I distinctly remember the first time I watched an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” It was the summer of 2017 and I was without faith in the American political process, so I looked to idealized representations of American politics in popular culture. I binged the show on Netflix and had my belief in democracy renewed. This hopefulness that I experienced is what the HBO Max special “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote” sought to capture.
In the reunion, there is a staged rendition of the episode "Hartsfield's Landing," which CNN describes as “a tense standoff between the US and China from the Emmy-winning White House drama's third season.” Instead of traditional commercial breaks, however, the audience is provided with behind-the-scenes moments and calls to vote from influential individuals like Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Samuel L. Jackson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. At the beginning of the special, cast member Bradley Whitford makes explicit the aim of the effort — “to turn at least one non-voter into a voter.”
The plot of “Hartsfield’s Landing” follows a tiny hamlet’s electoral primary and intercuts with musings on the game of chess and sessions of a complex game of chicken over the value of democracy. The fictional President Bartlett enters war games with the Chinese government to ensure that Taiwan will be able to hold their planned elections.
Of course, this is a restaging of an episode from 2002, so the cast looks different and supplies a more gray interpretation of the story. However, as IndieWire suggests, “the cast slips back into their roles like aging rock stars breathing new life into old hits.” The role of Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, originally filled by the late, great John Spencer, is played by Sterling K. Brown, who performs admirably in his limited role.
When compared against the narratives of US interventionism and the strife the US has caused worldwide in the name of democracy, it is easy to be cynical about this episode’s message, but I still find the message to be hopeful and important. Freedom to choose one’s government is important, both domestically and abroad, and we should value that freedom.
Much of the strength of the reimagined episode comes from its direction. Thomas Schlamme, who worked on the original show, breathes life into the political drama in new ways. The reunion is set in the L.A. Orpheum theater, and through his inventive and kinetic camerawork, Schlamme animates the drama in the stripped-back space. His use of the gate at the front of the stage is so simple yet intelligent in communicating a location change. In several shots, Schlamme purposefully displays the empty hall and hanging house lights around the actors, adding to a sense of emptiness and intimacy the special cultivates.
But is the special successful in what it set out to do? Did it manage to “turn at least one non-voter into a voter?” It is difficult to answer these questions. The special is available only on HBO Max, a subscription-based streaming platform, which limits its potential audience. In addition to the exclusivity of the special, many Americans have already made up their mind as to if and who they will vote for. At the time of writing this article, over 50 million Americans have voted in the 2020 election, suggesting a record high turnout could be in store.
Ultimately, we may never know if the “West Wing” reunion achieved its goal of creating more voters, but did it spark hope in the same way that my first binge of the series did years ago?
“Our politics today are a far cry from the romantic vision in ‘The West Wing,'” says Samuel L. Jackson in his direct-to-audience address. The vision that gave me so much hope is a work of fiction, but does that fiction still have value? I would wager that it does. If a fictional White House from the late ‘90s and early aughts is still an escapist fantasy in today’s dramatically different political climate, then it is important to observe this fiction's attributes. It is important to see what about it, other than the quippy dialogue and dramatized scenarios, gives us hope today. Maybe by doing that we could make our current electoral process less disheartening. Americans are turning out in record numbers. What is giving them hope?
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