"The West Wing" did it with "Isaac & Ishmael," as a quickly pulled-together reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. it was an understated, calm, and gripping drama. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" tried, and didn't quite make it, with "Disaster."
Perhaps the most effective such episode was the "ER" episode "Exodus," in which a benzene-contaminated ER forces an evacuation, and a young John Carter (Noah Wyle) takes control of the situation in a way the character had never had to do before. I think that was the first moment I believed Carter was truly a strong character, not just one of the ensemble. It's why I knew this season could work without Anthony Edwards and his Dr. Mark Greene.
Usually, an episodic TV program can only do this sort of story once. I always envisioned a catastrophe episode on "The Love Boat," such as a fire aboard ship, but they never did it. Their formula was too familiar, too safe. But if a TV series dares, they can either end up with a dud like "Disaster" (OK, it was fun to watch, but it was not great Trek by any stretch of the imagination) or a masterpiece like "Exodus." They can't do it again; they've blown their wad.
Tonight, "Crossing Jordan," my third-favourite new series of last season, blew their wad.
It was obvious from the brief teaser that "Upon the Wasted Building" was dealing with an MCI, a mass casualty incident, and that tonight's episode was going to be a tough one to watch. The teaser faded out on a reaction shot of the familiar cast members, but only after cutting to them from the facade of a ruined building that bore a striking resemblance to the all-too-familiar images of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Matthew Glave (who I recognized from a longtime recurring role on "ER") was the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation, and Jerry O'Connell's Boston PD detective Woody Hoyt joined in the hunt, while the Medical Examiner's staff (our main cast) spent the episode recovering bodies and assisting with the search for evidence.
Domestic terrorism is a tough subject, and this may have been a story they were planning to do last season, but, for obvious reasons, suddenly couldn't. I felt they handled it incredibly well, down to the difficult individual family member stories and the plausible how-and-why.
It wasn't the best hour of television I've ever seen; that honour falls to one of a couple of "West Wing" episodes, or perhaps "Exodus." But it was a damn good program, and it's got to be the best "Crossing Jordan" in their season and a third.