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The West Wing Returns for an HBO Max Special

There’s a frame on Leo’s desk. We don’t spend long there—no one spends long anywhere on Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” a series famous for its walk-and-talks which, never fear, are alive and well in Thomas Schlamme’s impeccable new staging of season three’s “Hartsfield’s Landing.” The frame is not out of place by itself. In it sits a napkin. There are words written on it, and the words never come into focus, but that’s not necessary. Most of the folks watching know exactly what they: “Bartlet for America.”

The presence of that napkin is a bit of a tell. It reveals that deep down, the people behind the awkwardly named “A West Wing Special To Benefit When We All Vote” know who their audience is. It’s not the audience they’re hoping for, necessarily—WWAV is a non-partisan non-profit organization that works to “increase participation in every election and close the race and age voting gap by changing the culture around voting, harnessing grassroots energy, and through strategic partnerships to reach every American,” and was founded by, among others, Michelle Obama and Lin-Manuel Miranda, both of whom make brief appearances in the special. The aim of this reunion, as stated often throughout the evening, is to encourage first-time and unlikely voters to vote in this and every election. They’re hoping that on the other side of the set, they’re connecting with people who might otherwise not cast a ballot, who’ve been told lies (about voter fraud, say) or who are likely to react to any ambiguity with suspicion (if the results aren’t returned immediately) or who simply don’t believe their vote could make a difference.

It’s an admirable goal, but that napkin tells a different story. It says that the “People’s Choice Award-nominated cast of 'The West Wing,'” as Bradley Whitford describes himself and the rest of the company, know perfectly well that the vast majority of the people watching are no strangers to the Bartlet Administration. And while what they offer that audience is different from what they’d offer their intended viewers, it’s just possible that it’s of equal, if very different, value.

If nothing else, old hands won’t need much context for “Hartsfield’s Landing,” a top-tier episode of the show from one of its best seasons. That said, Schlamme, Sorkin, and HBO Max chose their episode well. “Hartsfield’s Landing” is an episode small in scope and long on character, relying on the long histories between the characters and the richness of the ideas (some of them, anyway) and language to carry the day. It’s situated about two-thirds of the way through the third season, which begins with President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) announcing his intention to run for a second term despite a major ethical scandal (by 2002 standards, not 2020 standards) and ends with him gearing up for a contentious election against a George W. Bush-like opponent. The titular New Hampshire town is the first to vote in the first Presidential primary of the election cycle, and one storyline centers on the efforts of Josh Lyman (Whitford) and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) to ensure that two of the town’s 42 voters cast their ballots for the President. (The poor Flenders.) Meanwhile, Bartlet has returned from a trip to India bearing chess sets, which he gives as gifts to speechwriters Toby (Richard Schiff) and Sam (Rob Lowe) before challenging them to play.

But it’s not that simple, of course. (And no, that’s not a reference to the storyline where Dulé Hill’s Charlie and Allison Janney’s C.J. get into a prank war, a subplot that hasn’t aged all that well.) No, what matters about those two chess games—the two chambers of this episode’s heart—is the backdrop for each. Behind Sam’s is a diplomatic crisis involving the sale of arms to Taiwan, militaristic posturing from China, and tenuous steps by the former toward free and fair elections. Behind Toby’s, the question of how Bartlet can reconcile the two halves of himself: the warm, approachable, grandfatherly figure unlikely to frighten any moderates away, and the man of towering intellect, commitment, compassion, and strength, unafraid to say what he believes and to fight for what’s just, even if it’s not popular.

That’s a sentiment echoed in Whitford’s dryly funny, self-aware introduction. (The introduction, like the interstitial segments you’ll read about in the next paragraph, was penned at least in part by Sorkin and fellow “West Wing” writer Eli Attie, both of whom are credited with “additional material.”) Whitford acknowledges that some people “don’t fully appreciate the benefit of unsolicited advice from actors,” then adds, “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 … the risk of appearing obnoxious is too small a reason to stay quiet if we can get even one new voter to vote.”

So that’s who they’re trying to reach; those new voters are, to borrow a phrase, the reason for the season. But Whitford’s only stating what the episode makes plain. The producers chose an episode which requires precious little context to comprehend; the fact of the ongoing primary is all that’s needed to establish the circumstances outlined above. It’s also, particularly in its final act, undeniably timely. Each of the episode’s act breaks are filled with more appeals to vote and attempts to combat bad information or ease fears, delivered by people like Obama, Miranda, Bill Clinton, Samuel L. Jackson, and members of the cast. What these hypothetical viewers will see is a group of skilled performers telling a reasonably engaging story, and a group of committed citizens speaking to them frankly and with warmth and humor about the reality of this election.

But the people who are most likely to watch—it’s safe to assume the vast majority of viewers, in fact—are the people that napkin is for, and it’s that segment of the audience that will find this “Hartsfield’s Landing” incredibly rewarding. Schlamme, one of TV’s most reliable directors with a cluttered shelf of Emmys to show for it, makes the frankly sensational choice to approach the teleplay as though it’s theater. Filmed on the stage of the empty Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, “Hartsfield Landing” is undeniably theatrical, more “Our Town” than “E.R.” It’s not an attempt to make a typical episode of television, and in abandoning such a fruitless pursuit, they create something truly beautiful. In one of the boxes of the mezzanine, recurring guest star Emily Proctor reads the directions Sorkin wrote into his teleplay, and Schlamme returns to there at the top of each act before moving gently down to the action, carried out not just by the show’s best-known cast members, but by longtime regulars like Melissa Fitzgerald, Charles Noland, and the great playwright Anna Deavere-Smith. The sets are pared down to a minimum, with furniture, doors, and windows simply floating in space; the camera moves among them they way eyes move through a room, shifting in both perspective and depth of focus.

It’s all undeniably elegant, impeccably staged and shot. It’s just bodies moving in space, which places the focus exactly where all the best episodes of “The West Wing” were focused: the actors. To understate things considerably, there’s not a dud in the bunch. There’s an unfortunate side effect to having a murderer’s row of cast, which is that the material that’s unworthy of their talents becomes all the more obvious. (Janney, Hill, Moloney, and Matlin, here appearing as herself in one of the act breaks, all deserve better, but that was true for much of the time “The West Wing” spent on NBC.) But those moments aside, Schlamme’s approach—and the cast’s seemingly united decision to play these roles without attempting to hide the nearly 20 years that have passed since it aired—allows them to thrive. This is a much quieter “West Wing,” tempered a bit by age, grief, and exhaustion, and the scenes are all the better for it. And don’t worry that the more mournful tone makes this a joyless experience, because both the opening credits (scored by composer W.G. Snuffy Walden and a small orchestra, also on the Orpheum’s stage) and the interstitial act breaks include gorgeous black and white footage of this affectionate cast and crew, all of whom observed strict Covid-19 protocols, bumping elbows, laughing, or simply enjoying the chance to look at one another. It’s sincerely moving.

But not even that lovely footage can top the episode’s true highlight, which is the final sequence between Sheen’s Bartlet and Schiff’s Toby. It’s the scene that speaks most to our current moment, airing during a week in which one candidate for the Presidency of the United States tirelessly answered question after voter question in great detail during a televised town hall and the other did something very different. It’s a simple plea, delivered by Schiff with somehow even more grace and grit than the first time around, for Bartlet not to be cowed by the fear of alienating those who might think him conceited, not to sink to the lowest common denominator.

“Make this election about smart, and not. Make it about engaged, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight.”

During his turn talking to the camera, Samuel L. Jackson asks a question. We’ve taken to calling “The West Wing,” he tells us (and I’m paraphrasing here), a romantic fantasy of democracy, a work of starry-eyed fiction. Then the question comes: Why? Why is that a fantasy? The intended audience for this special may have been those unsure if they’ll vote, but there’s great value for its actual audience as well. Many of them may have grown up with that romantic fantasy, only to have their heart broken by the grimier realities of our much messier, deeply flawed democracy. The implication of the question is that it doesn’t have to stay a fantasy, if only we work to make it so. A government run by elected officials of commitment, compassion, intelligence, just, flawed people need not be a fantasy. Maybe what the People’s Choice Award-nominated cast of “The West Wing” can offer its audience is a push to work just a little bit harder to make it seem just a little less impossible.

Schlamme often frames his players so they’re backed by the empty house of the Orpheum. It will probably be quite awhile before those seats are filled. But in another sense, that’s just Schlamme leaving room for everyone at home. Those seats are ours. We’ve just got to fight our way back.

Allison Shoemaker

Allison Shoemaker is a freelance film and television critic based in Chicago. 

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