'The West Wing' reunion shows us a world very, very far away

Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast "They Call Us Bruce." He co-wrote Jackie Chan's best-selling autobiography, "I Am Jackie Chan," and is the editor of three graphic novels: "Secret Identities," "Shattered" and the forthcoming "New Frontiers." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)In the latest of what seems like a steady stream of television and film reunions in the time of Covid, the well-preserved cast of the beloved political drama "The West Wing" came together Thursday for a staged reading of one of the show creator Aaron Sorkin's favorite episodes: "Hartsfield's Landing," the 14th episode of the show's third season (of seven, for those who may have watched occasionally but failed to stick it out to the bitter end) which originally aired in 2002.

Jeff Yang
The episode depicts foreboding tension between the US and China, set against the backdrop of White House senior staff tensely awaiting the voting tallies of a tiny New Hampshire town whose dozens of residents vote at 12:01 a.m., well before the rest of the state (modeled on real hamlets in the state like Dixville Notch).
The performers weren't doing it just for kicks, though they did seem to get a kick out of re-embodying the roles they'd made iconic, displaying an easy camaraderie and a deftly familiar mastery of the dialogue quirks and character eccentricities we've since come to call "Sorkinesque." No, they'd reunited with the purpose of supporting When We All Vote, the nonpartisan organization founded by Michelle Obama, with the purpose of encouraging electoral participation particularly among groups with significant undervotes, such as youth and communities of color.
    It's a tremendously worthy cause. The event -- streamed on HBO Max (HBO is a sister company of CNN under the ownership of WarnerMedia) -- was a generous donation of time and the precious commodity of celebrity. And for those who were young, scrappy and hungry back when "The West Wing" was at peak relevance, it was likely a blissful injection of high-minded liberal nostalgia directly into the femoral artery.
    Bradley Whitford and Allison Janney in 'A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote.'
    But if it was tacitly intended as a motivational reminder of better days, days when we had Presidents Who Acted Like Presidents, I can't be the only one for whom the performance had the opposite effect. Because by making a direct appeal to fans of an earlier (and fictional) presidential era, the actors and creators pulled an anodyne scrim across what's happening in today's White House.
    We're in a time of unrelenting urgency, a rolling catastrophe in which every day seems to bring us new examples of presidential bombast, cruelty or alleged malfeasance; where the pillars of our democracy themselves are threatened at every turn; where the four horsemen -- War, Pestilence, Famine and Death -- seem to be just one step away from gleefully playing polo on the White House lawn.
    Which means that even as someone who enjoyed "The West Wing" in the early 2000s, I found myself tooth-grindingly annoyed Thursday at all of the purposefully droll "business" occupying most of the episode: Deputy chief of staff Josh (Bradley Whitford) obsesses over the electoral outcome of the fictional early-voting 42-person hamlet of Hartsfield's Landing. Press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) and POTUS bodyman Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) engage in a dubious duel of escalating pranks. President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) plays chess with senior aides Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) -- all of this taking place under the looming shadow of a potential hot war with China over Taiwan, which exactly one staffer seems to be taking seriously: Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (played by Sterling K. Brown, filling in for the late John Spencer).
    The characteristically Sorkin tics of "The West Wing" characters -- rapid-fire dialogue, self-deprecating humor and an oversaturation of wit -- are meant to humanize them. As Sorkin himself made clear in an interview with The New York Times back in March, he isn't "drawn to either Machiavellianism or dolts. I like those heroes without capes" -- preferring to present the White House as just an "interesting, glamorous workplace where almost anything can happen in the course of a day," rather than the control panel for the world's largest economy and most powerful military.
    That's why in "The West Wing," the equivalent of a coworker accidentally eating the donut you'd been saving in the office breakroom gets as much -- or more -- screen time as a potential geopolitical conflict that could cascade into World War III and erase millions of lives.
    But from the vantage point of today, "humanize" reads a lot like "normalize," and we've gotten desperately tired of attempts to normalize what is decidedly not normal.
      Yes, it's certainly fun dipping back into the vintage milieu of a more innocent time, but Bradley Whitford, out of character, jokingly admitted something close to the truth in his introductory remarks before the performance: "We went to When We All Vote and said, 'You guys are a great organization, helping to get out the vote, combat voter suppression -- what can we, the People's Choice Award nominated cast of the West Wing do to help? They thought about it a moment and said, 'Nothing. You have no skills or experience that can help us in any way. Why don't you go put on one of your little shows where everything works out in the end?' And so, forgetting to factor for sarcasm, we said 'Sure!'"
      Get our free weekly newsletter

      Sign up for CNN Opinion's new newsletter.

      Join us on Twitter and Facebook

      It's unlikely that When We All Vote's intended target of youth and people of color were watching this mostly White, mostly older cast revive a 20-year-old show beloved by mostly White, mostly older liberals and those looking to escape America's 2020 politics, not transform it. And regardless of who wins this election, the world on the far side of it won't look anything like "The West Wing." It's long past time for us to stop trying to wishfully make America Bartlet again, and get to work instead digging it out of the wreckage.