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The West Wing Reunion Special Review: HBO Max’s Emotional Home Run

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About five minutes into The West Wing reunion on HBO Max, there were tears in my eyes. And I didn’t exactly understand why. Officially titled A West Wing Special, the one-hour program is a reunion of sorts in which the entire cast of the critically acclaimed NBC drama series reassembled to do a live reading of a past episode staged as a play. It’s staged beautifully. Thomas Schlamme returned as director and absolutely knocked it out of the park. And the special’s structure, too, was refreshing and informative. I’ve seen this episode of The West Wing before – many times, in fact – and I’ve even seen these actors reunited before. But there was something unmistakably unique about this special that turned me into an emotional wreck for a full hour.

The West Wing is my favorite TV show of all time, but I haven’t really been able to watch it in the past four years for, well, obvious reasons. I’ve tried. But it feels like watching an alien civilization’s idea of politics and how the executive branch operates in the United States. It’s honestly just too depressing. But seeing this episode – which is about the importance of voting in free and fair elections – restaged as a play kind of rekindled my love for this series, and conjured an emotion I haven’t felt much of over the last few years: hope.

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Image via HBO Max

President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is a fictional president with fictional problems, and I was honestly heartened that the West Wing Special acknowledged the fact that, yeah, the NBC show was a romantic ideal of how politics can and should work. But the sheer contrast of seeing a president who was smart and capable and affable and, above all else, cared about other people was a shock to my system. The combination of aptitude and compassion was what made Jed Bartlet such a likable character in the first place, and seeing those qualities in the Oval Office again – even if it was just a stage in an empty theater – really kind of shook me.

And the choice of episode was clearly no accident. The title “Hartsfield’s Landing” refers to a fictional New Hampshire town with a tiny population that, in The West Wing, historically votes at 12:01am on Election Day and has accurately predicted the winner of each Presidential Election. The entire episode revolves around this impending vote and Bartlet dealing with a global diplomacy nightmare on a moment’s notice, playing out over the course of a single night. The right to vote and a president capable of navigating a potential diplomatic disaster ASAP. Again, no accident.

But The West Wing Special’s interstitials were also kind of perfect. The entire reason for reuniting and staging this reading was to benefit the non-profit, non-partisan organization When We All Vote, and each act break was littered with familiar faces sharing information and impassioned pleas about the upcoming election in engaging, straightforward ways (Aaron Sorkin and West Wing writer Eli Attie were credited with “additional material” so I have to imagine they wrote most of these). Bradley Whitford and Marlee Matlin spoke about the safety of mail-in ballots; Samuel L. Jackson explained why voting this year is important; and Dulé Hill and Sterling K. Brown (who wonderfully filled the role of Leo McGarry for the late John Spencer) spoke passionately about Black male voter turnout. Even these act breaks – which by and large were just informative pieces – made me emotional. It’s a weird thing when Lin-Manuel Miranda speaking like a human, sharing very simple yet important information about how this year’s election will likely take days to count, makes you want to cry a little.

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Image via HBO Max

And maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why I felt kind of overwhelmed by this entire thing, because running throughout The West Wing Special was an undercurrent of kindness, directness, and empathy. Even just seeing behind-the-scenes footage of cast members laughing together, running their lines, and elbow bumping (the special was shot under strict COVID-19 safety protocols) was touching. Human beings in close contact, being nice, and working towards a common goal. What a concept!

I don’t know, maybe I’m just a sap. It’s no longer “cool” to love a show like The West Wing without adding 57 caveats about the series’ shortcomings. But The West Wing isn’t my favorite show because it’s perfect. It’s not my favorite show because of its accuracy in depicting U.S. politics. It’s my favorite show because it’s about a group of people working together to make the world a little bit of a better place, one tiny step at a time. America is work. Progress is work. I’ve spent far too much of the last four years feeling despondent, but this West Wing Special reminded me that we are, hopefully, living through an outlier in history. This is now how it’s supposed to work. This is not how it’s supposed to be.

So here’s to feeling hopeful again. One baby step at a time.

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Image via HBO Max

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