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‘West Wing’ reunion review: HBO Max Special is a compelling fantasy

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Supported by the excellent direction of the great Thomas Schlamme, the good intentions of the “West Wing” performance largely offset its unresolved importance.

Most evenings, after the emails have been answered and the television checked, I grab a pen and start writing postcards. Sometimes the messages are in favor of the Ohio Supreme Court justices, sometimes they are directed to the South Carolina congressional candidates. Addresses are pouring in from a nonprofit trying to help get the vote out, and postcards are piling up on the bar cart next to my door. As the ink is weak and my hand starts to ache – it turns out that typing all day and writing all night is not the way to healthy wrists – I often wonder: this helps he? Like so many citizens desperate for change in November, I want to do something to facilitate change, and I need do something to allay my growing anxiety.

I only bring up this because I felt a similar desire throughout “A West Wing Special,” the HBO Max reunion of Aaron Sorkin’s first NBC drama. There is a clear desire to make a difference, and not just because the recreation of “Hartsfield’s Landing” (Season 3, Episode 14) is touted as a benefit for When We All Vote, a non-profit, non-partisan organization. dedicated to increasing participation in elections; Nor is it simply that this hour-long special is replacing its 17-minute commercials with direct-to-camera speeches from former President Bill Clinton and former First Lady Michelle Obama. It’s not even that Bradley Whitford explicitly declares his goal at the top of the episode: to turn at least one non-voter into a voter.

It’s “The West Wing” itself that strives to feel vital again, at a time when its fantasy version of DC politics is dead and gone.

As a reimagining of a strong TV episode, the new take on “Hartsfield’s Landing” goes wonderfully. The actors reprise their roles as aging rock stars breathing new life into old hits. Sure, the Josh (Bradley Whitford) and Donna (Janel Maloney) dynamic seem a bit more inappropriate, but the episode is all work, zero flirtation. Emily Procter (who played Ainsley Hayes) reading the stage instructions is an odd choice, even though she played a Republican and that’s meant to be a non-partisan advantage.

And Sterling K. Brown stepping in as Leo McGarry (originally played by the late John Spencer) was always going to be a notable departure; Spencer’s wrinkled face and sagacious wit expressed the story he inherited from the President’s chief of staff and longtime friend, and he was almost 10 years older than Brown when he first took on the role. But Leo is not a big part of “Hartsfield’s Landing” and Brown conveys the necessary authority without inflating the part beyond its relevance to this episode. (Plus, backstage footage of him dancing with Martin Sheen is priceless.)

West Wing Reunion West Wing Special HBO Max Sterling K. Brown

Sterling K. Brown in “A West Wing Special”

HBO Max / Eddy Chen

Even with greats like Allison Janney doing pranks and Martin Sheen whipping his tortoiseshell glasses (cool frames for his signature move), the star of “A West Wing Special” is its director, Thomas Schlamme. The Emmy-winning legend who helped make the original series a TV touchstone here takes on a new, albeit similar, challenge: recreating his iconic walk-and-talk energy without the space to walk very far. Sorkin’s language was always ready for the theater; lots of dialogue, lots of talk, lots of exposure. But just as “The West Wing” couldn’t feel like a dueling lecture series, “A West Wing Special” couldn’t feel like a staged reading. (Originally this was going to be a tabletop read, but, probably when HBO Max got involved, they decided to do it. something more.”)

Schlamme, once again, takes up the challenge. Not only does he find visually appealing ways to introduce scenes – like Donna’s shadow cast on exterior doors – but he’s so smart how he fills the frame. The looming columns and interior sections of the White House linger in the background of some shots to remind viewers where they are, but that doesn’t stop Schlamme from incorporating the empty LA Orpheum theater seats. in other settings, or even to withdraw completely. to show the house lights above two actors playing chess. He’ll even use carefully placed coffee mugs or popcorn bowls to accentuate movement, and it all adds up to a master class on maximizing minimal space; directors doing the opposite – adapting plays for the screen, rather than TV shows for the stage – should turn to this special for advice.

Once the beautiful production is over, the question arises of what it has accomplished. Over the years, since the drama left NBC, “The West Wing” has remained a prolific force in the way progressives view politics, in large part thanks to its accessibility on Netflix. New viewers embrace its charming charm and ambitious message, while seasoned fans find its unique combination of comfort and prestige television extremely watchable.

But, as Samuel L. Jackson clearly states in his part of the special, “Our politics today are a far cry from the romantic view of ‘The West Wing’.” Anyone who uses the series as a benchmark for how DC works today lives in a dream world, and the special seems to wink at the audience between takes, acknowledging the more recent one. critical against his phantasmal version of American politics – before continuing with the phantasm anyway.

Whitford, with his humiliating speech about how little useful actors are in the fight for the vote, says so in the intro. (Q: “What can we, the People’s Choice Award nominees for ‘The West Wing’ to help?” A: “Nothing. […] So why don’t you go put on one of your little shows where everything works out at the end? “). Then Jackson goes directly to the “fantasy” label of the mid-term show. “An inaccessible television fantasy?” he asks. “Why? Vote.”

West Wing Reunion West Wing Special HBO Max Bradley Whitford Allison Janney

Bradley Whitford and Allison Janney in “A West Wing Special”

HBO Max / Eddy Chen

So, are they going? Will viewers finish the special, spread the good word and go to exercise their civic responsibilities? Or will they click on Netflix and watch more of “The West Wing”? Will they remember what they saw in a day, a week or a month?

I would say yes, to all of the above, but whether “A West Wing Special” actually converts non-voters to register, vote or otherwise participate in the next election is a question we will never be able to answer. reply. Many observers must be well aware of the election and their role in it, and it seems more likely that this special – only available to those who are able and willing to pay $ 15 a month for HBO Max – is preaching to the choir. (That “A West Wing Special” arrives on a premium streaming service the same day its home network gives free advertising to Donald Trump, again, by far is the most frustrating thing about this special. Even Republican Robert Ritchie, Bartlet’s Season 3 Presidential Opponent from florida, would recognize that the “West Wing” special has more intrinsic value to voters than anything the walking super-spreader spits out.)

Still, the reunion’s determination to capitalize on its prolonged grip on people is an admirable twist on the series’ continuing legacy. As Jackson points out at the end of his speech, the TV fantasy can be ambitious, as long as no one confuses it with reality. People who complain about actual candidates and wish they could vote for Bartlet instead need to be able to identify who Bartlet would vote for himself (you know, if he was real). “A West Wing Special” readily admits this and urges people to see beyond fantasy; to listen to a real president, a real first lady, and real people who want to inspire and inform.

Donations, SMS, volunteering, social media posts, postcards: sending anything into a void with a purpose takes a little hope; a little confidence; a little fancy. Do I think someone takes my postcard out of their mailbox and thinks, “Uh, I guess I will vote this year ”? Probably not. But I must try. We all do it – even the “West Wing”.

Category B

“A West Wing Special to Enjoy When We All Vote” is now streaming via HBO Max.

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