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Nov. 29, 2020

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The staying power of ‘The West Wing’

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“The West Wing” was at once a political drama, a workplace comedy and the height of prestige TV.

But it was always an aspirational tale of the nation.

Aaron Sorkin’s world was one of competence. He wrote of a staff who both knew the right thing to do and how to get it done. When they swung, they swung big. They fixed Social Security and college tuition tax deductions. They broke a sweat and more than a few windows, but “The West Wing” needed you to know two things: These are the good guys, and the good guys win.

“If you are looking for television art that has reflected America, it’s not ‘The West Wing,’ ” Richard Schiff, who played White House communications director Toby Zeigler, told The Daily News.

“It’s ‘Breaking Bad.’ ‘Breaking Bad’ understands the reality of America. It was about a man who has a public service job who feels he has been cheated out of the American dream. It’s all about not getting what you think you deserve.”

” ‘West Wing’ is what we could be,” Schiff continued. ” ‘West Wing’ is what our dream is. ‘West Wing’ is our potential.'”

More than 20 years after “The West Wing” debut on NBC, the cast reunited for a staged theatrical presentation of “Hartsfield’s Landing,” which premiered last week on HBO Max. The episode, like the show, is about hope, and how everyone can make a difference in this case, the 42 voters in a small New Hampshire town that casts its ballots at midnight on Election Day and announces the results immediately.

A reunion always felt inevitable for “The West Wing.” Aaron Sorkin, who moved on to “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “The Newsroom” and a series of movies in between and since then, has been insistent he’d go back to the Oval Office when it felt right, if he had the right idea.

Here’s where the fandom diverges: “The West Wing” was a paradise of liberal ideas and success, but one that, especially through the 2020 lens, is wholly unbelievable. Is a rose-colored glasses view of the political landscape escapism or naivety?

“I understand why people are gravitating towards it right now,” Janel Moloney, who played Donna Moss, told The News. “It’s just comforting to see an administration that is upstanding and decent and careful and empathetic, all the things that we don’t have right now.”

The HBO Max special is an excuse to discuss “The West Wing,” but the conversation has been stirring for years, thanks in part to Netflix, where the show sits prominently on the homepage. Josh Malina, who joined the cast in the fourth season, hosted an entire podcast about the series.

“The West Wing” emphasized there were people of good faith on both sides of the aisle.

“We depicted Republicans with a certain honor,” Schiff told The News. “We depicted people in Washington, D.C., who fought the real fight, the good fight. We had characters that had special interests and were devious and difficult and maybe a little dark, but for the most part, they were people who just had differences of opinion.”

Take, for example, Arnold Vinick, the Republican presidential candidate played by Alan Alda in the sixth and seventh seasons who’s loosely based on John McCain.

“We considered that kind of Republican honorable, the Barry Goldwater mold of people who cared about this country but went about it in a different way,” Schiff said.

“All that’s gone. There’s no ideology. It’s ‘this is how I want power and this is how I’m going to steal it from you.’ There’s no philosophy, no caring about people, no looking toward the future.”

Some would argue that “The West Wing” planted the idea of civility in a world that could not sustain it. Some would argue that it was a fictional TV show that the first group is taking way too seriously. Some just liked the pitter-patter of Sorkin’s dialogue (the show’s 26 Emmy wins would lean toward the third party). Most fans want more of that: a show, a reboot, a sequel, a movie. Anything that would bring them back to this world.

“It would be a mistake,” Schiff said without pausing to think. “You can never replicate what we created in this perfect storm. … I think there are some things that you just want to leave alone as the special moment that it was in our lifetime.”

Maybe one day, if Sorkin has the right idea.

Above all, “The West Wing” believed in compromise and morality, in the idea that the system is meant to help, not hurt, in an America that could be saved and in the civil servants who wanted to save it. It was fiction.

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