The performers weren’t doing it just for kicks, though they did seem to get a kick out of re-embodying the roles they’d made iconic, displaying an easy camaraderie and a deftly familiar mastery of the dialogue quirks and character eccentricities we’ve since come to call “Sorkinesque.” No, they’d reunited with the purpose of supporting When We All Vote, the nonpartisan organization founded by Michelle Obama, with the purpose of encouraging electoral participation particularly among groups with significant undervotes, such as youth and communities of color.
It’s a tremendously worthy cause. The event — streamed on HBO Max (HBO is a sister company of CNN under the ownership of WarnerMedia) — was a generous donation of time and the precious commodity of celebrity. And for those who were young, scrappy and hungry back when “The West Wing” was at peak relevance, it was likely a blissful injection of high-minded liberal nostalgia directly into the femoral artery.
But if it was tacitly intended as a motivational reminder of better days, days when we had Presidents Who Acted Like Presidents, I can’t be the only one for whom the performance had the opposite effect. Because by making a direct appeal to fans of an earlier (and fictional) presidential era, the actors and creators pulled an anodyne scrim across what’s happening in today’s White House.
Which means that even as someone who enjoyed “The West Wing” in the early 2000s, I found myself tooth-grindingly annoyed Thursday at all of the purposefully droll “business” occupying most of the episode: Deputy chief of staff Josh (Bradley Whitford) obsesses over the electoral outcome of the fictional early-voting 42-person hamlet of Hartsfield’s Landing. Press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) and POTUS bodyman Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) engage in a dubious duel of escalating pranks. President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) plays chess with senior aides Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) — all of this taking place under the looming shadow of a potential hot war with China over Taiwan, which exactly one staffer seems to be taking seriously: Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (played by Sterling K. Brown, filling in for the late John Spencer).
That’s why in “The West Wing,” the equivalent of a coworker accidentally eating the donut you’d been saving in the office breakroom gets as much — or more — screen time as a potential geopolitical conflict that could cascade into World War III and erase millions of lives.
But from the vantage point of today, “humanize” reads a lot like “normalize,” and we’ve gotten desperately tired of attempts to normalize what is decidedly not normal.
Yes, it’s certainly fun dipping back into the vintage milieu of a more innocent time, but Bradley Whitford, out of character, jokingly admitted something close to the truth in his introductory remarks before the performance: “We went to When We All Vote and said, ‘You guys are a great organization, helping to get out the vote, combat voter suppression — what can we, the People’s Choice Award nominated cast of the West Wing do to help? They thought about it a moment and said, ‘Nothing. You have no skills or experience that can help us in any way. Why don’t you go put on one of your little shows where everything works out in the end?’ And so, forgetting to factor for sarcasm, we said ‘Sure!'”