We’ve all seen A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote now, with all the buzz that went into the HBO Max event leading up to its Thursday premiere. You don’t need me to tell you that people have been clamoring for this for over a decade, and that it lived up to all the hype. What’s worth talking about, though, is that the special had a purpose – and that it ended up becoming something much bigger than itself.
Reunions and reboots are all the rage in Hollywood right now, but this one wasn’t solely for nostalgia’s sake. As the title indicates, the cast and crew came back together to get people voting in the upcoming election, supporting non-partisan organization When We All Vote. Cast members and a few famous friends, including former President Bill Clinton and Lin-Manuel Miranda, appeared in interstitials to explain why voting is more important now than ever, particularly to underrepresented groups like African-Americans and those under 25.
That was fitting, because The West Wing was always a show with something to say. At least in the first four seasons, every episode left viewers with something to think about or talk about. And there’s really nothing more important than getting people engaged in our country’s future through the platform of voting.
But the way A West Wing Special came together, and what it reminded us of when it did, well, that was something else. Something beautiful. Something transcendent.
Of course, the choice of episode made perfect sense. “Hartsfield’s Landing” is from the middle of The West Wing season 3, and its whole message is about the importance of voting. Taiwan is having its first free elections, even if it sets off a firestorm with China. And Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) enlists Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) to convince a couple in the titular New Hampshire town to vote for President Bartlet – only to realize that it’s not who they vote for, but that they do it at all, which matters.
Doing it as a staged reading, too, was spot-on. Obviously HBO Max couldn’t mount a full-on television production anyway, but The West Wing, like every Aaron Sorkin production, has always been theatre that happened to be on television. With the exception of the final few moments pulled from the original episode, watching this was exactly like watching a stage production. If I hadn’t already known this was a TV show, it would’ve been a great play.
But I’m one of the many people who fell in love with The West Wing over 20 years ago (yes, it’s been that long). I’ve quoted President Bartlet, both accidentally and on purpose. I used to want to be Josh Lyman. The theme song still stirs something in me. When the trailer for this special first came out, I found myself bursting into happy tears. And I know I’m not alone in that. This wasn’t just a TV show; it was a cultural phenomenon – because it inspired us all to do better.
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote captured that feeling again. It wasn’t just getting the band back together. It wasn’t just repeating what we saw when “Hartsfield’s Landing” originally aired in 2002. It was something fresh, something unique, still inspiring but in its own way.
The fact that this was a labor of love was obvious. All the attention is on the main cast getting back together (save the late, still very much missed John Spencer), but then we had Emily Procter as the narrator. We had people like Anna Deavere Smith, Melissa Fitzgerald, William Duffy, Peter James Smith, Tim Davis-Reed, and Ron Ostrow reprising their roles (the latter two making me exceptionally happy since I still remember them as Will and Chris from Sports Night). And we even had C.J.s goldfish.
Yes, the script called for all those characters, but that didn’t mean all those actors had to come back – they had to say yes to it, too. And the fact that they did was so meaningful, as was seeing the incredible W.G. “Snuffy” Walden lead a handful of musicians in playing the iconic West Wing main theme. Every aspect of this said “Let’s get it right,” far beyond what we’ve come to expect from reunions and revivals.
But what I love most about A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote is that it also felt incredibly new. Even though it appealed to the nostalgic fan in me on every level, I felt like I was watching “Hartsfield’s Landing” for the first time – and it left me with an entirely new spiritual experience.
Much has been said of the casting of Sterling K. Brown to replace John Spencer as Leo McGarry, owing to Spencer’s death in 2005. Some questioned if he was too young for the role, since Leo is Bartlet’s contemporary. Others applauded his casting as making clear that the show wasn’t trying to get someone to be similar to or imitate Spencer. But all of that turned out not to matter. As Bradley Whitford said in the special’s cold open, Brown is an actor Spencer would have been a fan of.
One of the best things about Leo was his no-nonsense attitude; he could steal a scene with one deadpan line, and he could stop a whole room just by showing up in it. Brown delivered that same kind of gravitas. Like Spencer, he was poised but also wry, and he was a hell of a lot of fun to watch. He brought what we needed to see in the role while also bringing himself to it – hitting that sweet spot that’s much aspired to but so very hard to hit for any actor. It made me wish he’d been cast on The West Wing in some other role. Just having Martin Sheen, Anna Deavere Smith and Sterling K. Brown in the same Situation Room scene was one of those “this is cool” moments.
And he wasn’t the only one who brought something else to the table…or stage, as it were. What really impressed me about this special was that each of the actors updated their performances. It would have been easy, and understandable, to try and replicate what they had done so well before – especially when working on an Aaron Sorkin piece, which requires very specific timing and delivery. Even though it was 18 years ago, you could argue Why mess with what works?
But that wasn’t what happened. The best example is Dule Hill; he was the youngest main cast member when “Hartsfield’s Landing” was filmed, but he’s 45 now and has gone on to play much bigger roles in Psych and Suits. In the latter, his character was a name partner at the firm, a husband and a father. So he came back to the role of Charlie Young with so much added maturity and life experience. He was still right on with his comedic timing, and still as charming as ever, but it also felt like a big step forward, too.
Whitford is another example of this. Josh is still my favorite West Wing character, as snappy and neurotic as ever. But there was an additional world-weariness to him this time around (maybe in part owing to the beard that wasn’t there before). It felt like Josh had settled a bit, even while repeatedly stumbling over the name of the couple from Hartsfield’s Landing. Like he’d grown up. It didn’t dent his impact in the piece one bit; it actually made me fall in love with him again. But this didn’t seem like looking back to 2002. Because of what Whitford, Hill and everyone else was able to do, it felt like we were telling this story right now.
Which was, of course, the intended mission. What was said in 2002 is still relevant today, maybe even moreso because of how much our country is facing and thus how much is riding on this election. This special wasn’t just done to be a nostalgia trip. It was done to mean something. To say something.
And that’s exactly what it did. President Bartlet would have been proud. John Spencer would have been proud. As someone whose formative years were shaped by The West Wing I was proud, and now as an adult and a TV critic, I was proud too. This was what a reunion should look like; this is what television should look like.
The West Wing, once again, has inspired us to do better.
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote is now streaming exclusively on HBO Max. The complete series of The West Wing is available on digital platforms everywhere.