I was radicalised by The West Wing and then I was radicalised against The West Wing. I’ve just finished a three year degree I chose because it was called ‘Communication Studies’ and I wanted to be like Toby Ziegler, the Communications Director played by Richard Schiff on the show. I’m sitting in an office (for the next few hours at least — I figure there’s another lockdown on the horizon) with a poster signed by Schiff on the wall, with a ball on my desk for bouncing, living the Ziegler cosplay life. My leftist friends may mock, but there’s no denying the gravity of The West Wing’s influence on my choices.
Therefore it’s been a small source of excitement to see the show’s cast reunite this month for a “Get out a vote!” special on HBO Max involving the whole primary cast, maestro Aaron Sorkin and steady-hand director Thomas Schlamme. It’s a filmed theatrical re-staging of the episode “Hartsfield’s Landing”, with the location providing a really intense sense of majesty to an already quite majestic piece of drama. As Martin Sheen steps off a disembodied Air Force One staircase and Snuffy Walden’s violins swell, there’s a depth of legacy and triumph felt that is almost impossible not to be moved by. This is a serious achievement by serious people.
Sheen is fabulously vibrant, and really hasn’t aged a second since 2006 when the show went off air. Equally astute as they slip back into iconic roles are Bradley Whitford, Janel Maloney, Richard Schiff, Rob Lowe, Dule Hill and (Oscar winner) Allison Janney.
The special doesn’t try to differentiate much between the actors’ real personas and the White House staffers they play, and in act breaks there are interludes from some cast members discussing the importance of voting, and clearing up myths espoused by the Trump administration in regards to the legitimacy of the electoral system. These appear to have been scripted by Sorkin, because they exist in that beautiful grey area of ‘delightful condescension’. The clips of Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton aren’t as fun — I would really love to keep the 42nd president away from The West Wing world as much as possible, thank you — but surprisingly enough the Lin Manuel Miranda appearance is pretty lovely (thanks in part to Janel Maloney’s comic timing).
Easily the most grating element of the hour is the casting of Sterling K Brown as Leo McGarry. Leo, played on TV with sensitivity and specificity by the late John Spencer, is President Bartlet’s work husband; a vet political hack who would sacrifice everything to help his best friend change the country. In casting a 44-year old in the role, I really felt they lost almost the entire point of the Leo/Bartlet dynamic. This episode isn’t particularly strong on that regard anyway, but Brown — typically a reliable dramatic actor — plays Leo here with total humourlessness and no sense of whimsy. Perhaps he was anxious about filling Spencer’s shoes, but there was surely a better (more age appropriate choice) available. One a positive note, Brown’s involvement does facilitate a to-the-camera piece by him and Dule Hill aimed specifically at African-American viewers which, I hope, will be well received.
The West Wing has no place in the reality of American politics; it is fancy; it is Frank Capra and it is a relic of the late, late 20th century. There is zero truth in the utopia it depicts. But why can’t we have a little fun sometimes?