When he first heard about the West Wing reunion special on HBO Max, which debuts Thursday, October 15, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Josh Olson (A History of Violence) had one thought: Great, now we gotta do another episode of this fucking show.
Olson is one half of the podcasting duo, along with comedian and TV writer Dave Anthony (Maron), responsible for The West Wing Thing, an audio show that dissects its namesake TV series one episode at a time. Unlike most podcasts that follow this popular format, though, Anthony and Olson don’t approach their subject with reverence. Instead, their aim is to present The West Wing as a singularly corrosive force in American politics that has perpetuated incalculable and irreparable harm on society.
In other words, it’s not exactly Talking Sopranos, and it’s definitely not The West Wing Weekly, the podcast cohosted by West Wing star Joshua Malina. What the show actually represents is the most substantial document yet of a long-simmering backlash to the beloved, 27-time Emmy-winning TV series—a backlash that may have peaked just in time for its first-ever reunion.
The new special is ostensibly a Get Out the Vote initiative. It was announced on National Voter Registration Day, and it’s called A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote, a nod to the organization created by Michelle Obama, who will be appearing on the special, along with Bill Clinton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the original cast, and creator Aaron Sorkin, who coincidentally has a new movie dropping on Netflix the following day. It’s a bit of programming aimed squarely at the elusive voter demo of people who gaze back longingly at the fictional administration of Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) but have not yet made up their minds about the fast-approaching election.
“There seems to be this massive delusion on their part that they are going to have any effect on voting whatsoever,” Anthony says.
“Is there anybody watching this thing who isn’t already completely committed to Biden?” Olson adds. “I wish I could take credit for this joke, but a friend said the special could actually backfire and inspire a bunch of those folks to vote for Bartlet.”
At some point between the series finale 14 years ago and tonight’s reunion, The West Wing simultaneously became both more beloved than ever among wistful liberals, and the subject of an increasing number of think pieces and reconsiderations among left-leaning creatives. These intersecting phenomena are what ultimately caught the attention of friends Anthony and Olson, who decided to start a podcast about the series last year.
Both hosts were once real-time viewers of The West Wing, if not exactly fans. They tuned in to some episodes of the first season, during the early wave of critical hype, and thought it was . . . fine. Watchable, sure, but not exactly appointment television. Eventually, another side of the hype that had convinced them to check out the show initially ended up driving them away from it.
“The startling thing for me was the discovery that people considered it a thoughtful, adult show about politics, when I thought it was just nice liberal porn that did everything that porn is supposed to do,” Olson says.
His and Anthony’s opinion of the show would only deteriorate in the years ahead.
By the time Donald Trump became president, the two had long considered the show toxic. It was a relief to discover they weren’t alone. Chapo Trap House, podcast heroes of the Dirtbag Left, put out an episode ripping the show to smithereens. Luke Savage wrote a revisionist take for Current Affairs about how the West Wing mindset had made Democrats too comfortable with losing and complacency. Another piece in Current Affairs, by Nathan Robinson, went a step further, examining the memoirs of Obama administration staffers, all cheerfully acknowledging that they’d modeled themselves on West Wing characters.
What finally tipped Anthony and Olson into creating their podcast was a CNN interview in which Aaron Sorkin said the following: “I really like the new crop of young people who were just elected to Congress. They now need to stop acting like young people, okay?”
Although their opinion of the show was already low, once the pair started revisiting the series at length—with guests such as the Chapo Trap House hosts, journalist and Bernie Sanders campaign advisor David Sirota, and script consultant Mary Kate O’Flanagan—their respect for it degenerated even further.
“We thought at first that we were going to be bagging on the politics while acknowledging that these are great actors and Sorkin’s a great writer,” Olson says. “And I would say where we are now is: ‘These are great actors.'”
The West Wing, if anyone needs a refresher, has an almost pathological devotion to the concept of bipartisanship. The show presents a political world that could only exist in science fiction, where the two sides of the U.S. government can always set aside their differences and work together to achieve the most agreeable outcome possible. In Sorkin’s utopian imagining, people in either party may not always have the best intentions, but they are always susceptible to logic and reason, amenable to compromise, and instantly felled by evidence of their own hypocrisy.
None of these things can be said to be true in today’s political gridlock. If they were ever true at all.
“There’s this desperate need amongst a segment of our population to believe that nothing has changed and that with the election of a certain candidate, everything can go back to the way it was—and a big part of that is The West Wing,” Anthony says. “I was writing on a show with a guy and every day after we finished, he would go home and watch two episodes of The West Wing. When I asked him why, he said, ‘I just want to remember how awesome things could be.’ And I was like, ‘They’ve never been that! What are you talking about?'”
When political observers, sick of the daily blitzkrieg of Trump-era horrors, looks back fondly at the world of The West Wing, they’re not necessarily looking back at the real world. Sorkin’s series started in 1999 and aired for one and a quarter seasons before the grotesquely contested election of George W. Bush, the horrific tragedy of 9/11, and the two illegally started wars that continue costing lives to this day, and ended the spring after Hurricane Katrina. Present-day re-watchers are escaping the current reality by reminiscing about a previous escape from reality.
They’re also ignoring what happened in between present day and when the series was on TV.
“It’s an interesting thing about the way [fans of The West Wing] tend to look at the Obama administration,” says Anthony, who regularly dispenses corrective history lessons on his popular other podcast, The Dollop. “Because they see it really a lot like The West Wing, but in reality Obama was just getting slapped around by Republicans the whole time he was in there. And if they watched that show, they would not enjoy it at all.”
Perhaps had there been a Mitch McConnell-esque figure on the show, forever resisting even the Bartlet administration’s most well-reasoned overtures at every turn, fans of the show who actually went on to work for the Obama administration might have been better prepared for the fight that lay ahead of them, or abandoned the fantasy of bipartisan compromise.
Instead, here we are, years later, about to watch a West Wing reunion special in support of the vice president from that administration wresting power away from the authoritarian former game show host currently taking America on a Dr. Strangelove bomb-plunge to nowhere.
As for the special itself, here’s what we know about it so far. The reunited cast—which includes Sheen, Rob Lowe, and Allison Janney—is acting out a teleplay from the Season 3 premiere, entitled “Hartsfield’s Landing.” The centerpiece of the episode finds Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) nervous about a primary race, trying to persuade a local couple in a remote New Hampshire town to vote for Bartlet, before ultimately coming to the realization that the key to democracy is trusting people to vote as they see fit.
“It’s really kind of obnoxious, but it’s got all that great stuff you love with the West Wing,” Olson says, “including the absolute contempt for anybody who doesn’t live in Washington, New York, or Los Angeles.”
While Olson suggests Sorkin might tone down the flyover-state bashing in the revamped version, Anthony predicts the reunion will completely reshape the episode’s entire message.
“I think it will be rewritten to say that you have to vote for the lesser of two evils,” he says. “Because the people Josh is talking to in the episode have some really good points about NAFTA and other sorts of things that are completely ignored by the people in the White House. So I’m betting that the people in the reunion will say that all this bad stuff is happening, but they have to vote for the lesser of two evils, even though they don’t want to.”
Olson has one more prediction for the special. Well, more of a wish, really.
“I’m hoping it’s not too long,” he says. “Because honestly, I think I can speak for Dave when I say that the worst 42 minutes of my week are when I actually have to watch whichever episode we’re going to talk about.”