The West Wing

More fondly remembered today than when its seven-year run ended in 2006, there are still no plans for a sequel to “The West Wing” and the fictional presidency of Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen, second from left).

If there is one positive to come out of the postponement of the Buffalo Bills-Kansas City game from Thursday Night Football, it is that it frees Western New York viewers to watch the premiere of “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote” on HBO Max.

It is just unfortunate that the Thursday night special isn’t on its original home, NBC, rather than a pay-cable channel where viewing will be limited to those who can pay to see it.

Of course, the networks don’t make smart shows like “The West Wing” anymore.

I was reminded of that last week when I went to Netflix and rewatched the third season episode, “Hartsfield’s Landing,” that is being re-created on stage by almost the entire original cast on Thursday.

The one notable exception will be the absence of the late John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, the chief of staff to President Josiah (Jeb) Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen).

Spencer was one of my acting favorites. He is being replaced as McGarry by one of my current acting favorites, Sterling K. Brown of “This Is Us.”

“Hartsfield’s Landing” was chosen to re-create because one storyline involves Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) enlisting his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) to persuade some of the 42 voters in a New Hampshire town who have an outsized influence in a primary election to vote their way.

The majority of the episode concerns President Bartlet playing chess with members of his staff at the same time he is engaged in war games strategy with the Chinese.

After watching the original “Hartsfield’s Landing,” I was influenced to start rewatching the entire series from the start.

At the time, Sheen was 59. Now he is 80, three years older than Joe Biden and six years older than President Trump.

Watching “Hartfield’s Landing” also made me nostalgic and led to a search for my review of the pilot that aired in September of 1999. The column included a press conference interview with creator Aaron Sorkin.

“There’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment here,” Sorkin conceded 21 years ago. “That maybe we’ll be excited to look at the White House the way we wish it was a little bit.”

We don’t meet President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen, a co-star in “The American President”) until the final 15 minutes. By then he has introduced several Cabinet members played by an all-star cast of actors, most of whom are about as well-known to the general public as members of President Clinton’s Cabinet.

Sheen, Rob Lowe and John Spencer (“L.A. Law”) are the big names, with the faces of cast members Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff and Allison Janney more familiar than their names.

By the time the president shows up after a President Ford-like, accident-marred vacation, his Cabinet has grappled with a public relations crisis involving the religious right and a crisis on the high seas involving Cubans trying to escape to Florida.

The president solves everything quickly and smartly, and even takes the moral high road against the religious right. If only President Sheen were more like the men who have resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. since Watergate.”

I concluded this way: “The biggest question facing ‘The West Wing’ is whether — apparently like Sorkin’s low-rated Sports Night’ — it will be just too smart for the Nielsen room. Because if a series this intelligent fails to get a second term, it will be scandalous.”

I gave it four stars out of five. In hindsight, it deserved all five stars. It won 26 Emmys — including four as best drama — over seven seasons before ending in 2006.

And after watching eight episodes of the first season on Netflix, I can say the series with Sorkin’s snappy dialogue and frequent walk-and-talk conversations holds up very well 21 years later.

Some of the early episodes have some amazingly current storylines.

In one early episode, Lyman is more concerned that a pandemic similar to the smallpox crisis is a greater danger to the United States and the world than a nuclear attack.

In another early episode, the way America deals with the all-important census that determines congressional seats is examined.

In another episode that resonates today, Lyman essentially blackmails a first-term congressman to vote the administration’s way by saying if he doesn’t, he will find someone in the same party running against him in a primary.

There are other ways to bring smiles of recognition to a viewer’s face.

In one early episode, Bartlet is treated in the Oval Office by a military doctor played by Lackawanna native Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

In some early episodes, Lisa Edelstein shows up pre-”House” days as a high-priced call girl that Sam Seaborn (Lowe) gets involved with without realizing her profession.

And a very young Elizabeth Moss shows up before her “Mad Men” and “Handmaid’s Tale” fame, as the president’s daughter Zoe.

And then there’s the theme music by W.G. Snuffy Walden. Netflix lets you skip through openings if you want to save a minute or two. I wouldn’t think of doing that and missing the “West Wing” theme.

Perhaps best of all, the series about a fictional president who is incredibly smart and has a big heart has a calming effect at a time watching what is going in the country can be anxiety-ridden.

If you are experiencing anxiety 21 days before the presidential election, I suggest you turn off the cable news networks, head to Netflix and vote for “The West Wing” all over again.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020