Twenty-one years ago, the first episode of The West Wing aired on NBC. Over the next seven years, the political drama would dominate ratings, earn loyal fans, and garner over 26 Emmy awards, three Golden Globes, and two Peabody Awards. Twenty-one years later and the show is still a part of life and it’s not going away any time soon. That much is clear by the amount of enthusiasm on social media over the HBO Max special A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote.
The special dropped this morning and proved that a) this cast still has undeniable chemistry, b) creator and writer Aaron Sorkin is still at the top of his game, and c) Thomas Schlamme can make anything, including a staged performance of an old episode feel fresh, dynamic, and beautiful.
The former commercial breaks were filled with the cast and other special guests coming together to perform little sketches about voting, the myths surrounding the practice, and other important things ahead of the November election. Included in those guests were former West Wing alumnae Elisabeth Moss and Marlee Matlin (who weren’t in the original episode) as well as Bill Clinton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michelle Obama, and Samuel L. Jackson. The sketches, while a bit lacking, as Sorkin sketches tend to be when he’s trying to be funny, do give the audience information, and urge registered voters of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and ages, to vote. As is the case with most Sorkin productions, I learned some things I didn’t know while still being engaged with this cast of people I’ve come to love.
Every moment of this new production was perfect. It doesn’t hurt that “Hartsfield’s Landing” is one of my favorite episodes of season 3. It showcases every cast member’s strengths. It also gives the audience fantastic glimpses of the chemistry between each actor. There are no weak performances in this staging. Everyone hit their marks and did so with such finesse and elegance, I found it difficult to imagine that it’s been over 15 years since the cast has acted in this capacity together. They all fit together like an old pair of gloves, as if no time had passed between then and now.
The episode begins with an introduction by Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh Lyman in the episode. In the introduction, he explains that, sadly, John Spencer died in 2005 from a heart attack midway through the seventh season. Stepping into the role of Leo McGarry is Sterling K. Brown.
Brown inhabits the role with a gravitas that is as calming as it is beautiful. While I did feel that his delivery was a bit too calm in the midst of the crackling, underlying neurotic energy of the episode, it’s obvious that he was chosen because he embodies everything McGarry is. Not only that, he fits in with the cast. He feels like a natural extension of the character and has chemistry with both Josh and Pres. Bartlet (Martin Sheen), two of the most important characters to have a connection with McGarry. McGarry isn’t in the episode much, but it’s enough to remember (or realize, if this is the first time seeing an episode of the show) that Leo didn’t have to be in every scene to make an impact.
It helps that in the time between the show ending and now, many of these actors have gone on to do tremendous things. Janney has an Oscar to her name. Whitford has won three more Emmys and is crushing it as Commander Lawrence in The Handmaid’s Tale. Brown’s won five Emmys for his work in This is Us and Richard Schiff has been working the TV character acting boards for decades with his dry, infinitely wise delivery and deeply soulful eyes. This is a more world-weary cast. They are aged (like a fine wine) and the gravitas afforded to age and wisdom adds an interesting dynamism to familiar performances. As I’ve said before, none of these actors miss a beat.
The sets worked perfectly for this staging. I’m a sucker for minimalist sets and the set dresser delivered a perfectly minimal set without devaluing the original chaos of the show. That might seem like a hard thing to do, but really, a staged performance like this doesn’t need anything flashy or over the top to work. This is a performance that really only needs the benefit of the dialogue and the actors to excel. Since it was written by Sorkin, directed by Schlamme, and performed by this cast, it’s a given that the performance will transcend normal dramatic boundaries. And, to put it simply, it did.
The only thing this staging lacked was the electricity that comes from a live audience. However, I acknowledge that due to restrictions, this was never meant to be. Stage shows often benefit from audiences because the actor responds to the audience’s energy and mirror it back to them. That’s the only way I can explain it. It’s a wholly subjective experience but it is a qualm I had. Just another thing that COVID-19 has taken from us. Despite that, though, Schlamme does manage to infuse some energy and electricity to the performance by his camera work. This is another example of how this cast and crew work so seamlessly together.
A West Wing Reunion to Benefit When We All Vote reminds us of the power of television and the impact people can have on our lives. It also opens the door to revisit these characters again, which, in my opinion, would be a good idea. These are beautiful characters played wonderfully by a cast of veteran character actors. Things have changed but their chemistry has not. This staging of “Hartsfield’s Landing” reminded me just how much I’ve fallen in love with these people, this family. I want a series set in this world with Donna and Josh still madly in love and married, Charlie and Zoey together and taking the D.C. courts on a run for their money, CJ running the Frank Hollis Foundation. I want all of this and then some.
Sorkin, Schlamme, and HBO Max have proven they can do it, now it just needs to happen. Will it? Who knows.
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