'A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote': TV Review

West Wing Special on HBO Max
HBO Max
A solid recreation of a solid episode for a solid cause.
10/15/2020

Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme reunite the cast of 'The West Wing' on HBO Max for a staged episode reading and a plea to vote.

If you're like me, a lot of your hour spent viewing HBO Max's A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote — a Borat sequel title if ever there was one — was dedicated to doing math.

A staged reading of the West Wing season three episode "Hartsfield's Landing," which originally aired on NBC in February 2002, the special was 20 percent get-out-the-vote campaign and 80 percent exercise on the passage of time, a contemplation I never completely shook. What does it mean if Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) — at roughly 42 years old when the episode aired, an example of the Internet's Boyfriend at a moment before such a thing really existed — is now a sage silver fox of 61? How does it change the narrative if Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), an up-and-coming hotshot so tailored for greatness that President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) predicts an eventual presidential run, has gone from 37 to 56, no longer eligible to be the JFK-style wunderkind Aaron Sorkin initially conceived? And when Leo McGarry goes from the craggy recovering alcoholic and career operative embodied by the late, great John Spencer to the sharply dressed, astonishingly savvy young kingmaker played here by Sterling K. Brown, how does it change The West Wing and its vision for the future?

There was never much chance that Sorkin was going to tweak his original vision for an HBO Max celebration of voting, but there are always ways you can change staging or the cadences of dialogue to shift power dynamics and character journeys. That was not the approach the special's director, the inimitable Thomas Schlamme, took here. No, Schlamme did his best impression of original "Hartfield's Landing" director Vincent Misiano doing an impression of Thomas Schlamme, using editing and immaculate stagecraft to simulate the episode with the dual impediments/restrictions of COVID-19 precautions and the stage at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.

Indeed, this was not one of those star-studded table reads we've seen so frequently in recent months with stars hopping onto Zoom to giggle their way through classic scripts. I might have wanted to see a smidge less cheating and redecorating of set between stages, but Schlamme generally executed the episode with a high level of theatricality. I loved the bare-bones minimalism of Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) standing in front of a single square of a wrought iron fence to represent the enclosure around the White House, and saw almost Beckett-ian glee in the pair of door frames onstage that characters often found themselves going back and forth between in lieu of the show's more traditional walk-and-talks between offices. The capturing of the Oval Office through well-placed windows encasing President Bartlet at his desk was surprisingly evocative.

I might have wanted some variation in delivery or character dynamic to suggest a passage of time and shift in political context. But I guess I was nearly as satisfied to wait and see how Schlamme would capture the episode's lone "action" piece, specifically the desk-collapsing climax of the brief prank war between Charlie (Dulé Hill) and C.J. (Allison Janney). The answer was "satisfyingly," just as all the actors slid back into their roles naturally, as if no time had passed — which again is a minor but not insurmountable problem, and in the case of Richard Schiff's Toby was probably perfect, since Toby always seemed like he was 65 even when he was 45.

As the only notable new addition, Brown wisely didn't attempt to do any interpretation of Spencer's roughly distinctive voice and there can be little doubt that Brown and Sorkin are complementary talents. (Maybe if NBC ever tries again on a live A Few Good Men, Brown would make a good Kaffee or possibly Jessup?)

I really admired the special's commitment to some of the deep ensemble players from the original episode. Somebody got on the phone and made sure it was Lionel Carson reprising his role as security guard Tommy and brought back Peter J. Smith as Ed and William Duffy as Larry for a one-exchange appearance joking about what Charlie would find in the filing cabinet under "A for anal."

"Hartfield's Landing" was, as anybody with a strong recollection of The West Wing will recall, a logical episodic choice for this exercise. Probably the A-story is President Bartlet going back and forth between chess games with Sam and Toby and tense arms negotiations with the Chinese, with a big-picture political lesson to "See the whole board," which has value in an election season in which many of us get bogged down with daily minutiae. For purposes of this special, the real featured story was Josh trying to get Donna to change the voting preference of a single family in a small New Hampshire town with a Dixville Notch-style early primary. Josh realizes that at a certain point, even if you're practicing retail politics, you can't force people to change their ideologies and you can't force people to understand facts, so you just have to let them vote, because that's what our system is built upon.

Get it?

In case you didn't, the special expanded the episode with ad-break appeals that Whitford, reading some of the faux off-the-cuff banter scripted here by Sorkin and Eli Attie, tied in to When We All Vote, described as "a nonprofit and nonpartisan" organization. Although Emily Procter was recruited to read the episode's stage directions — a nod to her having played one of the show's few admirable Republicans and to the episode having no other conservative presence to speak of — nobody is going to actually confuse this special with being nonpartisan.

Celebrity guests including Samuel L. Jackson, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and Lin-Manuel Miranda, blessed with the hour's best scripted patter, definitely urged everybody, without exception, to vote. But with the calls tailored around issues like abortion rights, systemic racial inequalities and a thorough debunking of right-wing talking points about voter fraud, the special was one "PLEASE RT!" from a 95-post Seth Abramson tweet-storm. It didn't particularly bother me and I don't know why anybody would possibly have expected anything else, but it also makes me laugh to imagine at least a few people posting, "I used to like The West Wing, until it got political!" on social media.

I understand that those ad-break cameos were a major part of why everybody was doing this, but I rather preferred the black-and-white footage from the production process. So many actors and production personnel wearing masks and face shields. So many laughing, jovial castmembers reuniting!

At the risk of going more partisan myself, allow me to close with this reminder: Make sure you're registered, make sure you have a voting plan, and vote.

Now available to stream on HBO Max.