EW Community TV Show Episode Guides and Recaps from EW's Community

'The West Wing' newbie recap: In the shadow of two towers

Season 3 | Episode 1 | “Isaac and Ishmael” | Aired Oct. 3, 2001

Season three: Let’s do this! Season two ended with the best West Wing episode so far (and possibly ever, based on the feedback I’ve received). Now we’re ready to launch into President Bartlet’s uphill battle to win back the American public’s trust and remain in the White House.

So let’s dive right into the opening episode of the new season! Let’s see … it premiered on Oct. 3, 2001.

Huh. Oct. 3. That’s late for the fall TV season to prem—oh. Ooooooohhh. Right.

I’ve already seen this episode. Never having watched an episode of The West Wing before, I tuned in on Oct. 3, 2001, for this hour of television, which was written by Aaron Sorkin to soothe and educate a stunned, heartsick nation.

And here’s the thing: This may have been an episode that we as a country needed in the frightening smoke-and-ash-clogged autumn of 2001, but it’s not an episode that plays as well 14 years later. Forget those boxy suits and bulky mobile phones; this is the first West Wing episode I’ve watched that has aged poorly.

The episode follows a group of eager-beaver high school students trapped in the West Wing when a terror threat causes a lockdown. This allows the students to serve as an audience surrogate while asking heavy-handed questions (“Why is everyone trying to kill us?”), which allows the main characters to deliver high-minded lectures on terrorism and Islam and the history of the Middle East, the gist of which is “not all Arabs.”

Josh explains to the children that Islamic extremists are to Islam as the KKK is to Christianity. Toby turns away from the religious and toward the political, telling the students to think of Afghanistan as Poland and the Taliban as Nazis. (Way to Godwin’s Law it, Toby.) Sam pops up with a story of the first terrorist and the Arabic roots of the word “assassin.” (That was cool, actually; I didn’t know that.) Charlie drops by to point out that terrorists are basically gangs that grow out of poverty and despair, which is what we have brewing in Southeast D.C., Detroit, the South Bronx, and Compton.

And then there’s C.J. Poor Claudia Jean gets stuck arguing in favor of the Patriot Act, which at the time of this episode’s airing wouldn’t be introduced to Congress for another three weeks. Nevertheless, there she is, actually saying “liberties, schiberties,” praising wiretapping, pooh-poohing concerns over illegal searches, and embracing the exchange of freedom for safety.

Look, I don’t want to get into a debate about the Patriot Act, because obviously there are arguments to be made on both sides. I was just a little surprised to hear those things come out of C.J.’s mouth. And it’s doubly cringey with what we now know about the NSA/Snowden/wiretapping shenanigans.

Speaking of catching the bad guys, Leo gets involved in an interrogation of a suspect who works in the White House. Leo eventually learns that the man is innocent, and he realizes that it was the man’s foreign name, religion, and skin color that set him up for suspicion. And lo, Leo learns a lesson in racial profiling.

Finally, the Bartlets make an appearance with the students, and the president announces, “We don’t need martyrs right now. We need heroes.” And then the first lady explains the episode title: The Jews were the sons of Isaac, the Arabs the sons of Ishmael. In the end, the two sons came together to bury their father, Abraham.

Students as audience surrogates on The West Wing

On that cheerful note, the threat is declared over and the children are free to leave, but not before Josh offers his advice to them—and all of us—on how to survive in a post-9/11 world.

“Learn things. Be good to each other. Read the newspapers, go the movies, go to a party. Read a book. In the meantime, remember pluralism. You want to get these people? I mean, you really want to reach in and kill them where they live? Keep accepting more than one idea. Makes ’em absolutely crazy.”

And then, so help me, the episode closes with Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”

Okay, I know the country was in a bad way following 9/11. I know the public was roiling with rage and grief and fear. I know there were countless Americans who’d never actually met a Muslim before and were all too happy to paint an entire religion with an overly broad “evil villain” brush. I know that some of us needed this didactic hour of television, which was written and filmed in two weeks and was one of the first pieces of scripted television to address, even obliquely, the 9/11 attacks.

But man, to watch it now? It comes off as simplistic and preachy. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter declared an end to irony on Sept. 18, 2001. This West Wing episode was written immediately following that, and it shows. It’s a square, earnest, slightly paternalistic 40-minute lecture that hit the airwaves during a frightening and confusing time. News viewership skyrocketed immediately following the attacks, as Americans tried to make sense of what was happening.

This episode was a noble effort to use a primetime network drama to do just that. Its heart was in the right place; it simply danced with too heavy a tread to merit comfortable repeat viewings.

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

You May Like