The last thing America needs right now is more West Wing, Hank Stuever says of A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote go encourage voting in this year's election, which premiered today on HBO Max. "It is difficult to imagine the lost souls within the Venn diagram proposed here, that there are swaths of Americans among HBO Max subscribers andWest Wing fans who haven’t yet registered to vote or aren’t already among the 15 million or so people — and counting — who have already cast ballots," says Stuever, adding: "Here we are anyhow, torturing ourselves with the implausible idealism of The West Wing once more." Stuever acknowledges there is little worth criticizing in the special, calling the staging "rather lovely." But, he adds, the characters on The West Wing "live in an enviable world in which the people have elected one of the smartest men in the country to lead it, instead of one of the dumbest. In that world, every word uttered is emphatic and sharp and true. So many words, words upon words, the effluence of the dialogue being the show’s draw, as well as one of its drawbacks. What sounded so glidingly lyrical back then verges on the ridiculous and grating now, unless, of course, you have too much invested in The West Wing’s idealized Washington, where centric principles almost always triumph over politics. That’s a pipe dream that most viewers put away long ago. Other fans cling to it, watching West Wing episodes in endless Netflix loops, not merely as a diverting means of escape from the hideousness of 2020, but as a privileged form of zoning out — a detached state of denial at the very worst time to be detaching."
A West Wing Special offered a solid re-creation -- this is not one of those star-studded Zoom reunions: "There was never much chance that Sorkin was going to tweak his original vision for an HBO Max celebration of voting, but there are always ways you can change staging or the cadences of dialogue to shift power dynamics and character journeys," says Daniel Fienberg. "That was not the approach the special's director, the inimitable Thomas Schlamme, took here. No, Schlamme did his best impression of original 'Hartfield's Landing' director Vincent Misiano doing an impression of Thomas Schlamme, using editing and immaculate stagecraft to simulate the episode with the dual impediments/restrictions of COVID-19 precautions and the stage at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Indeed, this was not one of those star-studded table reads we've seen so frequently in recent months with celebrities hopping onto Zoom to giggle their way through classic scripts. I might have wanted to see a smidge less cheating and redecorating of set between stages, but Schlamme generally executed the episode with a high level of theatricality."
It’s heavy handed and full circles in a way that’s very satisfying, unrealistic, and cute: The special is a "fascinating exercise to see the soothing relic of The West Wing’s idealistic lens dusted off to meet the dark chaos of a crisis moment in the Trump era; a political fairy tale in the midst of a real-world horror story," says Kevin Fallon, adding: "The episode is a warm throwback to a time when a TV show could portray politics and democracy as cute and get away with it. Still, the nonpartisan message is a clever mirror to the When We All Vote mission of the benefit...The staging was gorgeous, stripping the kinetic energy that defined a typical episode of the show to barebones cast and sets. It was all very play-like, a respite from the Zoom reunions and readings of the last months. If you missed the notorious walk-and-talks, you’ll be impressed with how much movement and athleticism the camerawork managed to provide."
The special always stays on the right side of being a Very Special Episode: "That’s in large part because Sorkin and Schlamme allow the meat of special—'Hartsfield Landing'—to remain sacrosanct," says Patrick Gomez. "But, while the 2002 script was left entirely intact, Schlamme found ways to infuse his staging at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater with dynamic elements that never leave the audience longing for the million-dollar set pieces back at the Warner Bros. lot. By pulling focus between background and foreground, Schlamme creatively captures moments that required cuts between multiple sets in the original production—a recurring directorial choice that begins at the top of the episode when recurring guest star Emily Proctor starts things off by reading the stage directions. (It’s a kick to hear Sorkin’s previously silent Sorkenisms read aloud as the scenes are set. Diehard fans may also find it surprisingly emotional to hear composer W.G. Snuffy Walden play the West Wing theme music on acoustic guitar before he is joined by a live string band.)"