‘West Wing’ Reunion Review: HBO Max Staged Special Is A Sobering Reminder Of When Presidents Were Presidential, At Least On TV

Dominic Patten
·6 min read

“See the whole board,” a chess-instructing Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet tells Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn in HBO Max’s A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote.

Originally uttered in 2002’s “Hartsfield’s Landing” episode of the multiple Emmy winning political drama, the Aaron Sorkin penned words hang heavy in the digital air during these final weeks before this year’s election. Filmed in recent weeks at downtown L.A.’s Orpheum Theatre, this newly visually streamlined version of “Hartsfield’s Landing” is a pretty easy sell that also provides a welcome relief and sobering reminder when language mattered and presidents were presidential, at least on network TV.

One of my favorite series of all time and much munched TV comfort food over the years, the West Wing in 2020 is a remarkable throwback to a now distant era in more ways than one. Amidst the get out the vote buoying, the fact that no one is looking at their phone and lamenting the latest tweet from the Commander-in-Chief or just posted New York Times scoop by Maggie Haberman is actually quote jarring and charming simultaneously.

Even more charming, Sheen and Lowe are back in their career defining roles without missing a well-lit beat. The Thomas Schlamme-directed special also sees fellow core cast members Dulé Hill, Allison Janney, Janel Moloney, Richard Schiff, and Bradley Whitford return as verbally dexterist members of Bartlet’s inner circle.

Over a long night in the White House as tensions rise between China and an election looming Taiwan, and the first votes are cast in the New Hampshire primary in the West Wing’s alternative reality, frequent series guests Anna Deavere Smith, William Duffy and Peter James Smith, and many more also show up, as does Marlee Matlin, who appeared on 17 episodes over the series’ 156-episode run.

A bottle show, in all but name to begin with, “Hartsfield’s Landing” easily lends itself to a timely theatrical remodeling. Coming just hours before Donald Trump and Joe Biden face-off remotely in dueling town halls, the “unattainable TV fantasy,” as Samuel L. Jackson lovingly terms The West Wing during his stirring call to vote segment, plays it reasonably straight in its attempt to hit all its targets. For the deeply initiated, the COVID-19 safety protocol dominated behind the scenes footage that plays with the six-string heartfelt rendition of the aspirational West Wing theme by its composer W.G. Snuffy Walden will surely bring a smile.

This Sorkin revival of sorts comes the same day that Star Trek Discovery begins its ambitious third season on CBS All Access and one day before the essential viewing of Heidi Schreck’s Broadway sensation What The Constitution Means To Me debuts on Amazon. In that far flung context as well as the travesty of the mutual destructive town halls on the respective Disney and Comcast-owned networks, “Hartfield’s Landing” 2.0 isn’t ultimately as poignant as it wants to be. Yet, the on-stage version does have much more sting in its words and performances and the daunting spaces between them then you’d expect after all these years.

That’s in no small part to its on-screen leader.

After six seasons and counting on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie and those self-mocking SingleCare ads, Sheen has lost none of his gravitas as America’s undisputed greatest living fictional POTUS. In fact, with the passing years, the Apocalypse Now vet has gained additional statesman statue that fits the role of the nuanced Bartlet even more fully – which may be the best reason to watch this special.

With all the other key players back in more weathered (except for Schiff, who really hasn’t aged more than couple days since the series ended 14 years ago) but no less taunt form, the other standouts here have to be multiple Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown in the deceased John Spencer’s iconic role of Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and the material itself. Awkwardly introduced at the top of the special as “starring in a little show called the Emmy Awards,” This Is Us star Brown brings a necessary force to the ringmaster character that reinvigorates Sorkin’s mildly dated script.

In that sense, if there is anything that this West Wing reunion reminds us besides the importance of the body politic, it is that The Trial of the Chicago 7 director and writer Sorkin got his start on the stage. To that, the success of this special will certainly resonate in the corridors of the AT&T streamer as the first of potentially many such one-off revivals of the series – with or without the original core cast.

In the purest way, this benefit special is giving the people what HBO Max’s data seemingly tells them they want on the streamer – more of the past, updated.

Still perched on its long-time streaming home of Netflix until at least the end of the year and available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video, the seven seasons of The West Wing that ran from 1999 to 2006 aren’t actually available on HBO Max right now. For all its civics lessons, this much vaulted stage reading special is in some ways the policy wonk substitute for the much hyped and still delayed Friends reunion that was supposed to help HBO Max’s launch soar earlier this year. And if that subscription bait encourages a few more people to vote, well that’s good for the soul of the nation as well as WarnerMedia’s wallet.

Truth is, if the liberal demographic that made up the vast bulk of the West Wing’s audience back in its NBC heyday is any indication, literally no one who is watching this rendition of the third season’s 14th episode isn’t voting this year, doesn’t have a voting plan or maybe isn’t one of the more than 15 million Americans who have already cast their ballot. As exemplified by the interstitial appearances of Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Hamilton maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda and series alum Elisabeth Moss, A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote is literally preaching to the converted in this extremely partisan environment.

In that echo chamber, when Miranda paraphrases from the show and says “have confidence in the election, we’re America, we’re good at this,” there’s a tendency to want to scream at him and the others to pull off the rose colored POV that got us where we are in the real world.

Yet, Sorkin and crew clearly know that feeling as revealed in the introduction where Bradley Whitford paraphrases from the final season and jokes about getting “the band back together.” More strictly The Handmaid’s Tale actor puts the matter and the urgency in focus when he quips that When We All Vote told The West Wing the best the show could do to help in this election is to “go put on one of your little shows where everything works out in the end.”

They did, and hopefully it will, across the whole board.

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