The result, now available on HBO Max, is everything a die-hard fan could want: proof that President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen), a Nobel-winning economist who served two terms in an alternate-reality America many years ago, is still somehow with us, along with his loyal aides. They live in an enviable world in which the people have elected one of the smartest men in the country to lead it, instead of one of the dumbest. In that world, every word uttered is emphatic and sharp and true.
So many words, words upon words, the effluence of the dialogue being the show’s draw, as well as one of its drawbacks. What sounded so glidingly lyrical back then verges on the ridiculous and grating now, unless, of course, you have too much invested in “The West Wing’s” idealized Washington, where centric principles almost always triumph over politics. That’s a pipe dream that most viewers put away long ago. Other fans cling to it, watching “West Wing” episodes in endless Netflix loops, not merely as a diverting means of escape from the hideousness of 2020, but as a privileged form of zoning out — a detached state of denial at the very worst time to be detaching.
The special is Sorkin and company’s way of insisting on their continued influence in what is essentially America’s moment of electoral reckoning: Will enough people vote this year? In significant numbers? Unimpeded by those who would prevent them from exercising their rights? “West Wing” senses that its presence is somehow required. And what better cause for it to align with than When We All Vote, launched and co-chaired in 2018 by former first lady Michelle Obama as a nonpartisan (mmm-kay) effort to get out the vote?
“The West Wing” is still so quick on its toes that its first move is to have cast member Bradley Whitford head off the naysayers with a wry, self-effacing intro. “We understand that some people don’t appreciate the benefit of unsolicited advice from actors — we do know that,” Whitford says. “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.”
It is difficult to imagine the lost souls within the Venn diagram proposed here, that there are swaths of Americans among HBO Max subscribers and “West Wing” fans who haven’t yet registered to vote or aren’t already among the 15 million or so people — and counting — who have already cast ballots.
Here we are anyhow, torturing ourselves with the implausible idealism of “The West Wing” once more. Everyone in it is older, yet frozen in the early aughts: Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Whitford) still exerts passive-aggressive domination over his seemingly willing assistant, Donna Moss (Janel Moloney); press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) still blows in and out with the best lines, always talking, never not talking, but outsmarted this time during a prolonged interoffice squabble with Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), the president’s personal assistant.
The late John Spencer, who played Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, has been respectfully replaced by Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”) — a wise choice given the show’s prolonged failure to place more than a few people of color in high-ranking jobs, such as Nancy McNally, the national security adviser, played by Anna Deavere Smith (who also returns for this special).
Brooding communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) squares off over a game of chess with the president in the Oval Office, while, in another office, the president has another chess game going with deputy communications director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), all of which serves as the episode’s primary metaphor for the crisis at hand: a standoff with China over a missile test by Taiwan, a country that can only envy American independence.
As it happens, it’s also the eve of the New Hampshire primary, in which all 42 residents in the hamlet of Hartsfield’s Landing will vote at one minute past midnight, traditionally producing the first election results in a poetic expression of democracy. It’s the sort of blunt symmetry that was always Sorkin’s calling card.
For its considerable effort, there is little about “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote” worth criticizing. The staging is rather lovely — stripped down, yet super-sentimental; the scenes were produced under pandemic conditions with safety protocols for the crew and actors. A viewer can’t help but realize what a hot zone the West Wing, fictional or otherwise, can become, especially in Sorkin’s universe, where close and confidential talking-while-walking became its own kind of intimate choreography.
The episode is presented precisely as it first aired in February 2002, down to bringing in the same extras to play reporters and Secret Service detail, replete with an irritating continuity issue that has bugged observant fans for 18 years: Why is Bartlet, the unopposed incumbent, on the New Hampshire primary ballot? Or have we somehow flash-forwarded through the rest of Season 3 to Election Day? If so, why does everyone keep saying “primary”? (Oh well.)
The best parts are the interstitial breaks, taking up an additional 20 minutes, which feature Sorkinesque banter between cast members in the form of get-out-the-vote messages. In one of these, Whitford is joined by deaf actress and advocate Marlee Matlin to explain how voting fraud is, in fact, very rare. “What better way to clear up something than with sign language?” Whitford says.
There are also PSAs from other notable participants — the ubiquitous Lin-Manuel Miranda gives tips for how to be patient while waiting for official election results; the almost-as-ubiquitous Bill Clinton explains how the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
It’s strange how the thing we might most desire (to live once more in the reassuring grip of “The West Wing’s” make-believe) is also the last thing America needs right now. Bartlet, if he existed, would probably agree and record his own PSA: He would ask us to let go, get real and move on. (And vote.)
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote (64 minutes) is available for streaming on HBO Max.