Aaron Sorkin certainly is surprised that he is going back to the Emmys with a nomination for The West Wing after all these years. Well, actually, the Emmy noms are for a pre-election reunion special for the iconic series that came about because Sorkin and many others connected with or starring in the original series felt it was imperative to do whatever they could to get people to go out and vote.
So, on October 15, HBO Max premiered A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote, a timely program that for the first time in 17 years brought Sorkin, executive producer/director Thomas Schlamme and the cast together for a special stage presentation of the “Hartsfield’s Landing” episode from the show’s third season — a particular episode that dealt with the importance of voting. Along with the cast there were interstitial appearances from President Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Warner Bros Television special is nominated for Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) as well as for Schlamme in directing.
Sorkin had resisted many opportunities to reboot the series in one way or another but couldn’t pass this one up, as he told me when he joined Schlamme, Bradley Whitford and Sterling K. Brown for a panel at Deadline’s Contenders Television: The Nominees awards-season event.
“Well, I was thinking a lot smaller at the beginning,” Sorkin said. “It was, I guess, a year ago March when the shutdown happened. I was encouraged to do something to help a different organization called the Actors Fund, which helps anyone who works in a theater. I was going to get the West Wing cast together just to do a reading of an episode to raise some money for the show. Then a series of tragic events occurred, including and especially the killing of George Floyd. It felt like as worthy an organization as the Actors Fund is, that this was too small. That we should do something bigger. That’s when I’m going to throw the ball to Tommy, who had a much bigger idea than I did.”
Continued Schlamme: “I think what it really was, was that I wanted to somehow do honor to The West Wing the same that we had done 20 years earlier — both to Aaron’s extraordinary writing and to this group of actors. So rather than do it just straight as a Zoom reading, which is what had been done up to that point, I thought maybe we could deconstruct a little bit what we had done visually with the show earlier in its incarnation and try to create another environment, which was the theatrical presentation of this episode.“
Said Sorkin: “It ends up being a valentine to voting, and I thought that was good. I hadn’t watched an episode of The West Wing since its airdate.”
But he watched this particular episode and thought it could hold up and say something of importance even now. “I hadn’t watched any of them after that out of a great fear that the memory won’t hold up to the reality. I watched ‘Hartsfield’s Landing,’ and I was knocked out. It was really good.”
Very little was done to change the script for the play, though the character of Leo McGarry that was played by the late John Spencer was recast, with Brown taking on the role for this special — a responsibility he didn’t take lightly.
“I was like a kid in a candy store. I mean, you’re talking about one of if not the greatest network television dramas in history that I sopped up with a biscuit week in and week out,” Brown said. “To be invited to the playground, just to have the invitation was incredibly honorific if that’s a word and if I used it properly. Love John, watched him on L.A. Law, watched him on this, and to be able to step in and to be greeted as warmly as I was because everybody showed nothing but love the whole time.”
For Whitford, it also was an honor to be back with the cast, and to play Josh Lyman once again. “This was a really beautiful experience. We’re a pretty close group, all of us, even Richard [Schiff], the farther we get away from it,” he said. “We have a real sense of gratitude about what we got to do on network TV, for God sakes, and that it was a show that was not cynical about public service. It was amazing.
“I remember I was in a hotel,” Whitford continued. “I thought we were just doing a reading around a table. Really, I think I emailed you afterwards, Tommy, but it was really moving to me to be back where Tommy is trying to figure out the best way to do this. He came at it because these reunions can be treacherous and disappointing and shmaltzy, and I thought this was just a beautiful way to do it. It wasn’t for us. It was to get a really important, urgent message out, especially now, about voting.”
Check out the panel video above.