Aided by the excellent direction of the great Thomas Schlamme, the good intentions of the "West Wing" benefit largely make up for its unresolved meaning.
Most nights when the emails have been answered and the TV checked, I take a pen and start writing postcards. Sometimes the embassies support the Ohio Supreme Court judges; sometimes they are for South Carolina congressional candidates. The addresses are from a nonprofit trying to support the vote, and the postcards are piled on the bar cart by my door. With ink running out and my hand starting to ache – it turns out that typing all day and writing all night isn't the way to get healthy wrists – I often ask myself: does this help? Like so many citizens desperate for change this November, I want to do something to facilitate change, and I must do something to allay my growing fear.
I'm only bringing this up because I felt a similar longing during "A West Wing Special," the HBO Max reunion of Aaron Sorkin's early NBC drama. There is an obvious desire to make a difference, and not just because the staged replica of "Hartsfield's Landing" (season 3, episode 14) is seen as a benefit to When We All Vote, a nonprofit, impartial organization that is dedicated to increasing participation in the event Elections; It's not just that the hour-long special replaces its 17-minute commercials with direct addresses from the likes of former President Bill Clinton and former First Lady Michelle Obama. It's not even that Bradley Whitford explicitly states his goal at the beginning of the episode: to turn at least one non-voter into a voter.
It is "The West Wing" itself trying hard to feel vital again at a time when its fantasy version of DC politics is dead and gone.
As a reinterpretation of a strong television series, the new version of "Hartsfields Landing" plays out wonderfully. The cast slips back into their roles like aging rock stars breathing new life into old hits. Sure, the Josh (Bradley Whitford) and Donna (Janel Maloney) dynamic feels a little more inadequate, but the episode is all work, not flirting. Emily Procter (who played Ainsley Hayes), who reads stage directions, is an odd choice, despite the fact that she played a Republican and that's supposed to be an impartial advantage.
And Sterling K. Brown, who stepped in as Leo McGarry (originally played by the late John Spencer), was always a notable departure. Spencer's drawn face and shrewd wit expressed the story the chief of staff and longtime friend of the president had inherited, and he was nearly 10 years older than Brown when he first took on the role. But Leo isn't a big part of "Hartsfield's Landing," and Brown provides the necessary authority without puffing the part beyond its relevance to this episode. (Plus, the behind-the-scenes picture of him dancing with Martin Sheen is priceless.)
HBO Max / Eddy Chen
Even when greats like Allison Janney play pranks and Martin Sheen pulls off his tortoiseshell glasses (fresh frames for his signature move), the star of “A West Wing Special” is director Thomas Schlamme. The Emmy-winning legend, who helped make the original series a TV touchstone, faces a new, albeit similar, challenge here: Creates its signature walk-and-talk energy very far without the space to go. Sorkin's language was always ready for the theater; many dialogues, many speeches, many exhibitions. But just as "The West Wing" couldn't feel like a duel lecture series, "A West Wing Special" couldn't feel like a staged reading. (Originally this was supposed to be a table reading, but likely when HBO Max got involved, they decided to make something "more" out of it.)
Schlamme takes up the challenge again. Not only has he found visually appealing ways to introduce scenes – like Donna's shadow thrown over the outside gates – but he's as smart as he fills the frame. Looming pillars and interiors of the White House linger in the background of certain footage to remind viewers where they are. However, this does not prevent Schlamme from including the empty theater seats of the LA Orpheum in other settings or even from withdrawing them entirely to show the lights of the house over two actors playing chess. He'll even use carefully placed coffee cups or popcorn bowls to accentuate the movement, and all of this together makes a master class on maximizing a minimal amount of space. Directors who do the opposite – adapting plays for the screen rather than TV shows for the stage – should check out this special for tips.
Once the sizeable production is complete, the question is what has been achieved. In the years since the drama left NBC, "The West Wing" has remained a productive force in the progressives' view of politics, not least thanks to its availability on Netflix. New viewers welcome the charming chatter and ambitious messaging, while experienced fans find the unique combination of comfort and prestige TV extremely understandable.
But as Samuel L. Jackson clearly states in his part of the special, "Our politics today are a long way from the romantic vision of" The West Wing "." Anyone who uses the series as a benchmark for how DC works used, lives in a dream world, and the Special seems to wink at the audience between takes, acknowledging the recent criticism of its fanciful version of American politics – before moving the imagination forward anyway.
Whitford says this with his humiliating speech about how little actors are of little use in the battle for voting in the intro. (Q: "What can we, the People's Choice Award-nominated cast of & # 39; The West Wing & # 39 ;, do to help?" A: "Nothing. (…) Why don't you go to one of your little shows in which everything works – out in the end? ”). Then half of Jackson speaks directly to the show's "Fantasy" label. "An unattainable TV fantasy?" he asks. "Why? Vote."
HBO Max / Eddy Chen
So will they? Will the viewers end the special, spread the word and take their civic responsibility? Or will they hit Netflix and see more of The West Wing? Do you remember what you saw in a day, a week, or a month?
I would argue about all of that, but whether "A West Wing Special" actually gets non-voters to register, vote, or otherwise participate in the upcoming elections is a question we can never answer. Lots of viewers need to be aware of the choice and their role, and it's more likely that this special – which is only available to those who are able and willing to pay $ 15 a month for HBO Max – the choir sermon. (That "A West Wing Special" gets a premium streaming service on the same day that its original network Donald Trump advertises for free is by far the most frustrating thing about the special. Even Republican Robert Ritchie, Bartlet's president of the third Florida squadron opponents would see that the West Wing special has more value to voters than anything a walking super-spreader will spit out.)
Still, the reunification's determination to use people longer is an admirable twist on the series' enduring legacy. As Jackson suggests at the end of his speech, the TV fantasy can be ambitious as long as no one mistakes it for reality. The people who complain about real candidates and wish they could vote for Bartlet instead need to be able to identify who would vote Bartlet for themselves (you know, if he were real). "A West Wing Special" is happy to admit this and challenge people to look beyond the imagination. listening to a real president, a real first lady, and real people willing to inspire and inform.
Donations, text banking, volunteer work, social media posts, postcards: sending anything with a specific goal in the void takes a little hope. a little trust; a bit of imagination. I think someone takes my postcard out of their mailbox and thinks, "Huh, I think I'll be voting this year." Probably not. But I have to try. We all do – even The West Wing.
"A West Wing Special For Use When We All Vote" is now streamed on HBO Max.