Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing takes over The Late Show to get out the vote

Clockwise, from top-left: Martin Sheen, Stephen Colbert, Aaron Sorkin, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff
Clockwise, from top-left: Martin Sheen, Stephen Colbert, Aaron Sorkin, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff
Screenshot: The Late Show

While there’s some truth in the idea that Aaron Sorkin’s (and then not Aaron Sorkin’s) The West Wing opened some gates for the present invasion of conscienceless conservative hypocrisy by conditioning voters to imagine that politics and a moral compass are compatible, having the cast reunite in front of W.G. Snuffy Walden’s soaring trumpet theme is still enough to raise a few goosebumps. Maybe it’s part of that same, harmfully naive worship of the myth of America that powered Sorkin’s Emmy-bait political drama, a wish for a rosier, more hopeful time that never really was. You know, when Sorkin’s “Valentine to public service” allowed his stellar cast opportunities to wax poetic about the honor and responsibility of being chosen to represent an unthinkable number of people. All in a manner that reached across the TV viewing aisle and found a common desire for America to function as the sublime crucible of ideas that it was perhaps intended, but never quite managed, to be.

But screw it, the recent trailer for the HBO Max presentation of what Sorkin told Stephen Colbert on Friday’s Late Show was definitely not “a West Wing reunion” raised those old goosebumps again, and here’s to it. Colbert turned over a rare Friday show to a Zoom call-in from Sorkin and much of the West Wing cast as they drum up interest in the October 15 special, a fundraiser for Michelle Obama’s voting rights organization When We All Vote. (It’s not like there’s any other—significantly less well-written—political theater going on that night, as it turns out.) The not-reunion (Sorkin raising the specter of various unwise Brady Bunch get-togethers) is a shot-on-stage, theater-style recreation of Season 3, Episode 15's “Hartsfield’s Landing,” with Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff and Bradley Whitford all jumping back into the walk-and-talk shoes of President Josiah Bartlet, Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, Communications Director Toby Ziegler, and Deputy Chief Of Staff Josh Lyman. Not on the call for various reasons, viewers will also see Dulé Hill, Robe Lowe, Janel Maloney, and all-star replacement for the late John Spencer’s Leo McGarry, Sterling K. Brown, while interstitial interludes will bring in former first daughter Elisabeth Moss, guest star Marlee Matlin, and non West Wing people named Bill Clinton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Samuel L. Jackson, and Mrs. Obama herself.

The episode in question, if you recall, is about Sheen’s Bartlet contemplating reelection, and wrestling with the warring moral and political implications of every move that he makes as President. (Chess features heavily, a heavy-handed but undeniably theatrical framing device. Plus, there’s the legendary Charlie-C.J. prank war.) Again, the idea of a politician fighting an existential internal moral struggle contemplating what’s best for the people he’s leading was wishful then, whereas now it might as well take place on the planet Naboo. But Sorkin, and his former company all struck familiarly aspirational notes talking up their idealistic effort to come together after 18 years in the midst of a worse public health crisis than any the Bartlet administration had to face (there was that time the truck full of nuclear waste caught fire), and pitching hard for Americans to get out and vote. Plus, the obvious affection they still feel for each other as they delighted super-fan Colbert with stories was undeniably delightful enough to melt even the most jaded TV/politics junkies.

Schiff, at one point sporting a “VOTE” COVID mask, explained where he thought Toby would be these days. (Working behind the scenes for Jaime Harrison in South Carolina trying to give one-dimensional sycophant Lindsey Graham the boot.) Janney dug deep before claiming “The Women Of Qumar” as her favorite C.J. episode, citing the fiercely feminist Cregg’s own warring conscience in reluctantly being the mouthpiece for the administration’s alliance with a brutally repressive, woman-hating regime. Whitford called returning to the fictional West Wing of Sorkin’s imagination and rat-a-tat dialogue like climbing back onto “a glorious motorcycle,” and went all Josh Lyman-wiseass when Sorkin complained that traditional fictional American politicians tended to be “Machiavellian or dolts.” (“Now we have both,” Whitford zinged, remotely.)

Everyone praised Brown for taking on the universally beloved Spencer’s role, with Whitford confessing to breaking down in tears during online rehearsals with the This Is Us star, saying it was “because it was Leo,” and because “it was an actor who lived up to the stature of John.” Schiff shared the letter he got from then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton explaining why Toby’s episode-long quest to fix Social Security wouldn’t work, while Sorkin explained that he was famously gone from the show by that point, so it wasn’t his fault. Wrapping things up, Colbert even got a Sorkin-penned “fugue-like” Aaron Sorkin monologue about the importance of voting, especially now. (You know, since Republicans are openly stating that democracy doesn’t mean old white men can’t just do whatever they want regardless of the will of the voters, and are actively and transparently trying to disenfranchise literally everyone who doesn’t agree with them.) So call it an electorate-opiate if you must, but at least The West Wing’s not-reunion will, once more, give Americans a vision of what politicians who actually give a shit would look like.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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