The West Wing

Hartsfield’s Landing: a West Wing story about how much your vote matters

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This was written just before the American presidential election.

It’s been a hard year. People are reaching out for comfort. You might have remodelled a room, bought new art, a rug, plants; got new clothes, even though you have nowhere to go; hunkered down to watch TV, as we face whatever the fuck this is and is going to continue to be.

How can money be sucked out of you? Pay-per-view football, a live-streamed gig (remember gigs?!), benefit for a struggling theatre, donation to a food bank or community food project? Are you bereaved? Working, furloughed, made redundant or on the dole? Getting government money, barely enough to survive on? (which you – not the rich – will be repaying via higher taxes for the next two decades) Or have you fallen through the social support cracks into anxiety-induced near-penury?

The roulette wheel spins, we pick and yet… sameness. A tiny event like a distanced visit with a loved one marks out a day. You pounce on any work offered, as who knows when the next will come. Talking a walk in a wood or park near home, if you don’t have a garden, has become important, and yet it takes a gargantuan effort to muster any energy to go out. Out in shops or on public transport, on overloaded buses, half-full tubes or empty commuter trains, you weave around the chin and nose cunts, too self-absorbed, too selfish, to notice or care about fallen masks. Recipes distract, it’s a surprising interest in cooking a passable version of food you can no longer order in restaurants. An acceptance that there will likely be another year of this shit. Who knew the end of the world as we knew it would be so… slow.

In reaching out, maybe you (re)discovered something that doesn’t remind you of all this. John sang, ‘whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright’. Me? Buffy again. The warm, delightful Schitt’s Creek. The viciously good Better Things. And partly because of all this and partly because of White House occupancy, a walk back to the warm hug of how American politics can be of The West Wing.

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I’m not sure any other show inspires such devotion and blame. American journalists are obsessed with ripping it up, as if it actively harmed their country. It’s dated, smug, preachy, a liberal fantasy, or an act of self-harm so egregious you’d think people voted for the White House’s occupant because Toby Ziegler chewed a cigar and expressed a progressive opinion that social security could be saved for generations, healthcare should be available to all and university tuition should be tax-deductible (an idea so left-wing it was backed by Rand Paul, one of the most viciously right-wing/libertarian politicians). TWW has a huge amount in common with the sweeter small-government politics of Parks and Recreation, a show that never got called a liberal fantasy, despite being exactly that (with showrunner Mike Schur massively influenced by The West Wing). It might come down to creator/head writer (for the first four of its seven seasons) Aaron Sorkin, the Bono of screenwriting. Journalists hate that guy. Yes, The Newsroom was bad; yes, Studio 60 was flawed but watchable; but The Social Network, Molly’s Game, Sports Night, Moneyball, Charlie Wilson’s War, A Few Good Men, The American President and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are all very good indeed.

Such hatred is based on a shallow understanding of The West Wing. The administration achieved… very little. There is no triumphalism; they don’t remake America. They were blocked by Republicans (portrayed as John McCain types, not venal Mitch McConnell types, at least during the Sorkin years), blocked by themselves and blocked by circumstance, incompetence, arrogance and hubris. Yes, they are sexist. The sexual harassment in the boys’ club workplace is sometimes borderline, sometimes blatant. But the idea that Sorkin painted perfect characters and we should all wring our hands over the damage they did to liberal causes because of their implausible idealism, and that we should stop trying to make America like this, is naïve. It’s not like those who love it are blind to its flaws. The West Wing Weekly podcast calls out those flaws in detail. But it also posits that, especially given the trauma of the last four years, politics can be different. Why not? What’s wrong with a bit of hope?

TWWW, co-presented by podcaster Hrishi Hirway (Song Exploder) and former cast member Josh Malina, started in March 2016 and was a deep dive, with episode breakdowns and interviews featuring ex-cast members, guest stars, technicians, producers, writers, directors, famous fans and a whole bunch of experts – senators, speechwriters, military figures, press secretaries, chiefs of staff and more, most of whom worked in the real White Houses of the last 40 years. These were political operatives from the administrations of Nixon, Carter, Johnson, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton (whose White House the show is largely based on) and Obama (whose staffers told the cast they went into politics because they grew up watching The West Wing). If you like to know how things are made, if you want to be inside baseball, as they say, it’s a wonderful insight.

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The West Wing is a relic, as are other late-90s-early-2000s shows about cops, lawyers, doctors and aliens (and by the way, nobody writes articles saying The X-Files damaged America because it popularised conspiracy theories and pushed them into the mainstream, even though arguably it did).

I don’t doubt that getting the band back together for the podcast is part of the reason that Sorkin, who gave TWWW his full, grateful participation and appeared in many episodes, decided to come back for a one-off reunion episode to benefit When We All Vote (it’s supposed to be a nonpartisan organisation but I don’t see any Republicans in its ranks apart from a few local mayors; nevertheless, the episode raised more than $1m for it). And so, in this era of visors and distances, most of the cast of The West Wing got together in LA in September and filmed a staged reading of season three’s Hartsfield’s Landing. It is, simply, about how important it is to vote, with side plots of a chess game (figurative) with China and Taiwan, and two chess games (literal) between the president, Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), and two of his staff, Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and his deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe).



I got an evening of it going, first watching the 2002 original to play spot the difference. The 2020 version started thus, with Bradley Whitford (Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman), now a multiple Emmy winner, giving a bit of charming side-eye, fully aware of the ridiculousness of the entire enterprise: “We understand that some people don’t fully appreciate the benefit of unsolicited advice from actors. We do know that. And if HBO Max was willing to point a camera at the ten smartest people in America, we’d gladly clear the stage for them. But the camera’s pointed at us. And 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.”

We were off. All the setups are on the same stage, LA’s Orpheum Theater. The design, deceptively simple, is stunningly directed by the executive producer of the Sorkin years, Thomas Schlamme. He is the ‘walk’ of the famed ‘walk and talk’. It asks whether a TV drama can be broken down, reverse-staged: usually plays become films, not the other way round. The dynamic energy of the 2002 episode is brought about by camera movement and the actors’ physical movement, as they rush from office to office… now, in 2020, nobody goes much of anywhere, and the power of the setting is allowed to come through, which lets the actors, cameras, plot and even the chess pieces settle. That comparable stillness is what makes sure the dialogue sings even more than it did first time around.

On first watch, I found it all so moving. Eighteen years have passed. Some of the women look different but the same, in the way that Hollywood insists women’s faces must look. The men look genuinely older, greyer, more worn (even Rob Lowe). But certainly, the political devastation of the last four years sees the toll written on each face. The lines were delivered with more anger in 2002; this time there’s weariness, a resignation to the mileage taken on. Adding poignancy, one role had to be recast, because of the passing of John Spencer, whose Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, was TWW’s heart. Leo was transformed into a younger version, played very differently by Sterling K Brown (Sorkin said if he ever rebooted TWW – making clear he would never do so – Brown should be the president). Brown did a great job: being nothing like Spencer helped both him and viewers disassociate from the overall sadness of the lost cast member.

On second watch, beyond how lovely it was to see them all together again, I remembered how sharply funny so much of Sorkin’s dialogue is, even in tense moments. To leaven the China plot and the big finish, a heavy chess game between Toby and the President, there was a lighter chess match with Sam, wherein the machinations of the diplomatic dance between China, the US and Taiwan were played out like real-life Battleship. There was a very funny thread, where press secretary CJ (Oscar winner Allison Janney) and Charlie (Dulé Hill, the youngest cast member – now 45 – the president’s ‘body man’, an executive assistant) battle over a missing paper schedule, which escalates into a prank war that puts the life of a goldfish in danger. We also wisely avoid the fairly inappropriate workplace flirtation between Josh and his deputy Donna (Janel Moloney), who get the title card plot. Hartsfield’s Landing – based on two real towns in Bartlet’s home state, New Hampshire: Hart’s Location and the brilliantly named Dixville Notch – is where 42 voters will cast their ballots at midnight: the town has been historically successful in predicting the general election winner, so these 42 votes matter. There is a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through here, wherein we are half a season away from the general election (Bartlet beats Rob Ritchie, played by Barbra Streisand’s husband, James Brolin, to win his second term) so what are they voting for? It can’t be to choose Bartlet as the candidate because he is running unopposed so wouldn’t be on the ballot. But… we gotta let it go.

Josh It is absurd that 42 people have this kind of power.

C.J. I think it’s nice.

Josh Do you?

C.J. I think it’s democracy at its purest. They all gather at once…

Josh At a gas station.

C.J. It’s not a gas station, it’s nice. There’s a registrar of voters, the names are called in alphabetical order, they put a folded piece of paper into a box. See, this is the difference between you and me.

Josh You’re a sap?

C.J. Those 42 people are teaching us something about ourselves: that freedom is the glory of God, that democracy is its birthright, and that our vote matters.

Josh You’re getting the pizza?

C.J. Yeah, I should call ahead.

The show said it best: “Decisions are made by those who show up”. And so, Josh elevates 42 votes to a place of high drama and high importance. Not just because politics is a superstitious game, but because every vote does count. A couple he met on the campaign trail, the Flenders, have called Donna to say that they are thinking about voting for Ritchie. She is sent out into the cold with a mobile (yes, even in 2002!) to try and persuade the Flenders their two votes matter. Back and forth it goes:

Donna They think the President is going to privatise Social Security.

Josh He’s not going to... That’s the other guys! He’s not going to privatise Social Security! He’ll... He’ll privatise New Hampshire before he privatizes Social Security!

A side note for the nerds: this remake takes a deep-dive into the supporting cast from the original. The journalists in the press room, all in multiple episodes, are recognisable to long-term fans. CJ’s aide, Carol, is there – played by Melissa Fitzgerald, she quit acting and founded Justice4Vets, an org which campaigns for veterans’ treatment courts. The China plot brought back the wonderful Anna Deavere Smith, who as well as being a brilliant actress (and professor) is a Pulitzer-nominated playwright: her one-woman show about the prison-for-profit system, Notes from the Field, played off-Broadway and at the Royal Court. She took no part in TWWW, purely, we were told, because of being too busy so it was a real pleasure to see her again.

Reading the scene directions [Cut to: Int. Josh’s bullpen – Night – Donna comes in, wrapped in a long coat] (that sort of thing) was the brilliant Emily Proctor. She joined in season two to play a Republican operative, Ainsley Hayes. President Bartlet’s nature was to be interested in those who disagreed with him, like Lincoln’s ‘team of rivals’ (as described by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), so he hired her. But there were, as Sorkin put it, ‘too many mouths to feed’; Procter was offered another job (CSI: Miami) and left for a bigger break. He regretted not making space for her, and I’m certain that’s why she appears (rather than any attempt to reach out to Republican voters). Hayes presented a realistic face of conservatism that never sneered, not even when she argued against the Equal Rights Amendment.

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The episode’s big storyline, though, is Toby’s chess game with the president. The scene, simmering, comes to a boil with a question about what voters want. A guy they can have a beer with? A rich guy they’ve been conned into thinking isn’t elite? The smartest kid in the class? Watching that scene makes you recoil, knowing what we do about who sits in the Oval. While Bartlet has had enough of Toby, Toby has had enough of tiptoeing around the idea of whether a candidate should be ashamed about being smart and capable.

Toby Abbey [the First Lady] told me this story once. She said you were at a party once where you were bending the guy’s ear. You were telling him that Ellie [his middle daughter] had mastered her multiplication tables and she was in third grade reading at a fifth-grade level and she loved books and she scored two goals for her soccer team the week before, you were going on and on... And what made that story remarkable was that the party you were at was in Stockholm and the man you were talking to was King Gustav, who two hours earlier had given you the Nobel Prize in economics. [laughs] I mean, my god, you just won the Nobel Prize and all you wanted to talk about to the King of Sweden was Ellie’s multiplication tables!

Bartlet What’s your point?

Toby You’re a good father, you don’t have to act like it. You’re the President, you don’t have to act like it. You’re a good man, you don’t have to act like it. You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken... Do not, do not, do not act like it!

Bartlet I don’t want to be killed.

Toby Then make this election about smart, and not... Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight. And you’ve been holding me up for too many rounds. [Toby lays down his king on the board. Bartlet stands and turns to walk out.]

Bartlet Pick your king up. We’re not done playing yet.

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That scene is incredibly powerful. It was in 2002. And it’s 100 times more so today. Sheen and Schiff are remarkable, two heavyweights slugging it out, a masterclass in tone, emphasis, balance. There is, it’s been said before, real music in the cadences of Sorkin’s words.

We know it should work like that. Because being president is a serious job and these are serious times and elevating an unserious person to its heights is disastrous. Who sits in the White House is always… a mirror. This is a bleak moment in American history and we all know the conservative side suppresses voting because they benefit when fewer people vote. So we must hammer the idea every time even if it never changes turnout: voting is a right and should be widely accessible.

In the end, with the Flenders and their economic anxiety, Josh gives in, saying ‘let ’em vote…’ And the lesson is done. This show is about public service. It’s not a harmful bubble to live in for 42.5 minutes. Between scenes, where ad breaks usually go, are unsubtle messages about voting from Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Samuel L Jackson, Elisabeth Moss (who the show discovered, she played the Bartlets’ youngest daughter), Lin-Manuel Miranda (a serious TWW nerd, he and Hamilton director Thomas Kail did a special TWWW episode and his last Hamilton curtain call was done to TWW theme). There was a return for the iconic Marlee Matlin (who played pollster Joey Lucas), the only deaf actress to win an Oscar, who looked beautiful: and looked her age. Her bit with Whitford was on why voter fraud is nonsensical, how it doesn’t and cannot happen. Some of these sections are serious, some funny, some pointed, especially interjections from Jackson and Black cast members Dulé Hill and Sterling K Brown. In a glowing review of the special, Vanity Fair’s TV critic said the show ‘feels so removed from reality’ but she said that out of sadness, rather than criticism. Buying an idea/myth of politicians acting in good faith isn’t a failure of The West Wing. You should believe that, even if it feels we’ve gone far away from Obama’s optimism into today’s cynicism. We should all know that – and this goes for politics and pandemics – it won’t always be like this.

To end, this clip (from earlier in the third season) is on the nose. It’s the worst of Sorkin if you can’t bear him, the best of Sorkin if you get him. And call me a sentimental old fool if you want, but I love it. In it, a leak has embarrassed the President and Toby assembles the junior staff. The audience expects him to be angry, take the roof off, with a lesson about loyalty. He does the opposite, and even out of context it’s… what the show is all about.



The West Wing.

It’s just a TV show: lighten up, don’t take it seriously.

It’s not just a TV show: it matters, and it has changed lives.

It’s okay for both of those things to be true at the same time.

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Final note: The West Wing Weekly’s special episode on The West Wing’s reunion special