more focused on dialogue and thus easier to produce quickly.

"'West Wing' Rushes Script Keyed to Attack"
by Bill Carter
September 22, 2001
New York Times

... on the 3rd we'll air a special episode called "Isaac and Ishmael" that I just finished writing and that we just started shooting. The episode lives outside the timeline of the show and will be introduced by the cast. The following week (Oct. 10th) will be our official season premiere with "Manchester Part I". Ordinarily it's about six weeks from the day I start a script to the day it goes on the air. We're doing Isaac and Ishmael in ten days. - Aaron Sorkin

Posted at
by List Owner
September 22, 2001
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The network acceded to the show's creator, Aaron Sorkin, who wanted to confront recent events as well as encourage tolerance of other cultures and ideas within the Emmy-winning drama, which chronicles the lives of a fictional White House staff and administration.

Executive producer John Wells said that given the program's setting, the show's producers felt compelled to address recent events, in much the same way late-night talk-show hosts have taken a moment to reflect on them.

"I don't think it was possible for us to proceed without pausing to acknowledge what happened," Wells said.


Sorkin delivered a script for the new episode to NBC officials Thursday evening, having written it in just a few days. At that point NBC approved the scheduling shift, and production of the special installment began Friday.

Because the show's second season ended in May with a cliffhanger in which its embattled President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, was preparing to announce whether he would seek a second term, the new episode will break from that continuity. Cast members will provide what NBC described as a "special introduction" to the episode, explaining that it is meant to stand on its own.

"I don't know if there are many people who could pull this off, but Aaron Sorkin is a passionate writer who we feel can," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, conceding that the episode will have "one of the fastest [production] turnarounds in the history of prime-time television."

"'The West Wing' to Address Recent News Events"
by Brian Lowry
September 22, 2001
Los Angeles Times

The new episode, "Isaac and Ishmael," will be built around an all-night discussion about terrorism among a group of students and members of the fictional administration at the heart of the show, according to a source.

"'West Wing' to Confront WTC Terror"
by Richard Huff
September 22, 2001
New York Daily News

"Obviously, everybody in entertainment and series TV have been trying to figure out what's the appropriate response, such as what needs to be said on 'West Wing,'" exec producer John Wells said.

"We didn't feel comfortable going back to our fictional White House without taking a moment," he added. Hopefully, we can say something that's useful and not at any way appear like we're trying to exploit the tragic events that occurred."


"Hopefully, it will make people talk and think," Wells said. "You can't pretend this didn't happen."

"Plots are hot spots for nets"
by Josef Adalian and Michael Schneider
September 23, 2001
Daily Variety

Chris Misesano [Misiano] is directing with some relief pitching from Alex Graves. We started shooting last Thursday, and yes, except for a brief scene at the beginning, it all takes place in the White House. In fact it takes place on just two sets. It's our 50th episode, by the way, and there's no, count 'em, zero, walking. - Aaron Sorkin

Posted at
by List Owner
September 24, 2001
Message 7598

The episode is introduced by the actors speaking directly into the camera. While no terrorist incident is specifically shown or even referred to, the White House is immediately seen in ultra-high-security "lockdown" mode -- with terrorism the implied culprit -- and "assumes the country is in the same emotional state as (ours) is in now," Wells says. "It's going to reflect many of the same issues that now face us," says NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker, who gave the go-ahead on Friday.

The story line's emphasis is anti-Muslim sentiment after terrorist acts, and fictional White House staffers express "tolerance for other ideas and cultures," Wells says. Similar themes were raised in Friday's TV benefit for victims' families of the real-life terrorism, and President Bush sounded the same message in his address to Congress on Thursday in the face of discrimination and harassment against Muslims.

The West Wing's speedy embrace of the subject is unusual: Several other series, sensitive to public outcry, are deleting even vague references to terrorism or airline travel. The episode could be viewed as an opportunistic attempt to capitalize on the tragedy. But Wells says he hopes the episode will stimulate discussion of the issue rather than be seen as exploiting it. And Sorkin has long tried to stock the show with commentary on current social issues.

"'West Wing' mirrors attacks in new episode"
by Gary Levin
September 24, 2001
USA Today

"I think what is important is that everybody sits down on October 3, at 9:00 p.m. and view this episode. And I think to make any judgments ahead of time would be wrong. I think that 'The West Wing' is uniquely positioned in two ways. Obviously, it involves the White House, and mirrors many things that happen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I think the other way this program is uniquely situated is that Aaron Sorkin writes it and I don't think there is almost anyone else in America that could bring the type of treatment to the program that Aaron does. I think those two things will allow us to bring an hour of television that is special and important, and in no way exploitive of what happened." - Jeff Zucker President, NBC Entertainment

"The West Wing Controversy"
September 24, 2001
ET Online

The special episode disrupts that storyline, but it serves a more important purpose, Zucker says - "helping the dialogue in this country and continuing the healing process."

The new episode "allows us to acknowledge to the audience that we understand that what the real West Wing is dealing with is far more important than what the fictitious West Wing is dealing with.

"We understand that this is a TV show and that people love it. We will continue with it, but this gives us the credibility to do so."

Though Sorkin's policy had been to stay away from real events, he had to address the terrorist attacks, says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

West Wing is "a parallel universe that's particularly close to the real one. Now that the White House is focused on a single issue - terrorism - it would be difficult for the show to go on without some kind of acknowledgment that something has happened."

Thompson says the special episode is the dramatic equivalent of last week's emotional return of late-night talkers David Letterman, Conan O'Brien et al.

"They wanted to continue their shows, but there was no way to do that without incorporating what had happened. They each did their equivalent of a 'fireside chat,' sort of asking our permission to go on."

Sorkin's plan to drop in a self-contained episode while putting the established storyline on hold "is an absolutely fascinating way of using series TV," Thompson says. "I give him credit. He never ceases to surprise."

"'West Wing' will address tragedy in a special episode"
by Gail Shister
September 25, 2001
Philadelphia Inquirer

Sources tell that the Oct. 3 hour (NBC; 9:00 p.m.) will show the staffers addressing a group of schoolchildren (who are touring the White House) to help them understand an unspecified act of violence that has recently occurred in the country. It's unclear whether the act will be referred to as a terrorist attack.

"School Daze"
by Lynette Rice
September 28, 2001

"A couple of days after the events of Sept. 11, Aaron said he had something that he wanted to say, and he thought it would be important in the history of The West Wing to be able to say it," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker.

"We did not want to make any decisions in the emotion of the moment, in the heat of the first week," Zucker said. "We wanted to see what Aaron had to say. He understood that."

Within a week, Sorkin had a script ready that Zucker called "moving and engaging. It will leave people talking and thinking about all the issues that face us now."


A three-director team, including executive producer Thomas Schlamme,[Chris Misiano and Alex Graves] pushed to finish the episode in two weeks.

There is debate over what viewers want now from popular culture -- mere distraction or enlightenment -- but Zucker expressed confidence that Sorkin's series is on the right path.

"I think in a way that people will gravitate toward The West Wing because more than ever they're interested in what's really going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

On Wednesday, for instance, the audience will see how a National Security Council meeting is run, serving "an educational purpose as much as an entertainment purpose," Zucker said.

"'West Wing' to air special attack-related episode"
by Lynn Elber
October 1, 2001
Associated Press

...the episode takes place on a day when the White House is in a maximum-security lockdown because of a terrorist threat. It opens with each of the cast members talking directly to the camera about the impact terrorism can have on a nation's government, culture and social mores. There are also several scenes dealing with the need for tolerance toward American Muslims who are blameless in the attacks.

"'West Wing' adds episode reflective of real-life events"
by Charlie McCollum
October 1, 2001
San Jose Mercury News

While Sorkin declined an interview request, "West Wing" producer Llewellyn Wells conceded the episode represents a formidable logistical challenge for the directors, editors and cast, who in the last instance "had to learn a tremendous amount of dialogue in very little time."

The stress has been especially difficult from a post-production standpoint, given that there is usually a 21-day gap between the conclusion of principal photography and when an episode is broadcast. With the final scene being shot Monday, the time differential this week will only be about 48 hours.

Wells, the younger brother of executive producer John Wells, noted that two staffs of editors have been working simultaneously on the episode, 16 hours a day, beginning to patch the show together as it was being shot last week and continuing straight through the weekend.

One advantage that has helped in turning around the episode so quickly has been the nature of the script, which places the action primarily on the show's established sets as opposed to requiring any sort of location filming--an approach Sorkin chose in part to facilitate production. For that reason, Wells said, additional expense associated with the accelerated production and editing schedule didn't cause a major breach of the show's standard episodic budget.

"The cost was offset by the somewhat simple structure of the story," Wells noted, adding, "It's just a great, giant group effort .... Everyone very much respected Aaron's need to address the issues in the real world."

An NBC source maintained that whatever viewers think of the episode, Sorkin deserves credit for having the courage to address a topical issue at a time when other programs are for the most part rushing to excise references that might recall the attacks from upcoming programs.


NBC officials say they have not experienced any difficulty selling advertising within this week's "West Wing" episode. The program normally commands a high premium from media buyers, given that the Emmy-winning show boasts one of the most affluent and educated audience profiles of any prime-time series.

Llewellyn Wells said the show's overall production schedule hasn't been thrown off by the race to produce this week's episode. Producers were in the midst of preparing this year's sixth installment when Sorkin called his audible, causing them to halt production on that hour and immediately dive into the new script, which the writer generated in a matter of days.

Asked Monday whether viewers would notice any discernible difference between Wednesday's episode and a conventional hour of "The West Wing," Wells said, "I'll let you know when it's done."

"'The West Wing' Is in a Rush to Wrap"
by Brian Lowry
October 2, 2001
Los Angeles Times

But the show's producers apparently don't want to be viewed as exploiting the tragedy, even though tonight's special edition was their idea. Tuesday, they refused all interview requests, odd in a business where promoting episodes is standard operating procedure. Word is that NBC executives, after making tonight's accommodation, were none too pleased with their colleagues' reticence about talking up the episode.

"'Late Show' crew to stay in NYC for Emmy Awards"
by Peter Johnson
October 2, 2001
USA Today

"It took a guy with the hubris of Aaron Sorkin to do something like this. And I think it's a great idea," says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television


"Ever since 'The West Wing' has been on, America has delighted in this parallel presidency," says Jerry Herron, director of the American studies program at Wayne State University. "And I think this (episode) is an especially inspired idea. The first thing the Taliban outlawed when they came to power in Afghanistan was television. And to get back at them with the very thing that they outlawed, I think, is a stroke of genius."


"He's walking a fine line," says Thompson. "You've got to be careful. You don't want to say the wrong thing or set the wrong tone. In this super-sensitive time, if this is done badly, it could really backfire."

Other TV writers and producers are anxious to see what Sorkin's vivid imagination and fine writing have wrought this time.

"My guess is that what Aaron has created is a similar circumstance but not the ripped-from-the-headlines approach of something like 'Law & Order,' " says John McNamara, executive producer of last season's revival of "The Fugitive" on CBS. "So he'll have a platform to deal with the emotional and political issues of terrorism."

Herron calls the episode "a bold, dicey thing to do." But the cultural impact could be immense, says Herron, comparing it to photographer Matthew Brady's grim, historic battlefield photos from Antietam during the Civil War.

"This is the great thing about art . . . It's the only way we as a culture have to go from grief to mourning to memory," says Herron, expressing his confidence that Sorkin's television artistry can assist in that process.

"With this episode of 'The West Wing,' " says Thompson, "he has a chance to redefine the concept of what a 'very special episode' can be."

"'West Wing' takes on terrorism"
by Mike Duffy
October 3, 2001
Detroit Free Press

Given the title, John Raines, professor of religion at Temple University, said he expected the show "to try to address our common humanity and shared history. We'll wait and see."

"Isaac was the privileged, chosen son in the Torah; Ishmael, the special son in the Koran. They represent two sides of the same problem: a common history, but differences. Those differences in trajectories of religion, those divergent pathways, have led us to the present moment."


NBC president Jeff Zucker has promised "an important hour of television," but West Wing fan George Stephanopoulos said he was not expecting a healing experience.

"You can't have catharsis over a tragedy of this scale with a TV show," said the ABC political commentator, who served as a top aide in the Clinton White House.

Legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, 84, another fan, called West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin "courageous" for tackling the subject.

But Cronkite cautioned, "I don't see where the episode has any special importance. It's written by a playwright, not a historian."

Cultural historian Timothy Burke, an assistant professor at Swarthmore College who studies television, noted that "there's a long history of TV shows of varying degrees of quality trying to do episodes that address extraordinary events. But the level of hubris involved in this one is pretty distinctive.

"At a time when almost everyone is clambering over each other to get away from this incident, they're walking right in the door," said Burke, an occasional West Wing viewer.


"The dilemma for The West Wing in the larger historical sense is that the Very Special Episode is a laugh line for most people, because 99 percent of the time it's seen as a cynical gambit," said Swarthmore's Burke.

"When Blossom tackled child abuse or date rape, people said this isn't the place. This show will probably get a free pass, though. People will agree they have to do something, because otherwise it's bizarre.

"You can't have a show about politics and not mention the terrorist attack in some way. Every other show can duck it. Most shows are set in a universe where this never happened."

But The West Wing, given its setting and premise, has little choice.

"The West Wing shows us human beings at the highest level of government struggling with emotions much like our own," said Jim Martin, retired Army officer, associate professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College's Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, and a big fan of the show.

"This, I'm sure, is not going to provide closure. I believe it will open up a new set of challenges. You will see, as you always do with these characters, the layers peel off over time, like an onion, to reveal what's beneath. I suspect Sorkin's going to hook us all the more."

Cultural historian Burke said he expected the program to focus "not on the incidents of Sept. 11, but on some really bad thing happening, and everybody being depressed about it.

"That's a successful strategy if it gets close to the way people really did feel after the 11th, really depressed and gloomy.

"And with the characters they've got, they can do that."

"Terror on 'West Wing'"
by Beth Gillin and Gail Shister
October 3, 2001
Philadelphia Inquirer

"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.

"'West Wing' returns with a risky move"
by David Zurawik
October 3, 2001
Baltimore Sun

But West Wing executive producer John Wells, who also does ER and Third Watch, told Wall Street Journal that the show deals with tolerance and "won't sully or demean what happened in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania."

"Viewer choice: Thoughtful or thoughtless"
by Hal Boedeker
October 3, 2001
Orlando Sentinel

Count former "West Wing" writer-producer Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., a Dorchester native, among those who believe Sorkin had no choice but to confront the issue head-on. "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," insisted O'Donnell. "Up to now, 'The West Wing' has been able to preserve its parallel-universe status. But this event is just too large to ignore."

But others, such as University of Texas communications professor Roderick Hart, say the nation's wounds may be too raw for a fictionalized treatment of the worst terrorist attacks in US history. "The American people are trying to cope with this emotionally, and any kind of economic or political or in this case aesthetic exploitation of those feelings is really very problematic," said Hart. "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."


"This is about as close to live TV as we're going to get," said Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "It takes a cocky, fluent worker in the medium like Sorkin to come up with the idea and have any hope of doing it. But he's walking a very fine line. This could be viewed as the first of a line of exploitation, like the Amy Fisher movies. Although given what we've seen of Sorkin's writing, that doesn't seem likely. He's a really, really good writer."


To some analysts, tonight's episode will pose an insoluble creative dilemma for the other "West Wing" episodes that will air this season, several of which have already been filmed. For instance, the originally scheduled season-opener, now pushed back to next Wednesday, focuses on whether Bartlet will seek reelection amid disclosures that he concealed the fact he suffers from multiple sclerosis. How, some ask, can the show return to such themes after tonight? "It's interesting they want to get their arms around this," said University of Massachusetts journalism professor Ralph Whitehead. "But having done it, haven't they dramatically altered the premise of the show, and perhaps audience expectations of the show?"

Steven D. Stark, author of "Glued to the Set," agrees that "The West Wing" cannot "just do one show (on the attacks) and then drop it." But Stark says that unlike other drawn-from-reality dramas such as "ER" or "NYPD Blue," there was no way for "The West Wing" to avoid the topic. "There's been nothing in our lifetimes that has totally changed the nature of being a doctor or a cop, but we had an act three weeks ago that probably changed the nature of the presidency, of what it means to have a president," he said. "Sorkin may well have decided, and probably accurately, that the old President Bartlet just won't fly anymore."


O'Donnell, for one, has confidence in Sorkin, his erstwhile colleague. "I think Aaron is going to find the mood of the country," he said. "He's the writer to take on this task."

"'West Wing' on alert"
by Don Aucoin
October 3, 2001
Boston Globe

Warner Bros., which produces the show, is donating all its profits from the episode to funds helping families of New York police officers and firefighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center. Cast members are also donating their salaries for the week to charity.

"Sorkin, 'West Wing' Look at Whys of Terrorism"
by Rick Porter
October 4, 2001

It was also stated that profits from the episode would be donated to such charitable organizations. Representatives of NBC and Warner Bros. Television, which produces the series, clarified that the producers will donate any future profits from the episode to charity and the network's advertising revenue from Wednesday's telecast was not part of that contribution.

"'West Wing' Gives Lessons on the Effects of Terrorism"
by Brian Lowry
October 4, 2001
Los Angeles Times

Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, agreed that the "West Wing" episode was "preachy," but he gave series creator and lead writer Aaron Sorkin credit for his eagerness to respond to current events and to try to "slam together two forms that seem completely incompatible, the op-ed piece and the television series episode."

"Episode a landmark, but too preachy"
by Steve Johnson
October 4, 2001
Chicago Tribune

Bryce [Zabel, Chairman/CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences] started with Aaron, wanting to talk about "Issac and Ishmael" mostly because there had been little to no talking about the ep before it aired, and because it was put together so quickly, and because it was the first tv show to address the events and aftermath of 9/ it indirectly.

"I think we're still shooting...." - Aaron Sorkin

At the time of the attack, Aaron was in the middle of writing the 6th episode of the season. A Halloween ep. He immediately stopped writing and tossed the script. He said that it didn't feel right to write. That all of a sudden what artists and writers did seemed "despicably silly."

after 2 days, he and his staff "dug in" to learn the history of terrorism. this happened over that weekend, and come monday he pitched the script idea to tommy schlamme and john wells and he wrote it in roughly 2-3 days, and then rewrote, and rewrote and rewrote...he rewrote it quite a bit.

he said he felt they needed to do this before "Manchester", and they agreed. they had 3 units running at all times on this. 3 directors, on three different sets, with editors working around the clock. he called it a "phenomenal team effort."

Posted at
by Kel
October 6, 2001
Message 9150
Notes from Sublime Primetime : An Evening with Emmy-Nominated Writers

One minor detail the show missed:
Vermont and Ontario don't share a border.

It's 82 miles from the Alburg border crossing in Vermont's northwest corner to Rooseveltown, N.Y., the nearest border crossing with Ontario.

"The only way they could cross from Ontario to Vermont is if Ontario took over Quebec," said Ed Duda, a border patrol agent with 26 years' experience.

In that time, he has picked up "absolutely no one" sneaking into Vermont from Ontario.

"It's typical that people in inland areas of the United States have no idea about the culture and the geography," Duda said."There is no cement wall. There is no barbed-wire fence. They get the wall between East and West Germany mixed up with the border between Vermont and Canada."

The popular show's special was hastily created to address the terrorist attacks -- and had yet another gaffe. "The West Wing" opened with a scene in the Burlington office of the FBI, showing a modern facility staffed by dozens of agents.

"I heard they depicted something like 40 agents last night," supervisor John Kavanagh said Thursday. "The FBI in Burlington does not have 40 agents. It has a handful who work like 40."

"'West Wing' redraws Vt.-Canadian border"
by Unknown
October 7, 2001
Associated Press

Under an end table is a mysterious red phone. "In the actual Oval Office... there are several red phones that say 'Crash' on the handle," says [Ellen] Totleben. [Set Decorator] " We asked the Secret Service what that meant, and they said, ' Oh, we can't tell you that.' We know they exist, and even though we don't know what they're for, they still looked pretty cool." But [Bradley] Whitford claims to know: "It's for when there's a major problem at the gate."

"Office Politics"
by William Keck
October 12, 2001
Entertainment Weekly

Then Wells and Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing's creator, took on the unprecedented challenge of producing a special terrorism-based episode of the show (which aired Oct. 3) in a 12-day period -- a time frame unheard of in the organized production world of weekly TV drama.

"We felt viewers of The West Wing would expect something special," he said from his Warner Bros. offices. "We couldn't start the season of our White House drama as if nothing had happened in the country." - John Wells

"Drama King"
by Dusty Saunders
October 13, 2001
Rocky Mountain News

"... We had a different problem on West Wing, where it is a fictionalized White House that is not involved in current events... We tried to do parallel events. And so it was a little easier to deal with [that] in a fictionalized sense, although the 'Isaac and Ishmael' episode is very controversial -- people loved it or hated it, which is good. People should be talking about TV." - John Wells

"Watch Word: Terrorism"
by Daniel R. Coleridge with Michael Ausiello
October 15, 2001
TV Guide Online

[MATT] MILLER: Aaron, I know you obviously took a very serious crack very quickly at trying to address some of this stuff. Can you share at all what your experience was? You can respond to any critics if you feel like you'd like to. [Laughter]

SORKIN: Nah, I would but I won't. You know, like I said, I was on the spot because NBC won't let me put a test pattern up on the screen for an hour, which is I would have preferred. They won't even let me put a re-run up there that week. There had to be an original episode of "The West Wing" and I'd been in the middle of writing the show that we were going to do next and it didn't feel right. It wasn't that it was inappropriate because there was a bomb or violence or anything. It was just it was not right. I really felt like the only thing I could do ... I didn't want to teach America anything about terrorism. There's nothing I could teach anyone really about anything, least of all terrorism.

[MATT] MILLER: Although the discussion if anyone, and 25 million people I think saw it, was probably better than anything you got on any of the news shows ...

SORKIN: Mostly what I wanted to do is I felt it was appropriate to just take a week and stop, I don't know how many of you watch the show, basically stop the tearing through the hallways and the rapid-fire dialogue and the flirting and the snappy comebacks and the bread and butter of "The West Wing" and do something else. I think I would have felt that way if it had been any show, but this isn't any show. It's a show about a parallel universe. It's a show about a different president, a different White House, and I didn't ... I was thinking selfishly. I didn't want this show to suddenly become quaint, to suddenly be about a time that seems long ago when our biggest problems were repealing the estate tax and the strategic petroleum reserve and the decennial census and, you know, the kinds of things and basically one of which Republicans fight with Democrats and the White House fights with Congress and that's the fun of the show. So I was thinking 'Gee, I've really got to stop and pause and take a moment with the series. It's what feels right. I've got to do something to somehow protect my livelihood and the livelihoods of a couple hundred people that I work with.'

But also I'm a writer and we're not pieces of software. You kind of can't turn it on and off with a switch and to write anything at all, I was going to have to write something that felt right. I wrote, admittedly, a very unusual piece, certainly for "The West Wing" There was no walking at all. [Laughter] It took place in two rooms; in one room was basically our cast with a bunch of very intelligent high school kids who were there in Washington for a specific reason and got caught in the White House while it was in lockdown mode. And in another room was the interrogation of the young Arab-American aide in one of the offices, who happened to have the same name as one of the aliases named as an accomplice by some guy who's being interrogated in an FBI office several states away. And so he was being asked a number of questions. And I just did this very sedate, many would say very, very boring, episode of "The West Wing"

As Matt implied, the reaction was mixed to say the least. It was absolutely polarizing, in fact. There were those who I think felt as Matt just did, or at least just lied about, [laughter] that it was a very good discussion of what was going on, that there was some emotion there and that was interesting. There were others who honest to God, it's not like I haven't gotten bad reviews before, who reacted as if I'd hit them over the head with a bat and taken their money somehow who were so angry at it, I think because it was so unusual to do something like this so soon after the actual event. By the way, at no point in this episode did I ever address the actual event, did I say World Trade Center or Usama bin Laden or anything like that. But clearly in the recent history of when this episode took place, something bad had happened and people were in a general sort of emotional and psychological funk.

But I think two things happened. One was as soon as people saw those students and our characters talking to the students and the students raising their hands and asking questions and our characters attempting to provide them with answers, they felt they were sort of being taught at. There was this very violent reaction (clapping his hands) 'There's nothing you can teach me right now. I don't want to be taught anything right now, damn it.' And really reacted very, very negatively to this thing. And then in the other room where the young guy was being interrogated really what that was a story of watching one of our characters, watching just how easily it is to be sort of pushed right over the line of racism. One of our characters, the last thing we'd ever suspect him of is racism, is just so angry about this whole thing that we see him getting there and getting there and getting there.

And I think again there were those who saw that and frankly their reaction was 'You know what? It's OK to be racist right now. I think that every person with dark skin should be searched before they get on an airplane and that's the way it goes, that's the way it goes for looking so much like people who blew up these buildings, and that's what you get.' The fact of the matter is people obviously are feeling very emotional about this right now, very personal about this right now, and it was a very unusual piece of television to have on the air just, I think, three weeks or so after the thing had happened at a time, frankly, when other television shows were digitally removing skylines from their print. You know, here was one that kind of marched into it. I did not even think I had a choice but to do that.

"Post Terror America: Hollywood Reacts"
by Occidental Policy Forum
October 22, 2001

But on Sept. 11, the world lurched violently in one very particular direction, and producers, who had already shot the first five episodes of their third season, were in a quandary. Sorkin became convinced that his show's subtle connection to reality had been severed and that unless he could find a way to let viewers know that his characters had suffered the same trauma as everyone else, the show would forever clink hollow.

"We have these eight characters who have been our friends for two years, and we want them to live," Sorkin says. "And in order to do that, they have to bow their heads for a moment to what concerns the rest of the world. Once we've done that, it will give us permission to go back to telling the kind of relatively trivial stories I like about the N.E.A. and soft money and big tobacco."

Less than a week before the scheduled broadcast of the splashy two-part season premiere, Sorkin began writing a new episode that for the first time directly addressed the news. And he insisted that the premiere be delayed so that this new stand-alone episode could run first as a back story for the whole season. Because of all the time and money that had already gone into promoting the original premiere and the fact that NBC could only charge advertisers half price for time on the rerun they had to air instead, the network's decision to accommodate Sorkin was a $10 million act of largess, proffered to a man who barely four months before had been arrested at the Burbank airport with a carry-on bag containing marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and crack cocaine. ...

Sorkin listens through headphones as Richard Schiff, who plays Toby Ziegler, White House director of communications, struggles with his speech about the history of terrorism, trying to explain how teenagers in the 11th century were tricked into committing heinous acts of violence by being drugged with hashish and taken to a staged paradise stocked with concubines. As the speech is ending, Ziegler's deputy, played by Rob Lowe, enters and caps the scene with one of Sorkin's characteristic over-the-top verbal flourishes: "Ahhh, temptation I have seen thee and thy name is woman." As he listens and watches, Sorkin displays a level of anxiety appropriate to the occasion, although it is no higher or lower than what he radiates every waking moment.


As Sorkin strains to compare Lowe's delivery with the beats he heard in his head when he wrote the words, he taps one foot spastically and works the muscles around his mouth as if he is trying to dislodge a bit of food. His cheeks are shaded with stubble, and his eyes are sunk deep in his head behind graying Stephanopoulos-like bangs. He says he has the flu. He feels clammy.

There is a break in the shooting, and Lowe, whose character is addressing a group of brainy high-school students who have won a visit to the White House and find themselves stuck in the kitchen when there is a security "crash," steps off the set to confer with Sorkin. Lowe wears a white dress shirt and dark slacks and seems to have been painted in black and white with just a touch of red in the cheeks. According to Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff, considered by show insiders to be the voice of Sorkin, "I think Aaron would like to have my character's job and look like Rob." Sorkin gives Lowe a couple of notes: "You don't have to be so somber and funereal. It's not a wake." He snaps his fingers to demonstrate the brisker delivery he has in mind and adds: "You're smart. You know these things. Here they are."

Soon after Lowe leaves the set, there is a stir as two real-life Hollywood generals -- Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC Entertainment, and Peter Roth, the president of Warner Brothers Television, both clad in black -- step into the Sit Room. In defiance of the current Hollywood dictate that people act as though everything they do is suddenly irrelevant, the baldheaded Zucker, who was in his dermatologist's office in the Empire State Building on the morning of Sept. 11 -- When the second plane hit the tower, I was out of there" -- is openly jazzed.

Squeezing his tiny palms together and shaking them loosely at the wrist as if rattling lucky dice, he extends to Sorkin that particularly hospitable strain of Jewish anxiety that says, "Isn't it a privilege and a joy and a disease to be doing something that makes us so uptight?" Sorkin, bobbing his head and smiling maniacally at the floor, confesses to Zucker that he is sure the episode will be a colossal disaster. (When it is broadcast eight days later, the critics will essentially concur.) But Zucker, who never thought the episode was even remotely necessary, with all the numbers showing that Americans were flocking back with relief to the safety of their belovedly familiar TV worlds, and yet obliged him anyway, shushes him.

"You're crazy -- it's going to be great," Zucker says. "It's going to be landmark television."

Then Zucker purses his lips and makes another giddy little move with his hand, sending it diving off his right shoulder. The gesture manages to simultaneously convey someone heroically taking off into the stratosphere and stepping blindly off the edge of a cliff.

"Aaron Sorkin Works His Way Through the Crisis"
by Peter de Jonge
October 28, 2001
New York Times

I wanted to write something, and I didn't know what. A day went by. Two days went by, and I was kind of spinning my wheels. I [said to] the people I work with, "Let's dig in, and in 24 or 48 hours, let's learn everything we can about the history of terrorism. And let's maybe find one or two issues that don't get that much play on the news, that people aren't aware about, and see if we can talk about it on our show. We're not gonna do the thing on our show. We're not gonna have a World Trade Center attack on the show. I'm not even sure what we're gonna do, but maybe there's something we can do." And sort of over a weekend, a Saturday and Sunday of walking around my room, the whole thing kind of came together. Early that Monday morning I went in. I said to the people I work with, John Wells and Tommy Schlamme, and a couple of the line producers, 'Listen, I know this sounds crazy, but there's this episode that I want to do, and I think that we have to do it before we do the season premiere. It's not going to be a new season premiere. There isn't even a name for this really. It's going to be a foreword or an overture or something. We're just going to do this before the season premiere. I think that's the only way. That's our only hope of people being able to watch our show and watch stories about an M.S. cover-up and Donna and Josh going through the hallways. The only way people are going to be able to watch this with any hope of enjoying it the way that they used to is if there's some sense that the characters on the show have experienced what we've all experienced. If we don't believe that, if somehow that parallel universe has gone so far away from us, the show's gonna seem quaint awfully quickly.' Everyone rallied around, agreed to do it. It got written in about two or three days and then written many times after that. I would rewrite large portions of it. There were three directors, three units going all the time. We would be shooting in the interrogation room while we were shooting in the mess. There would be a team of editors in the last few days literally working around the clock. There was no such thing as weekends anymore. This was just an operation devoted to this. NBC and Warner Bros. came on board very fast. Reasonable minds can differ certainly on what the final result was, but what was very moving was to see the phenomenal team effort, just a phenomenal team effort.

"Sorkin On 9/11"
by Aaron Sorkin
November 2001
Written by

His [Tamim Ansary's] letter was quoted in the special Oct. 3 episode of "The West Wing" (the show's writers asked him for permission first), ...

"One E-Mail Message Can Change the World"
by Laura Miller
December 9, 2001
New York Times

"I wasn't really looking at it the way I look at an episode ordinarily," Sorkin said. "None of us, least of all me, felt we could do an episode at that time where we were flying through hallways and there's a lot of banter. It just wasn't right. Respect needed to be paid to the moment, and that was the only thing I could think to do."

Sorkin said the quick production time was talked up in the press, but even as it was in production, the script kept changing.

"Every day I was rewriting the entire thing from the beginning," Sorkin said. "My feelings were evolving. It began just being a hate-filled diatribe against Islam, and each day we got further from [Sept. 11], it settled down a little bit. It's a very unusual episode. I'm very proud we took a chance and did it. People are going to like it or not like it."

"Tuned In"
by Rob Owen
January 14, 2002
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When questions turned to the show's response to the Sept. 11 attacks, cast members expressed different views. "I thought it was actually a stupid idea," Whitford said when he first heard of the episode created in the wake of Sept. 11. "I thought that this was something too important not to do well." Moloney agreed, recalling that "we were so confused and scared and raw, I felt like we didn't have any business talking about it," but ultimately decided that "people are going to hate this, people are going to love this, but who else should take this chance?"

"GU Goes Behind The Scenes With 'The West Wing' Cast"
by Adam Jones
February 26, 2002

Anna Deveare Smith, who plays National Security Advisor Nancy McNally on the NBC political drama The West Wing, found herself in a plane on a LaGuardia Airport runway the morning of Sept. 11. The aircraft was ordered back to the gate, the airport evacuated. Smith ended up in a shuttle van headed to a hotel.

That's when a woman recognized her. "She came up to me," Smith says, "and winked and said, 'Are you on your way to Washington?' " She laughs at the memory. "People. They just don't get it."


But being the pretend national security advisor has its limits. On Sept. 11, Smith -- like so many people -- initially didn't completely understand what had happened. When the van dropped her and the other passengers off at a hotel, the first person she ran into in the lobby was Sandy Berger [former national security advisor for President Clinton]. He gave her the full rundown on the attacks.

"'West Wing' actress gets proof she's convincing"
by Marc D. Allan
March 14, 2002
Indianapolis Star

Aaron Sorkin says he has no political agenda. His most controversial show was post-Sept. 11 on two terrorists, "Isaac" and "Ishmael." It outraged more viewers than anything he has presented: "I have to face the fact that it wasn't good."

"'West Wing' View"
by Mary McGrory
April 7, 2002
Washington Post

Perhaps the Maple Leaf flag-waver was creator/writer/producer Aaron Sorkin's way of atoning for an earlier border slip. Post Sept. 11, there was a reference to terrorists crossing into the United States at the Ontario/Vermont border. As even Bush must know by now, Ontario does not border Vermont.

An embarrassed Sorkin was apologetic when I mentioned it to him at the NBC press tour last January. What shocked him was that the script would have passed through dozens of network fact checkers before hitting the airwaves and that nobody else caught it. "Sometimes I think my staff has too much faith in me," he says.

"West vs. North"
by Bill Brioux
April 24, 2002
Toronto Sun

Clearly aware it was "critically blasted," [Thomas] Schlamme downplays the episode's significance: "It was not, 'This is what we need to say.' We can remember the absolute visceral feeling that we all had those two weeks after Sept. 11 -- that episode was a product of those feelings. George W. Bush becoming president instead of Al Gore doesn't affect the show at all. But the pain of the nation and the pain that we all felt does affect the show a little bit. So it took awhile for us to find our sea legs."

"Why Bush Refused West Wing Invite"
by Daniel R. Coleridge
April 24, 2002
TV Guide Online

"If I had been king of the world at that time, I would have said, 'Listen, something very dramatic just happened, this isn't the time to be thinking about a television series.' "

But NBC, to which The West Wing is worth $US150 million a year, insisted that the series be shown as planned. So Sorkin hastily assembled a standalone story to take the place of the original opener. Without it, he felt the viewers would not be able to relate to a White House dealing, not with national security, but repealing estate tax.

"I felt that the audience had been through a terribly traumatic event and that in order to continue watching the show, they needed to feel like these characters had been through that event, too . . . The show's heart was in the right place, it was wellmeaning and so it felt strange that so many people wrote about it as if I had hit them over the head with a baseball bat and taken their money."

"Words fly down the halls of power"
by Emma Forrest
May 2, 2002
The Age

Responding to critics who thought the hastily-assembled special edition of "The West Wing" that aired a matter of weeks after Sept. 11, Sorkin said he didn't think the show was very good either. But he said that's beside the point.

"Some sort of respect had to be paid to the event that just happened," he said. "We couldn't just do a regular 'West Wing.' I don't think that it was a good episode of 'The West Wing.' I don't think it was an episode of 'The West Wing.' I don't even know if it was good television. It was well intended it was never meant to teach anything, to be preachy."

Sorkin said he was not surprised that people didn't like the episode, but he was surprised at the "volume" of the negative response.

"It felt to me like people thought I had hit them over the head and taken their money," he said. "People always want to talk to me about the commercial or public relations ramifications of the show. Frankly, I still think it's in bad taste to discuss that episode in those terms."

"'West Wing' boss relieved 2001 is past"
by Pat Nason
September 6, 2002

"I didn't think that it was right that it just be a regular episode of 'The West Wing,' that people be tearing around the corridors and flirting with each other and being glib," Sorkin says. "Some sort of respect had to paid to the event that just happened."

But the special episode didn't go over very well.

"I don't think that it was a good episode of 'The West Wing' either," he says. "I'm not even sure it was good television. But what I do know for sure is that it was well-intended." - Aaron Sorkin

"This Is Not The Real World"
by Roger Catlin
September 7, 2002
Hartford Courant

"I didn't think it right," Sorkin says, "that [the premiere] just be a regular episode of The West Wing -- that people be tearing around the [White House] corridors, flirting with each other and being glib. It just didn't seem right. Some sort of respect had to be paid to what just happened. You had to bow your head to it.

"I wasn't going for the cover of TV Guide," he adds, "or an Emmy nomination, or a bigger deal here at Warner Bros."

In the episode, WW's characters lectured students at the White House about terrorism. "I'm not even sure it was good television," Sorkin admits. "But what I do know for sure is that it was well intended. It was never meant to teach anything or be preachy. It was meant to imitate the sounds of the conversations that I'd been hearing since Sept. 11. Its heart was in the right place.

"I was not surprised that people didn't like it," the writer says. "I was hoping to do something that people would like, but it was clear to me that that wasn't going to happen -- I wasn't able to do that.

"But what I was surprised about, to be honest, was the volume and the weight that [this episode] was given. [A major New York paper] carried their review on the front page... It felt like people thought I'd hit them over the head and taken their money, which wasn't my intention."

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, he muses: "There were a number of things in TV, movies and music that we were eager to get back to. Fictional heroes weren't one of them. [They] were in bad taste because our hearts were so completely with the real ones."

"West Winger Recalls 9-11 Controversy"
by Daniel R. Coleridge
September 9, 2002
TV Guide Online

But when the world changes as dramatically as it did last fall, the gauge becomes unreliable. "I'm a writer," [Aaron] Sorkin says. "I know there were ways to deal with Sept. 11 on the show and do it well. But I wasn't able to find them."

""West Wing" creator is eager for new season"
by Gail Pennington
September 10, 2002
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On Isaac & Ishmael:
"fake politics" seemed to useless after that and he couldn't very well go right back into this world where these people were upset about a democratic President lying about his MS... he wanted to ease in when shows came back 4 or 5 weeks later.

Posted at
by AJ
September 12, 2003
Message 31492
Notes from "A Conversation with Aaron Sorkin" at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills

Mom may want to think twice next time she tells Anna Brown to turn off the boob tube.

The Annapolis 15-year-old was watching an episode of NBC's"The West Wing" in 2001 when she saw a group of teens discussing terrorism with fictional President Josiah Bartlet.

Intrigued by the thought of sharing political viewpoints with the real president, she looked up the name of the kids' program online.

Now she's one of three Anne Arundel girls selected to spend a week networking with political insiders during the 15-week Presidential Classroom program.

"Presidential classroom to include three local teens"
by Dionne Walker
January 3, 2005
The Capital

NBC wanted to re-air Isaac and Ishmael on the 1 year anniversary of 9/11. Aaron Sorkin didn't think it was appropriate (he saw the episode as one that you show once and then lock away never to be seen again) and eventually told them if they re-aired it he would never write another episode.

Posted by cyren_2132 @
November 11, 2005
Notes from Alex Graves talk at the University of Kansas

"Rooting for fictional heroes so soon after the attacks was hard because there were so many real ones to root for," he writes. "And because the perception of Bartlet was that was he was liberal and the perception of George Bush is that he's conservative, it became slightly un-American to like The West Wing."

An October 2001 episode that alluded to a similar type of atrocity in the drama's parallel world was "too soon," he says. But "the show had to bow its head somehow before it moved forward."

"Political powerhouse made TV history"
by Bill Keveney
May 10, 2006
USA Today

For more information about this episode:
Continuity Guide to "The West Wing"
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