At the country’s most critical moment, the beloved show’s reunion imbues just a little more optimism into American politics.
Vikram Nijhawan, Staff Writer
Cast: Martin Sheen, Dule Hill, Allison Janey, Janel Moloney, Richard Schiff, Sterling K. Brown, Bradley Whiteford, Rob Lowe
Creator(s): Aaron Sorkin, Thomas Schlamme
Platform: HBO Max
Length: 1-hour special
Rating: 4/5 stars
“Our politics today is a far cry from the romantic vision of The West Wing. But it’s also a far cry from the vision that’s in our heads and our hearts,” said actor Samuel L. Jackson as he addressed the viewers of HBO Max’s latest special. The remedy he proposed to Americans: to get out and vote in the then-upcoming election.
More than two decades ago, Aaron Sorkin and co. introduced television audiences to an inspiring – if admittedly idealized – fictional version of The White House and the American presidency with his political drama The West Wing in 1999. The multiple Emmy and Peabody Award-winning series has been described as a “cultural phenomenon” for its time, inspiring a whole generation of earnest liberals (as many a first-year in TRN171 circa 2000 can likely attest). Now, the original cast and crew have reunited to raise awareness for When We All Vote – a non-profit, nonpartisan organization aimed at increasing American voter participation at all government levels.
While adhering to the strictest COVID-19 guidelines, the crew gathered at The Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles to stage a re-enactment of the show’s fourteenth episode of its third season, “Hartsfield’s Landing”. It featured an apt subplot concerning Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman’s (Bradley Whiteford) attempt to encourage ambivalent voters in the titular New Hampshire town.
The old creative dream-team writes a love letter to longtime fans. The special was divided into a teaser and four acts, much like the original television broadcast. This updated format allowed Sorkin, writer of the acclaimed play-turned-film A Few Good Men, to return to his dramatic roots. Thomas Schlamme, the original series’ director, and innovator of the famous “walk-and-talk” technique, brought his excellent staging and cinematography to this new medium. Opening the show was musical composer Snuffy Walden, who performed a heart-swelling acoustic guitar rendition of the iconic West Wing theme song.
Disney+’s release of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton a few months prior set high standards for straight-to-home theatrical productions. Lin-Manuel Miranda himself made an appearance in between acts to partake in some back-and-forth jibes with Janel Moloney. He also stresses that he’s “never felt any sense of competition with The West Wing cast over who offers America the greatest civics lesson.” (Although most can agree on who wins said competition).
Other guest speakers included former First Lady – and current When We All Vote co-chair – Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Their appeals to the audience ranged from debunking myths about voter fraud to bolstering specific voter demographics, namely youth and African-Americans. This is Us star Sterling K. Brown joined the group of Emmy-winners in the original cast, standing in as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, due to the original actor John Spencer’s passing. He brought his usual gravitas to the role and lent insight to one of the aforementioned educational segments, alongside Dule Hill (who portrayed presidential aide Charlie Young). With the renewed conversation around “Black Lives Matter” which took place during this fateful election year, having these two prominent actors standing side-by-side, encouraging African-American viewers to vote, made for one of the special’s most poignant and timely moments.
The episode’s main storyline, involving President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) playing two separate chess games against his staffers Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) – whilst attempting to navigate a larger “chess game” (read: military standoff) between China and Taiwan – felt eerily relevant today, with increased rhetoric from the real-life presidency surrounding the PRC as a global antagonist.
In the show, the conflict escalation between the two East Asian powers is caused by Taiwan’s plan to hold free elections, which invokes China’s wrath. Bartlett provides a comforting image for many of what presidential leadership should look like during tough times and reaffirms the importance of democracy, the core theme of this particular episode, and the entire series more broadly.
While the votes in the town of Hartsfield landed, the same can’t be said for all the jokes in this special. There were some cringe-worthy lines where the cast’s pandering to the younger viewers was painfully obvious. Rob Lowe’s comparing the ease of voter registration to “making a TikTok video,” was an eye-roller, to be sure.
Although it’s hard to fault Sorkin for this additional material, the stage platform made it difficult to convey some of the classic “Hartsfield’s Landing” content. The live, intimate nature of a play didn’t bring with it the same advantage of a TV camera, forcing some of the actors to overcompensate. While performances such as Bradley Whiteford’s remained unhindered, the caliber of actors like Richard Schiff, who’s renowned for his subtlety, suffered in this new medium. That led to some line delivery being more cumbersome than the chess moves being played on his board (if it’s the high-level play you seek, just watch The Queen’s Gambit, folks).
The West Wing is rightly critiqued as being a bit of a liberal fever-dream. The overt left-leaning agenda espoused by this paragon of a Democratic administration somewhat undermines the “nonpartisan” goal of this reunion. But at a time when an erudite, “heavyweight” president seems like a pure escapist fantasy, Sorkin reminds us of a standard we can aspire towards for our elected leaders.
The results of the 2020 election, one of the tensest moments in recent American history, is a healthy reminder of this. Whether life will finally start imitating art, in this respect, remains uncertain. But there’s only one way to find out, and President Bartlett directs us to the most appropriate follow-up question:
Vikram Nijhawan is a third-year undergraduate student at Trinity College, studying English, History, and Classics.