TV’s ‘West Wing’ swaps fictional politics for the real thing

Actor Martin Sheen speaks inside Madison Square Garden where Pope Francis will give a mass later in the day in New York
FILE PHOTO: Actor Martin Sheen speaks inside Madison Square Garden where Pope Francis will give a mass later in the day

By Jill Serjeant

Fourteen years after television political drama “The West Wing” shut down its White House set, the show is back with its idealized version of a U.S. president and a mission to get Americans to the polls on Nov. 3 to choose a real one.

Martin Sheen – who played the liberal-leaning U.S. President Jed Bartlet on the show – reunites with fictional White House staffers portrayed by Bradley Whitford, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Dule Hill, Janel Maloney and Richard Schiff for a one-off special to promote voting.

“A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote,” to be broadcast on HBO Max on Thursday, is a staged theatrical performance of an episode from 2002, called “Hartsfield’s Landing,” in which the cerebral Bartlet plays chess with his aides while awaiting the results of a state primary election and dealing with a brewing crisis over Taiwan.

“West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin said it was chosen “because the episode ended with a feeling that we wanted the audience to have. A feeling about voting.”

While Sorkin wrote no updates to the script, the likes of former President Bill Clinton, former first lady Michelle Obama and “Hamilton” musical creator Lin-Manuel Miranda will appear during commercial breaks “giving information about voting, knocking down some untruths about voting, and doing it in their own style,” Sorkin said.

Sorkin said he was a firm believer in the influential power of movies and television in shaping ideas, but said “The West Wing” would be no different if he was writing it in today’s political environment.

“What the show was always about was a workplace drama set in a very interesting workplace,” Sorkin said.

“In our popular culture, our elected leaders are portrayed either as Machiavellian or as dolts. So I thought, what if there is a show where these people are every bit as confident and dedicated as doctors and nurses on a hospital show or the lawyers on a legal drama.”

“The West Wing” ended its seven-year run in 2006 after winning more than 20 Emmy Awards. The special was shot as a play in an empty theater in Los Angeles under coronavirus guidelines.

“This Is Us” star Sterling K. Brown takes the role of chief of staff Leo McGarry following the death in 2005 of actor John Spencer.

“It was moving to have everybody back together,” said director Thomas Schlamme. “What was stunning to me was how quickly these actors slipped right back into their characters.”

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