The new West Wing reunion special is a reminder of the show's highs — and its lows
Special hits the right notes, but reminds that American politics is more ruthless than on TV, says critic
When Sonia Saraiya first learned that most of the cast of The West Wing would be reuniting for a live episode to encourage Americans to vote, she says she was cynical.
After all, this wasn't the first time that cast members from a popular television show had come together for a reunion special during the pandemic. 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, for instance, both staged their own specials.
"It's great when Hollywood people get together for a good cause, but sometimes the nostalgia or the kind of fan service element of it overtakes making it something that people really want to watch," said Saraiya, a television critic for Vanity Fair and a fan of the Aaron Sorkin-created political drama since she was a teenager.
"And I think in the specific case of The West Wing with the election, the [show] has such an interesting role in the American imagination. There are some people who really revile the show, even as it does have its very loyal fans, and partly that's because it presents this idea of American politics that is so idealistic and earnest and very much wearing rose-coloured glasses."
Still, when she sat down to watch the production — an adaptation of Hartsfield's Landing, an episode from the show's third season — Saraiya said she was impressed.
"It was really great to see the cast snap back into their roles," she said. "One thing that's marvelous about the cast is that they work together so beautifully, and they're so committed to their characters. They really seem to enjoy the banter that … Aaron Sorkin gives them."
And, unlike some of the other reunion specials released throughout the pandemic, the cast of The West Wing didn't just do a table read over Zoom.
Instead, cast and crew organized a COVID-19-safe production at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, complete with furniture and other props — including a bowl for Gail, the goldfish owned by press secretary C.J. Cregg, played by Academy Award-winner Allison Janney.
"I have to say, the special is produced really beautifully," Saraiya said. "There's some really cool staging and direction … and they managed to make it a very evocative space."
'Disconnect' between fact and fiction, says TV critic
Though Saraiya enjoyed the special overall, she said the administration portrayed in Aaron Sorkin's drama "feels so removed from reality" when contrasted with the current occupants of the White House.
"I sort of felt the same excitement for the show that I have felt in the past," she said. "And also, I think with the experience of the last 20 years [of] politics, [I] feel that the show is such a fantasy and I feel that that is sad."
Saraiya added that The West Wing — for all its merits when it comes to portraying caring, civic-minded White House staff "really negotiating in good faith" — may have failed to educate its most ardent fans about "how ruthless and brutal American politics can be."
"There's this disconnect between how truly educational The West Wing is," she said.
"Speaking as an American right now, it's been a very dispiriting time to see that a lot of politicians don't act in good faith ... and it feels a little frustrating to have been sold a myth or an illusion of democracy that just isn't grounded in reality."
Saraiya acknowledged that series creator Aaron Sorkin isn't to blame, adding that shifts in U.S. politics have changed people's perception of government.
"You can see that … the same optimism that brought Obama into office, for example, has really curdled … into the intense cynicism of the Trump era," she said.
As for whether or not the special will convince Americans to go to the polls, Saraiya expressed skepticism.
"There was a part of me that felt a little bit like, what were we accomplishing here?" she said. "I'm not really sure if a West Wing cast reunion, even when filmed in a really cool way, is actually going to convince anyone more to vote. But I also understand that they want to try."
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote is currently available as part of the HBO Max streaming service.
Canadian fans, however, won't get a chance to watch the special. A spokesperson for Bell Media, which offers some HBO Max programming through its Crave streaming service, told Day 6 via email that "the special isn't being made available in Canada, as it's a fundraising event/PSA for the November election in the U.S."
Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.