When The West Wing began airing 21 years ago, in 1999, Aaron Sorkin’s brand of earnest civic mindedness took to the cultural mood and political moment like a duck to water. That lake has since been blown up.
Still, you see the shrapnel in the opinions of armchair politicos whose hearts sing the ballad of both-sidesism, and in the professional pundits who treat the Emmy-winning show as some agent that poisoned the well of political discourse entirely. Of course those are grossly extreme takes reflecting the real toxins: the country’s collective jadedness and the superiority complex of those with access.
All of this is to say that it is a fascinating exercise to see the soothing relic of The West Wing’s idealistic lens dusted off to meet the dark chaos of a crisis moment in the Trump era; a political fairy tale in the midst of a real-world horror story.
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote premiered Thursday on HBO Max, reuniting the core original cast members for an elegantly staged reading of the standout episode “Hartsfield’s Landing” to support, as the title quite clearly spells out, the nonpartisan non-profit When We All Vote.
During act breaks Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Samuel L. Jackson, and West Wing cast members delivered quippy monologues scripted by Sorkin and Eli Attie to deliver information on how to register and vote, dispel voting misinformation, and inspire voters.
Part nostalgic reunion, part COVID-production triumph, and part rudimentary celebrity PSA, the special boasted more gravitas than usual, as far as these things go. It also suffered the same exasperated whiff of “what’s the point” that all similar efforts battle in today’s whirlpool news cycle—though those other efforts don’t have the benefit of pangs of manufactured, adorable patriotism at which The West Wing so excelled.
To its credit, the special accounted for the instinct to dismiss it as pointless Hollywood hoopla from the start, with star Bradley Whitford explaining, “We understand that some people don’t really appreciate the benefit of unsolicited advice from actors. We do know that. And if HBO Max was willing to point a camera on the 10 smartest people in America, we’d gladly clear the stage for them. But the camera is pointed at us, and we feel at a time like this that the risk of appearing obnoxious is too small a reason to stay quiet if we can get even one new voter to vote.”
Michelle Obama, who appeared for a brief message in the first act break, echoed that message: “Every vote will make a difference in the election.” And stars Allison Janney and Rob Lowe explained just how easy voting is, encouraging viewers to go to vote.org to figure out their registration and voting plan. It only takes, as Lowe says, “half the time to make a TikTok.”
(Whether you groaned or chuckled at that immediately identifies you as a West Wing apologist or sworn enemy.)
The whole thing only lightly skirts around the question of who, exactly, are the people who fall in the center of the Venn diagram of “loved The West Wing so much they’re tuning into this HBO Max reunion” and “had no plans to vote before now.” It’s a well-meaning ignorance that underlines criticism for how ill-fitting the ethos of The West Wing then is for what’s going on now.
But an echo of what Whitford said—even if there is one person who appears in that center oval, the effort was worth it—is cleverly baked into the plot of the episode. As for the rest of us? The point is the pleasure of watching one of TV’s finest acting examples back in character reciting the crackling dialogue that, if of its time, was the best of its time.
“Hartsfield’s Landing” refers to a town in New Hampshire with a population of 63. While the rest of the state goes to vote in the morning, its 42 registered voters vote one minute after midnight and count their votes immediately. That’s of interest to the Josiah Bartlet White House (Bartlet, you’ll remember is Sheen’s character and the sitting POTUS), as the Hartsfield’s Landing primary has predicted every president since William Howard Taft.
“Part nostalgic reunion, part COVID-production triumph, and part rudimentary celebrity PSA, the special boasted more gravitas than usual, as far as these things go”
Word gets to Josh (Whitford) and Donna (Janel Moloney) that two Hartsfield voters have decided to vote for Bartlet’s opponent, and they spend the episode on the phone trying to win them back. Elsewhere, CJ (Allison Janney) and Charlie (Dulé Hill) are engaged in a prank war, and the president is in a game of chess with China after telegraphing his support for Taiwan to hold its first free election.
This game of chess is illustrated with several actual games of chess he plays with advisers (Rob Lowe and Richard Schiff). Josh and Donna back off the Hartsfield voters because they need time to get to the polls, and ultimately it’s exercising the right to vote, whoever you vote for, that matters.
It’s heavy handed and full circles in a way that’s very satisfying, unrealistic, and cute. The episode is a warm throwback to a time when a TV show could portray politics and democracy as cute and get away with it. Still, the nonpartisan message is a clever mirror to the When We All Vote mission of the benefit.
If you’re thinking, but wait! Isn’t there a pandemic? How did they shoot this? The answer is live at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, with behind-the-scenes footage trumpeting the extent of the COVID-19 precautions.
The staging was gorgeous, stripping the kinetic energy that defined a typical episode of the show to barebones cast and sets. It was all very play-like, a respite from the Zoom reunions and readings of the last months. If you missed the notorious walk-and-talks, you’ll be impressed with how much movement and athleticism the camerawork managed to provide.
But, again, the staged reading was only half the draw. Did any of the touted guests say anything that surprising? No. Of course not. But the messaging was as rudimentarily powerful as it’s consistently been from all these recent PSAs.
Obama’s appearance was brief.
Bill Clinton recounted the ways in which voters have been historically suppressed, and how those efforts are escalating: “If your vote really doesn’t matter, why are people working so hard to make sure you don’t cast it?”
Lin-Manuel Miranda dramatized an amusing (and presumably fake) feud with Sorkin over whose work offers America the greatest civics lesson. The Hamilton creator then cautioned voters to expect a longer wait than usual for election results.
Elisabeth Moss reunited with Dulé Hill to galvanize the youth vote. Sterling K. Brown, who played the late John Spencer’s part of Leo McGarry in the reading, joined Hill later on to rally the Black vote.
And Marlee Matlin partnered with Whitford to talk about mail-in voting misconceptions. “One misconception is that voter fraud is something that exists,” Whitford said, to which Matlin added: “In the last 20 years, over 250 million ballots have been cast and there have been 143 incidents of voter frauds.” (That’s a rate of 0.0006 percent.)
The orchestral West Wing theme played over the credits, an arrangement that, somehow still, manages to stir something inside of people, a musical blanket to warm even the coldest resistors to this kind of romanticized patriotism. The debate will rage about whether that blanket is something that anyone wants or needs—or even could possibly exist—right now. But for an hour, at least, it was nice to cozy up with.