“The West Wing” enlisted a lot of big names to augment its reunion special on behalf of When We All Vote, but nothing really matched the kick of seeing the old band back together again, as Bradley Whitford put it during the introduction.
Much of the interstitial material, promoting voting and former First Lady Michelle Obama’s get-out-the-vote organization, focused on inspiring people to participate in the upcoming election. The conversation also sought to preempt most of the arguments and counterpoints such an effort might elicit, beginning with the frequent conservative bashing of out-of-touch celebrities wading into politics.
“We understand that some people don’t fully appreciate the benefit of unsolicited advice from actors. We do know that,” Whitford said, adding, “The risk of appearing obnoxious is too small a reason to stay quiet if we can get even one new voter to vote.”
Beyond staging the episode “Hartsfield’s Landing,” a tense standoff between the US and China from the Emmy-winning White House drama’s third season, series creator Aaron Sorkin used the act breaks to show off behind-the-scenes moments involving the cast, and pitches from Obama, Bill Clinton, Samuel L. Jackson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Cast members also stepped out of character to talk about the importance of voting, including supporting players Marlee Matlin and “The Handmaid’s Tale” star Elisabeth Moss, who co-starred on the NBC series in one of her early roles.
“This is Us” star Sterling K. Brown, who filled in for the late John Spencer in the role of Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, also weighed in about the importance of Black voter turnout, while Emily Procter – who portrayed Ainsley Hayes – read the scene descriptions.
In addition to the chance to see the key players back in character – none more remarkable than a seemingly ageless Martin Sheen, now 80, as President Bartlet – Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme took advantage of the vacant Orpheum Theater to approximate the experience of watching a stage play, only with a best-seat-in-the-house view.
Notably, that included shooting the performers from behind and revealing the rows and rows of empty seats, a poignant reminder of what’s been lost on the theatrical front since the pandemic began.
Jackson, in his direct-to-camera plea to vote, acknowledged, “Our politics today are a far cry from the romantic vision of ‘The West Wing,’” but asked why the program’s values had to be “an unattainable TV fantasy.”
It’s easy to debate whether that sounds naive. But for an hour or so, “The West Wing” special manages to bring the show, and its central ideals, back to life.
“A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote” is currently playing on HBO Max. Like CNN, the streaming service is a unit of WarnerMedia.