LOS ANGELES – The third season of The West Wing will begin Wednesday with an unusual scene for unusual times: Martin Sheen and fellow cast members directly addressing viewers.
Sheen, who plays President Bartlet in NBC's White House drama, and his co-stars have the job of preparing the TV audience for an episode inspired by the terrorist attacks.
While other entertainment series rushed to eliminate anything — shots or dialogue or stories — that might somehow evoke the tragedy, The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin just as quickly embraced the challenge.
The show's excellence has earned it the right to boldness. The West Wing is very likely to win its second consecutive Emmy for best drama at Sunday's ceremony on CBS.
The episode also is a brave step for a series whose fictional president is at risk of being out of step with these neo-war times.
NBC did not blindly agree to such a sensitive undertaking.
"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," recounted 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."
Plot details were not released, but Zucker said the story titled "Isaac and Ishmael" isn't specifically about the attacks that destroyed New York's World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.
The episode was rushed into production, displacing the planned debut hour (now set to air Oct. 10) in which an embattled Bartlet decides to seek a second term. (That plot thread will not be addressed in the special show.)
A three-director team, including executive producer Thomas Schlamme, 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 and what's really going on in the White House."
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.
The special is extraordinary but within character for The West Wing. Although not a ripped-from-the-headlines show like Dick Wolf's Law & Order dramas, the political drama has frequently taken on current events — including foreign conflicts that once seemed falsely distant.
In an early first season episode, an American jet was shot down over the Middle East and Bartlet weighed options that included a "proportional" military strike or a larger action that could lead to vastly more civilian deaths.
A flare-up in the India-Pakistan border war raised the threat of nuclear war in a January 2000 episode.
Such stories could prove even more compelling to viewers who suddenly know the name of Osama Bin Laden's organization, al-Qaeda, and how to pronounce it.
But there is context to consider. The Bartlet administration may face challenges akin to those of the real-life White House, but there's a sharp difference: Bartlet is a Democrat, a liberal one, and President Bush is Republican.
In a recent appearance on CNN's Greenfield at Large, veteran producer Wolf said The West Wing was "Kennedy liberalism on prime time," adding "I don't know if that's going to work."
Even more problematic is the story line carried forward from last season, the repercussions of Bartlet's decision to hide his progressive disease, multiple sclerosis, from the public.
The parallel to President Clinton's own brand of misbehavior and the firestorm that followed promised compelling drama. Now, abruptly, U.S. security and peace have taken center stage; a president's struggle for political survival seems both hoary and hollow.
To see Bartlet rise to a great national challenge could be magnificent. To see him sink back immediately into a political quagmire of his own making could be disheartening.
How the gifted Sorkin will attempt the balancing act, and how viewers will respond, is a drama to watch.