As American politics have grown ever-darker over the past several years, the cast of “The West Wing” has taken it upon themselves time and time again to fight cynicism with the bright-eyed optimism that defined the show in its seven-season run. The characters’ belief in good governance and the power of American compassion has been a balm to many in these times as they revisit the show or watch it for the first time on Netflix.
Now, with fewer than two weeks left before election day, the gang has reunited one more time to remind Americans of democracy’s glories with a one-time reunion special aired by HBO Max to benefit the nonpartisan group When We All Vote. The reunion is a welcome escape for fans of the series, but it offers little in the way of novel ideas or reflections on how the show is relevant to politics today.
The special, a staged theatrical reenactment of the season three episode “Hartsfield’s Landing,” follows President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) as he balances two chess matches with his aides Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) while managing an impending arms crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
The choice of episode is an odd one; there are several other episodes that more explicitly exalt the virtues of moral governance and the power of democracy. But, upon closer examination, “Hartsfield’s Landing” does touch on these topics, albeit somewhat tangentially. The subplot that follows the voters of Hartsfield’s Landing, New Hampshire delivers a subtle message: Voting matters, and no matter who you are or where you live, we all have a responsibility to make our voices heard.
The program’s greatest strength is its creative production. The reenactment, which was shot on the stage of the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, dispatches with the show’s signature White House office hubbub, instead providing a minimalist representation with a stripped-down aesthetic and bare-bones cast.
Thomas Schlamme’s direction and John Lindley’s photography pay homage to the show’s signature “walk-and-talk” filming style while also leveraging the Orpheum Theater’s grandeur; wider shots play well with Jon Hutman’s simple but effective production design. At times though, the program leans too far into the original series’ single-camera photography style, which feels out of step with the theatrical ambience.
The reunion’s performances are as superb as they always were. None of the actors have lost a step in the 14 years since the show went off the air. And though they all look quite a bit older, they each slip back into the idiosyncrasies of their roles with ease. However, viewers who are unfamiliar with the show or who were hoping to see new acting choices from the performers will likely be disappointed; the scenes match the pitch of the original episode, but rarely go farther.
There is one notable exception in Schiff’s performance as the brooding Toby Ziegler. In the episode’s emotional crux, Toby’s deadpan admonitions are replaced with an impassioned seething that forges a more interesting connection between the two characters, elevating the exchange above its original value.
Between scenes, we are reminded of the reunion’s purpose: a benefit for an organization that wants to inspire all eligible voters to cast their ballots. One can’t help but wonder, however, whether the likely audience members — hardcore “West Wing” fans with HBO Max subscriptions — require any encouragement on this front. To be an effective civic device, the program needs to reach people who aren’t currently motivated to vote and make a case for democratic participation that’s grounded in the realities of the present. It’s unclear how many of these people the program will reach, and whether it will resonate with them if it does.
As special guest Samuel L. Jackson says in the episode, if we all vote, perhaps a day will come when the functional, righteous democracy we see on “The West Wing” won’t be some distant fantasy. The reunion special might not be doing much to help us get there, but through inspiration and information, it will certainly help more than harm.
Matthew DuMont covers television. Contact him at [email protected].