A West Wing Special on HBO and the merging of theater and politics, stage and screen, Democrats and democracy

The staged reading of an 18-year-old episode of the TV series “The West Wing” might seem like a peculiar exercise in nostalgia, and maybe vanity, by its creator Aaron Sorkin, who’s gone on to such prestige projects as the film The Social Network and the Broadway adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird (and is also the writer and director of the current film The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix.). But having seen this hour-long special on HBO right before waiting three hours on a line to vote early,  I had time to think about this unusual production not so much as art or even entertainment, but as a glimpse into some emerging trends, all of which have to do with redefinitions and the breaking down of conventional distinctions.

Stage and Screen

“A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote,” as it’s officially called, reunites the original cast of the West Wing on the stage of Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater, without an audience, to perform the episode entitled “Hartsfield’s Landing,” which originally aired in Season 3 on February 27, 2002.  The viewer is kept consistently conscious that the scenes are taking place in a legitimate theater. A stage manager reads stage directions; we see the empty seats in the auditorium, sometimes directly, sometimes in the background of a scene;  there are even interludes between scenes where we get black-and-white shots of the actors rehearsing and joshing around on stage, wearing face shields. A cynic might wonder whether this is in part an attempt to elevate the script: Yes, Aaron Sorkin might be saying, this was just an episode on commercial television, but it was good enough to be considered a play. (It is easy to presume the author’s aura of self-importance whenever one listens to the musical fanfare that was ever-present during the series.) At the same time, though, this special could not be mistaken for a Zoom play. The camerawork is varied and expert, with many closeups that seem indistinguishable from normal television viewing. This hybrid can be read as a variation of what’s been going on since the pandemic shut down theater buildings in mid-March: The emerging of online theater as a genre (an art form?) involves the merging of stage and screen in ways that are creating all sorts of growth pains (as one can see in the jurisdictional dispute between Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA)

Theater and Politics

It becomes clear why they picked this particular episode to re-enact at this moment right before Election Day. As usual, there are a number of subplots woven into the episode, not all of which are germane. But it is all taking place on the day before the New Hampshire primary at a time when President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is seeking re-election.  The title of the episode is the name of a small town in New Hampshire in which all the citizens are the first to vote, at midnight; and their choice has always wound up winning the general election. Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is upset because a couple named the Flenders, who used to support New Hampshire favorite son Bartlet, are planning to vote for his rival, Republican Richard Ritchie, which would look bad because the Hartfield’s Landing vote always gets lot of publicity.  So Josh asks Donna (Janel Moloney) to telephone the Flenders and get them to change their mind.

(A couple of fact checks here: There is a small New Hampshire town, called Dixville Notch, that is known for being one of the first places to declare its results during both the New Hampshire primaries and the general election. But the episode is clearly taking place before the primaries,  not the general election, so the Flenders could not choose Republican Ritchie over Democrat Bartlet unless they were registered as independents and had decided to vote in the Republican primary rather than the Democratic one. )

In any case, that turns out to be just one of the subplots connected to voting. President Bartlet is forced to deal with mounting tensions between China and Taiwan that threaten to escalate into a military confrontation. The real reason for the tension, we learn, is that Taiwan is about to announce its first “free elections.” (Taiwan held the first direct election of the President and Vice President in 1996.)

This theme of the importance of voting is not hard to discern in the show, but cast and guests drive it home like a blunt force instrument. Before the drama begins, Bradley Whitford offers a jokey introduction in which he admits that, as he (or the writer) puts it, “we understand that some people don’t fully appreciate the unsolicited advice from actors…  We feel, at a time like this, that the risk of appearing obnoxious is too small a reason to stay quiet if we can get even one new voter to vote.”

Then, during what were the commercial breaks during the initial broadcast,  there are a variety of messages about the importance of voting:  Former First Lady Michelle Obama (vote, and encourage everybody you know to do so, “because every vote will make a difference in this election.”), President Bill Clinton (who details the history of voter suppression before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the Supreme Court gutted seven years ago),, Marlee Matlin (who explains how voting by mail is safe), Lin-Manuel Miranda (who explains why we may not learn the results of this election on Election Day itself.)

Dulé Hill and Sterling K. Brown, the two Black members of the cast, make a special appeal: “Too many young Black men don’t think their vote matters” (Sterling K. Brown is the only cast member not in the original episode; he takes the role of chief of staff Leo McGarry, which was originally portrayed by John Spencer, who died during the final season.)

Samuel L. Jackson, to his credit (and the producers’) acknowledges – politely – what critics less politely have found irksome about The West Wing. “Our politics today are a far cry from the romantic vision of the West Wing,” Jackson says to the camera. “But it’s also a far cry from the vision that’s in our heads and in our heart. And to change that you have to vote.”

Democrats and Democracy

For the special, Time Warner, the owners of HBO, is “partnering” with When We All Vote, which describes itself as a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that is on a mission to increase participation in every election and close the race and age voting gap. You might scoff at the idea that a special that features Michelle Obama (co-chair of When We All Vote), Bill Clinton and Lin-Manuel Miranda is bipartisan, but it’s hardly the organization’s fault that the Republican party seems intent on decreasing voter participation.

In her 2018 book One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy, Emory University Professor Carol Anderson wrote of the 2016 election:

“Using a series of voter suppression tactics, the GOP harassed, obstructed, frustrated, and purged American citizens from having a say in their own democracy. The devices the Republicans used are variations on a theme going back more than 150 years. They target the socioeconomic characteristics of a people (poverty, lack of mobility, illiteracy, etc.) and then soak the new laws in “racially neutral justifications—such as administrative efficiency” or “fiscal responsibility”—to cover the discriminatory intent. Republican lawmakers then act aggrieved, shocked, and wounded that anyone would question their stated purpose for excluding millions of American citizens from the ballot box.”

If anything, it’s only gotten worse:

A Campaign of Voter Subtraction
by Ibram X. Kendi in The Atlantic

The GOP’s agenda under Trump: Voter suppression, pandemic denial and a personality cult  by Michael Gerson in The Washington Post

This is Why Republicans Fear Change by Jamelle Bouie in the New York Times:
“It is well known, at this point, that as a general rule Republicans are more likely to restrict voters than to encourage them. Across the country, Republican lawmakers and officials have erected new obstacles to voting, from strict voter identification laws (passed immediately in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruling that killed a key piece of the Voting Rights Act) to poll closures, limits on voter registration and, most recently, new restrictions on mail-in voting. Just this week, the conservative Supreme Court majority sided with Alabama election officials against curbside voting for voters with disabilities, as well as those vulnerable to Covid-19.”


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply