You can go home again.
We exist in an age of revivals and reboots aplenty, especially now, when performers, writers, and producers have been required to be homebound en masse due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have been a jubilant celebration of the magic that was bottled years ago, while others have been functional but relatively empty. So things really could have gone either way when it was announced in August that the cast of the West Wing was reuniting for a special. Though segments of the NBC political drama’s cast had come together in the past, HBO Max’s A West Wing Special To Benefit When We All Vote (available today) marks the first time the entire group has gathered in character with Sorkin and executive producer/director Thomas Schlamme in years. The impetus for getting the band back together for a staged performance of season-three episode “Hartsfield’s Landing” is fairly evident in the special’s title: to get out the vote, specifically in partnership with Michelle Obama’s non-partisan nonprofit When We All Vote.
Though sentiments about The West Wing have divided between nostalgic and critical in the 14 years since its series finale, trying to invigorate citizens to be active in our democracy is an undeniably noble effort. It’s also likely to make a few eyes roll, a point that star Bradley Whitford acknowledges right at the top of the special:
“We went to When We All Vote and said, ‘You guys are a great organization. You’re helping to get out the vote and combat voter suppression. What can we, the People’s Choice Award-nominated cast of The West Wing do to help?’ They thought about it a moment and said, ‘Nothing. You have no skills or experience that can help in any way. Why don’t you go put on one of your little shows where everything works out in the end?’ And so, forgetting to factor for sarcasm, we said, ‘Sure!’”
That self-awareness and humor is woven through all of the act-break bits that are peppered throughout the hour-long special. This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown, who stands in for the late John Spencer as Leo McGarry, is credited as “starring in a little TV show called the Emmy Awards;” Marlee Matlin, who played recurring guest star Joey Lucas, breaks the fourth wall during a discussion on the myth of voter fraud to question why she’s “playing a moron;” and, while imploring young people to vote by emphasizing that “ignoring [politics] doesn’t make you above it, it makes you outside of it,” Elisabeth Moss and Dulé Hill do their best “how do you do, fellow kids” when acknowledging that they are no longer the twentysomethings they were when playing First Daughter Zoey Bartlet and presidential aide Charlie Young. Janel Moloney, known to West Wing fans as assistant Donna Moss, even gets in a good dig at Lin-Manuel Miranda about Hamilton fatigue as he tries to speak to camera about setting realistic expectations for the timeline of when we will know the final results of the election.
These act-break moments could have played cheesy (as one segment with Rob Lowe and Allison Janney teeters toward), but the special always stays on the right side of being a Very Special Episode. That’s in large part because Sorkin and Schlamme allow the meat of special—“Hartsfield Landing”—to remain sacrosanct. But, while the 2002 script was left entirely intact, Schlamme found ways to infuse his staging at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater with dynamic elements that never leave the audience longing for the million-dollar set pieces back at the Warner Bros. lot. By pulling focus between background and foreground, Schlamme creatively captures moments that required cuts between multiple sets in the original production—a recurring directorial choice that begins at the top of the episode when recurring guest star Emily Proctor starts things off by reading the stage directions. (It’s a kick to hear Sorkin’s previously silent Sorkenisms read aloud as the scenes are set. Diehard fans may also find it surprisingly emotional to hear composer W.G. Snuffy Walden play the West Wing theme music on acoustic guitar before he is joined by a live string band.)
Though Proctor’s character Ainsley Hayes is not featured in “Hartsfield Landing,” the episode provides welcome opportunities for many minor and supporting characters to reprise their roles, including Mindy Seeger, Timothy Davis-Reed, and Charles Noland as reporters; William Duffy and Peter James Smith as Larry and Ed; Anna Deavere Smith as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally; and Thomas Kopache (now most recognizable as Last Week Tonight’s “Catheter Cowboy”) as Assistant Secretary of State Bob Slatterly. West Wing fans will be comforted to know that while some of them may have more gray hair and age lines, they all effortlessly step back into their roles as if it were 18 years ago.
The same can be said for the main cast, though that’s not to imply they are attempting to recreate their 2002 performances. As Dulé Hill told The A.V. Club in an interview that ran earlier today, the cast was not interested in stepping back in time but rather embodying their roles as the decades-older actors they are now. In that way, A West Wing Special feels more like a play revival than a remake or reunion. The new version of the episode—which sees Donna (Moloney) and Josh (Whitford) trying to solidify New Hampshire primary votes while President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) balances both chess and war games—still features Sheen sitting across from Richard Schiff’s Toby Ziegler and calling “check” while they discuss their campaign strategy, but there’s an extra fire behind Sheen’s bellow when Bartlet chastises his communications director for criticizing the president’s father. And a moment featuring Allison Janney’s C.J. Craig and Hill’s Charlie plays out with an added element of drama, thanks to a cameo by Gail the goldfish.
Both scenes are interrupted by Leo, with Sterling K. Brown evoking John Spencer’s dry groundedness without wading into any sort of impersonation. When it launched in 1999, The West Wing was criticized for having an all-white cast (one reason Hill was added to the roster in the second episode); so it’s unavoidable that Brown’s presence, because of his race but also his age, is tone-changing—and also a promising tease of Sorkin’s proposed West Wing reboot with the This Is Us star as commander in chief.
It’s unfortunate that “Hartsfield Landing” can’t run uninterrupted like the play it is almost staged to be, but that would defeat the purpose of the special, which is actually about When We All Vote. Knowing the political leanings of most of the West Wing cast—and acknowleding the involvement of known Democrats Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton—it’s actually impressive how non-partisan the message of the special’s lengthy act-breaks remain. The notable exception is Samuel L. Jackson’s piece, which manages to stick it to the current administration (and maybe West Wing a little?): “Our politics today are 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. And to change that, we have to vote.”
Election years always seem to dredge up critics who believe performers should stick to their scripted art and not get involved in politics—or, really, expressing any personal views. There’s the obvious argument that actors—can you believe it?—are voters just like us and have just as much a right to voice their feelings as any other constituent, but Sorkin and co. acknowledge that they will get some criticism for weighing in on something as controversial as getting people to vote: “We understand that some people don’t fully appreciate the benefit of unsolicited advice from actors, we do know that,” Whitford says at the top of the special. “And if HBO Max was willing to point a camera at 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.”