Customer Reviews: Isaac and Ishmael
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on October 2, 2004
The West Wing's third season began in sadness. The 9/11 attacks would change much about our country (and this show), and we got an episode after them (Isaac and Ishmael) that attempted to show sensitivity and comfort during a confusing time. At that time, it wasn't generally liked, but it seems to have aged well (it was voted the 10th best episode by Bravo viewers earlier this year). After this, though, the season began in earnest, picking up where the astonishingly good "Two Cathedrals" episode left off and begins a multi-episodic story arc that has the staff at odds with each other as well as the introduction of the fabulous Ron Silver as Bruno Gianelli (he would get an Oscar nod for his performance). Truth be told, this season didn't have the same uniformity of excellence that previous ones did--the middle of the season was lukewarm, with episodes like "The Two Bartlets" and "Night Five" which rank among the lowest in the series (let's keep it in perspective, though: the worst of this season is still better than the best of the current one). However, the show pulls off one of the best episodes of the show in the finale, "Posse Comitatus", which has President Bartlet grappling with faith, law and morality in the matter of having an Osama bin Ladin-like terrorist assassinated. The sheer shock of the final act still brings chills down my spine every time I see it. Also notable: perhaps the most emotional episode in the series, "Bartlet for America" won an Emmy and its final scene between the President and Leo rivals the denouement in Kubrick's Paths of Glory for full-force emotional impact. "Gone Quiet" is a gripping story about a lost submarine, and features a wonderful, curmedgeonly performance by Hal Holbrook as Assistant Secretary of State Albie Duncan. "100,000 Airplanes" is an example of the complex narrative structure of the series: there are no less than four major stories revolving around Bartlet's State of the Union address, each of which are engaging. One of my favorites is "The U.S. Poet Laureate," which covers the scandal following an off-air gaffe on the part of the president. Says C.J. Cregg, "It's a classic Washington scandal. We got in trouble for telling the truth." But all through this season are these character threads: the President and Abbey (leading to a surprisingly touching scene in "Dead Irish Writers"), Josh and Amy's budding relationship, Toby and his ex-wife, Andie, and, of course, the President and Leo. The final one was always one of the most satisfying relationships with the show, and the fact that the current WW writers have all but eliminated it is one of my major beefs with the show right now. Enough soapboxing. Season 3 of the West Wing contains powerful drama and excitement, examination of real political issues and real people. It's definitely worth the money for anyone.
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on October 21, 2004
The third season of The West Wing follows President Bartlett and his staff as they kick off his re-election campaign. This comes in the wake of President Bartlett's admission to the public that he has M.S. and concealed it from the public during the campaign.

The season actually starts off with an episode entitled "Isaac and Ishmael," a stand alone episode written in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many people did not like the episode (although it has gained popularity) but I really enjoyed it. After that, the season resumes where it left off in "Two Cathedrals" (the second season finale). Ron Silver comes on as Bruno Gianelli, the campaign director for Bartlett's re-election. There are some spectacular guest appearances throughout this season (besides Silver). First is Mark Harmon, as a Secret Service Agent who is assigned to protect CJ Cregg after she receives several death threats. Also, Hal Holbrooke is great as Assistant Secretary of State Ablie Duncan.

Bartlett's opponent in the presidential race is Republican Governor Richie, a man with a President George W. Bush-type persona. Besides having to overcome his lie about his medical condition, Bartlett must compete with a candidate who seems to be more like the "average American" and he must decide whether to try and take that path, or stick with being himself, an academic liberal from New England.

All in all this is a great season, although perhaps not as consistent as the first two. The last episdoe, "Posse Commitatus," is a great finale in which the President must decide whether or not to use military foces to assisinate a foreign leader. West Wing fans should own this season as it continues on the tradition of superb writing, wit, and drama.
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on September 2, 2004
While I agree with many of the other reviews listed here, I must respectfully disagree with the contention that this is the last "great" season (or that Season 2 was the best, for that matter: West Wing seems to be one of that rare breed like "Upstairs, Downstairs" or "Fawlty Towers" that hit the ground running and most enjoyed the freedom of exploring its characters in its premiere season - a freedom and looseness missing in later seasons). Season 4, which will be the last season that any true West Wing fan need bother to purchase, was not as bad as other reviewers are implying. While the Season 4 episodes after "Inauguration" rapidly spiral into explosions and melodrama that only a hyperactive network executive desperate for ratings could love, the denouement of the Sorkin tenure era is a masterstroke that was a brilliant way for him to stick it to NBC and prove that great writing, above all else, makes for great shows.

As for Season 3, it continues in the fine tradition of the first two seasons with delightful characters and interesting explorations of the ethical and moral problems regularly faced in government. Sorkin once again shows his mastery of the musical rhythm of dialogue, as well as his distaste for prolonged story arcs (just as in Season 2 he rapidly tried to move past the aftermath of the shooting - except in the incredible Christmas episode - in Season 3 he rapidly tries to move beyond the impacts of the President's admission of MS). Sorkin does deal with the MS implications to an extent, again providing an amazing Christmas episode . . . this time for Leo (which extended for a third year the tradition of the featured character of the Christmas episode winning the Emmy for Supporting Actor). But he seems impatient to move to other, more self-contained episodes, which are his specialty. For the sake of drama, Sorkin simply refuses to belabor issues that in real life would bring Washington to a grinding halt for months, if not an entire Presidential term.

In many ways, Season 3 is the "Season of Love" on the West Wing with a backdrop of campaigning, becoming slightly soapier in its explorations of the characters' personal lives. With the exception of the wily Bruno (who tangles beautifully with all of the regulars) and the other new campaign consultants, most of the new recurring characters introduced this season are love interests for one of the regulars. They run the gamut in terms of their successful introduction from Donna's limp Cliff (another in a long line of Republicans who really at heart are virtuous Democrats) to Leo's sharp-tongued and worthy Jordan to Josh's oh-so-annoying Amy (clearly a plot device to put off resolving his romantic tension with Donna) to CJ's sexy and appealing Simon (what is it with Sorkin and shooting or killing likeable characters for his season finales?).

Overall, I highly recommend purchasing this Season on DVD. It does marginalize some characters like Sam and Charlie and certainly there are some misses in the mix such as "Women of Qumar" (CJ goes off the deep end) and "Two Bartlets" (Toby goes mano e mano with Bartlett in an unbelievably confrontational fashion) but "Manchester," "Bartlet for America," "Dead Irish Writers" and "Posse Commitatus" more than make up for any occasionaly lapses of greatness. Get ready to enjoy the second-to-last "great" season and meantime mourn the absolutely pathetic death by ER that currently continues to mascarade on TV as the show and characters we all once cared about.
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on September 5, 2004
Although the special episode "Isaac and Ishmael" is not part of the regular season three, I have read that it will be included on this DVD set. I was unable to find out anything about the features or whether another midseason show, a documentary special, would be included. Maybe this season is not quite as good as the first two, but it still beats most of what is on TV. Here is a brief recap of the episodes.

Special: Isaac and Ishmael: The White House goes into lock down following 9/11/01. Music: Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth".

1. Manchester: Part I: Reporters hound C.J. about the president's health. Staff debate wheterh Bartlet should apologize for not revealing his medical condition.

2. Manchester: Part II: Staff clash with consultants on Bartlet's reelection campaign. The situation in Haiti escalates.

3. Ways and Means: The Special Prosecutor begins a probe. A labor leader's loyalty is questioned. Congress battles over the estate tax.

4. On the Day Before: gs: Kevin Tighe. Bartlet vetoes the "death tax". A governor considers running against the President.

5. War Crimes: gs: Gerald McRaney. Donna lies to a Congressional committee.

6. Gone Quiet: gs: Hal Holbrook. Bartlet must decide what to do when an American spy submarine goes silent.

7. The Indians in the Lobby: Indians want an answer to an application to buy back land stolen from them.

8. The Women of Qumar: An arms sale secures an airbase lease with a Middle Eastern country with a history of atrocities against women.

9. Bartlet for America: The House committee continues the probe of Bartlet's failure to disclose the fact that he has M.S.

10. H. Con-172: A dismissed White House photographer has written a tell-all book about the Administration.

11. 100,000 Airplanes: Sam is trailed by a magazine reporter. Staffers debate including a cancer initiative into the President's address.

12. The Two Bartlets : There is a protest against arms testing in Puerto Rico. Two congressmen want an inventory of Fort Knox.

13. Night Five: gs: Adam Arkin. Bartlet can't sleep. A White House reporter has been abducted while in the Congo.

14. Hartsfield's Landing: Staff want Bartlett to win the first primary.

15. Dead Irish Writers: The medical board's decision on Abbey's medical treatment of Bartlett causes concern. The Secret Service doesn't give Donna clearance to attend a birthday party.

16. The U.S. Poet Laureate: Toby tries to persuade the Poet Laureate from speaking out against the government's lack of support for a land mine treaty.

17. Stirred: Terrorism isn't ruled out when a truck carrying depleted uranium-fuel rods crashes. Charlie gets help with his tax return.

18. Enemies Foreign and Domestic: Satellite photos show an Iranian nuclear bomb facility built with Russian technology before Bartlet is supposed to meet with the Russian president. C.J. receives death threats after making remarks about the deaths of young Saudi girls.

19. The Black Vera Wang: Staffers work to avoid a predicted terrorist attack. C.J. doesn't care for Secret Service protection.

20. We Killed Yamamoto: When an important Middle Eastern official plots terrorism, Bartlet must decide whether to forfeit the principle of diplomatic immunity.

21. Posse Comitatus gs: Adam Arkin, James Brolin, Lily Tomlin. Bartlet makes a decision regarding a foreign diplomat who is a known terrorist.
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on November 29, 2004
After reading the other reviews I admit a shortcoming: I have never seen the broadcasts. Instead, my wife and I have only watched the DVDs as they've been released. We have sort of formed a tradition of "marathoning" the episodes together, since they're so hugely enjoyable.

So I cannot comment on the downfalls of seasons 4+ as cited below. I can only give a much deserved 5 stars to this installment. Tne writing continues to be smart, issue-focused and thought provoking. It's so sparkly that I still have trouble believing that real people might talk like that, but feel that such brilliance (as it might exist anyplace) is so well-used in the service of our country. Well, fictionally, anyway.

It remains an excellent series of lessons on how our system works, too. There are nuances of politics and our system which I never understood until I saw this series.

If anything, it seems "poll heavy," which I initially wrote off to Pad Cadell's job with the series. However, I'm naive: politicians live and die by polls, so their significance is not to be underestimated.

You won't regret buying these DVDs for keeps; it's the best non-PBS television we've seen in the last ten years - no kidding.
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on September 29, 2004
I understand everyone is heartbroken over Sorkin leaving the show. I might say to those oh so "loyal" fans--get a hold of yourself. This Season 3 is not the beginning of the end, and neither is Season 4. Season 5 tapers off, but still--if you were line up the DVD's of dramas over the last 20 years, this Season would still easily be in the top 10 of any given season of any drama.

Compared to everything else on television, the Season is amazing. Sorkin moves beyond the self-contained walls of his fantasy world and into a world a bit more gritty. We see this movement long before Season 3--it shows its face from time to time in the first season, but really comes to a head during the last few episodes of Season 2. With an unlimited budget, Sorkin wants to explore new things, which takes them beyond the walls of the one building. And everyone needs to realize--by the time he starts writing Season 3, he has already written or helped to write 44 hours with the same core of characters. Its just like in real life--after a while, you just get more personal. The issues are still there, as is the drama and acting. Bartlett for America is every bit, if not more moving, than Let Bartlet be Bartlet from Season 2, and the idealism reigns supreme in all the character's at-heart intentions.

Bottom line--I would give 5 stars to this Season in a heartbeat. Superb acting and directing from an intelligent, if not sometimes over-pressured writer. Helps create an amazing collection of episodes.

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on September 8, 2004
I had the dubious privilige of coming to the show four years later than I should have and thanks to Bravo, I've had the dubious honor of piece mailing the show together. I agree that season two is one of the best, however take caution to judge each season on its own merits. At the risk of delving me into the high school nightmare of my youth, think of it this way. The first is the frosh idealistic, novelty stage; the second is the sophomore "We've-got-to-prove-we're-worth-all the-Emmys" stage and the junior third is the digging in and beginning the long haul. The episodes are less culminated by the final credits and more focused on long-term story building. I think the characters in season three begin to lose their overall humanity we enjoyed in seasons one and two for a more elitist, focus on their positions of power. In short, in season three, the show grows up. It loses its initial charm for an aura of smart. The West Wing is still deserving of its accolades, still worth an hour of my life. And it's still worth $38.99 of my paycheck. My only hope is that maybe big block of cheese day or a friendly poker game will resurface this season.
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on October 28, 2004
'Evolution' is a process of change & West Wing has certainly changed during its 5 Seasons.

By Season 3 the characters are familiar & many issues expected to be featured in a drama like this have been explored.

But evolution also implies improvement & this is the debating point for fans of the show.

As the Seasons have progressed, some of the Bartlett Administration's idealism has given way to self-preservation & a certain cynicism has crept in - rather like a real political administration. Maybe the cynicism has rubbed off on the show's audience.

Most of us in the UK don't have the advantage (or impediment?) of seeing the drama in the context of the real-life political structure it portrays & are left to view it as just that - drama. Political idealism is almost anathema to us Brits so its fading in the West Wing makes the show more real.

Alternatively, whilst we were affected & appalled by 9/11, the effect on us could not have been as profound as on US viewers of the show whose course in Season 3 must have been severely jolted.

The consensus seems to be that West Wing went down hill somewhere between the start of Season 3 and 'Inauguration Day' in Season 4. And yet I still find good things in Season 5 - Josh's testing was well handled & his relationship with Donna was as nicely understated as ever. There's even a bit of humour creeping back in (the new VP & Pearce character) & CJ's periodic disillusionment is a well-played undercurrent.

I'm re-watching Season 3 (in tandem with Season 5) & enjoying it even more second time around.

Perhaps by the latter, the show isn't quite 'punching its weight by its own high standards, but stagnation, abolutely pathetic, outstayed its welcome - really?

The West Wing surprised me from the outset - I didn't think a drama of this quality could come out of the US & rival the best of British. But it has ... and more. It'll always be in my top ten TV serials. Even the much maligned Season 5 is amongst the best TV currently on view.

So, ladies and gentlemen, some perspective please.
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on March 19, 2011
This is one of my all-time favorite episodes from a series I love, and I was greatly disappointed when purchasing it online to find about 10 minutes missing from the middle of the episode. The entire entry of Toby and Sam into the room speaking with the high school children was omitted, shortening the run-time to only 32 minutes. I do not know how or why this happened, as it was my first time purchasing an episode from Amazon. As a fan of the show, I must give no less than three stars for this episode, but must also voice my displeasure at being robbed of a full episode.
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on August 27, 2004
It is not surprising that incidents of September 11, 2001 would resonate through the Bartlett White House. For all the intention that the show stand outside real-life political events, it is fueled by them and Sorkin's personal anger and anguish comes through in more than one episode, sparking an arc that finds the President walking down a very dark road potentially even more damaging and devestating than the revelation of his MS in season two.

To get the bad out of the way: "The Women of Qumar" is possibly the most heavy-handed episode of Sorkin's tenure on the series, and one that I find I cannot rewatch. (Really. We will change to reruns of "Home Improvement" at my house rather than watch this one.) It is a moment when the show loses focus and becomes a political polemic rather than a sharply written and intelligent piece of drama that rises far above the average.

Back to the good, which far outweighs the bad. We start with "Manchester" which kicks off Bartlett's re-election campaign as they struggle with the aftermath of the MS revelation. "Gone Quiet" has the President and Joint Chiefs waiting to hear from a sub that may be lost in hostile waters, while "Indians in the Lobby" and "Bartlett for America" which follow in the show's tradition of holiday episodes that are far from gooey pieces of fluff. Lord John Marbury returns in "Dead Irish Writers" just as Abby pays the price for her part in the coverup (and only Donna could lose and regain her American citizenship in a single night). The season finally culminates in the stalking of CJ and the finale "Posse Comitatus," where Bartlett comes face to face with his opponent in the election for the first time. Sorkin once gives us television that asks us to think and pay attention and sounds a call against simple complacency.

While the show I love may have outstayed its welcome on network television, we will still have this as an example of what television can be if the audience (and networks) are willing to not play it safe.
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