The episode “Hartsfield’s Landing,” from the third season of “The West Wing,” first aired in February 2002, which was approximately 200 years ago.
Donald Trump was still two years from joining “The West Wing” on NBC with “The Apprentice” — his main TV gig at the time was co-starring with Grimace in a commercial for the McDonald’s Big ‘N Tasty burger. Mark Zuckerberg had yet to start classes at Harvard. Elections played out at the relatively staid tempo of network TV news. And an idealistic network drama about politics could still be a Top 10 show, averaging over 17 million viewers an episode.
On Thursday, HBO Max premiered a stage performance of “Hartsfield’s Landing.” Its ostensible purpose was to benefit the nonprofit group When We All Vote. But it couldn’t help seeming like the prying open of a time capsule.
It’s not alone, however, in trying to fit in one last civics lesson before the polls close. It joins several stage works arriving on TV — a hip-hop musical, a furious feminist read of the constitution, a quirkily political theatrical concert — that are framing the anxieties of 2020 within the pop culture of the last two decades.
Nostalgia for norms
As TV series go, “The West Wing” was a relative no-brainer to adapt for the stage. Its creator, Aaron Sorkin (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), always sounds as if he were writing for the theater even when he isn’t.
Recorded under coronavirus protocols at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, the performance instantly recalls why the series was such an intoxicating entertainment and seductive ideal. The original cast members are grayer, but their interactions still sparkle. (Sterling K. Brown fills in for John Spencer, who died in 2005.)
But the format also underscores the distance between then and now, as if the politics and cultural tempo of the early aughts themselves were now period-piece revival material.
Premiering in 1999 after a run of relative 20th-century institutional stability, “The West Wing” believed that the system worked, even if the people in it could always be better.
President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was an aspirational Gallant to reality’s Goofuses. In the late Bill Clinton era, he was a fantasy of morally upstanding, unapologetic liberalism. In the Bush years, he was a fantasy of a proudly intellectual president. Today — well, take your pick. Wanting better leaders never goes out of style, but the series’s reverent institutionalism now seems much more remote.
“Hartsfield’s Landing” takes its title from a subplot in which the aide Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) frets over the results from the first small town to vote in the New Hampshire primary. It’s an odd story because Bartlet is running for renomination essentially unopposed. But for a show enamored with retail democracy in all its absurdity, it’s too much to resist. (One does wonder, if the episode had been written in 2020, whether someone might at least note the inordinate power that the quaint tradition gives a handful of white voters.)
This affection for civic ritual, in norms-trampling Trumpian times, now seems star-crossed and naïve. As the actor Samuel L. Jackson put it during an act break, “Our politics today are a far cry from the romantic notion of ‘The West Wing.’” Even the central metaphor of the episode, Bartlet’s playing his advisers at chess, seems sadly nostalgic in an era dominated by players who prefer to kick over the board.
“The West Wing” was always a palliative fantasy. The election arc eventually led Bartlet to run against the Republican governor of Florida, Robert Ritchie (James Brolin), a proud anti-intellectual who shared political DNA with George W. Bush. Bartlet decided to own his erudition rather than run from it, sarcastically shredded his opponent in a debate and won re-election in a landslide.
Two years later, George W. Bush became what is now the only Republican since his father won in 1988 to earn a majority of the popular vote.
Well, fantasy is part of what TV is for. And fantasy can be a strong motivator: Arguably, part of what fuels Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign against the Twitter president today is the promise, however improbable, of returning to a time of relative comity, reverence and quiet.
But the show fed a lot of fantasies that have smashed hard and ugly against reality. “The West Wing” was smitten with the power of words. But in the real world, there is no speech so masterly that it stuns your rivals into awed silence, no debate argument so irrefutable that your opponent can’t just bark “Wrong!” over it a hundred times.
It’s nice to think that going high always beats going low, but we know now what “The West Wing” learned as it steadily lost audience to the likes of “The Bachelor.” What works in scripted drama does not necessarily fly in a reality-TV world.
Remixed by reality
Connoisseurs of a different form of political idealism got it in July when Disney+ streamed the filmed performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s founding-father musical, “Hamilton.”
If “The West Wing” was the progressive pop-cultural fantasy of the Clinton-Bush years, “Hamilton” was its Obama-era answer. (Miranda previewed a snippet at a White House poetry jam in 2009.) Its hip-hop score and its pointed casting of actors of color to play white dollar-bill figures embodied an America resolved to expand its political and cultural range of portraiture.
At its Broadway premiere in 2015, and through the campaign of 2016, there was a kind of triumphalism in the discourse around it. America’s first Black president was finishing his second term; his female former secretary of state was, surely, about to replace him. Inclusion had won.
There were still people outside the “Hamilton” spirit, of course. But a candidate who ran on building walls and demonizing immigrants — they get the job done! — would surely fail. The day after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out in October 2016, Miranda hosted “Saturday Night Live” and sang Donald Trump’s epitaph with his own lyrics: “He’s never gonna be president now.”
But hubris was never really the spirit of Miranda’s musical. Its music and casting spoke backward in time to a country that talked the talk of liberty and equality but would take centuries to attempt to walk the walk. It was a story of leaders compromising their ideals, of setback and backlash; of planting seeds of hope that you would never live to see grow.
It took the shock of 2016 — the world turned upside down — to bring that aspect of “Hamilton” to the fore. The film premiered on Disney+ the same Independence Day weekend that the president gave a vicious speech at Mount Rushmore that accused antiracism protesters of attacking American history itself.
Watched in that moment, the musical suddenly felt more defiant, combative and urgent. (As it did after the 2016 election, when the cast called out the Vice President-Elect, Mike Pence, in the audience of a performance.)
It was engaged in an argument, not in the past but right now, over whose faces get carved into stone and whom history belongs to. Fittingly for a show about underdogs, it was playing from the standpoint not of the regime but of the rebellion.
The “Hamilton” that came to Disney+ was the same one that played on Broadway in June 2016, when the film was shot. And it was entirely different. Not a single line had changed. Reality provided the rewrite.
A celebration and a requiem
Two more politically minded stage shows airing on TV this weekend originated during the current administration, yet they already find themselves reframed by current events. Amazon’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Heidi Schreck’s fact-filled feminist lament of how women’s bodies have been “left out of this document from the beginning,” is more plangent and vivid after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has an audio cameo in the show.
One of the season’s most stirring statements comes from a concert movie. “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” on HBO and HBO Max starting Saturday, looks superficially like a sequel to the art-pop of “Stop Making Sense,” the Jonathan Demme film of Byrne’s heyday with Talking Heads. (Even the natty gray outfits he and his band wear recall his absurdist ’80s big suit.) And the film, directed by Spike Lee, is kinetic, visually playful fun.
But a message slips in elliptically, the only way Byrne knows how to travel. He begins alone onstage, serenading a model of a brain. We’re born, he says, with more neural connections than we end life with. Does that make us dumber as we age, or better?
“Utopia” dances to the answer by skipping through Byrne’s catalog, synthesizing a worldview. He’s always had a fascination with homes and houses (burning down the, this is not my beautiful, etc.). Now he builds those blocks into an argument: that a full life means starting from your brain — your first, hermetic home — and then building connections with other people and inviting them in.
This might be a cornball message coming from someone other Byrne, who, as he describes himself, has always been skittish of guests and gregariousness. (That big suit looked like a kind of armor.) Nor has he been politically didactic, preferring the approach of Dadaists like Hugo Ball, who provided the lyrics for “I Zimbra,” “using nonsense to make sense of a world that didn’t make sense.”
But time changes everyone. As “American Utopia” goes on, its politics become more explicit, addressing voting and immigration, building to Janelle Monáe’s racial-justice anthem “Hell You Talmbout” — which, Byrne adds self-consciously, he called Monáe about to make sure she was OK with having “a white man of a certain age” perform it.
Finally, Byrne and company bike the streets of Manhattan to the tune of his “Everybody’s Coming to My House.” It feels like a light ending until you recall that the stage production of “Utopia” closed in February, just before the pandemic shut down Broadway and nobody was coming to anybody’s house anymore.
Viewed today, the show’s quirky communitarianism — its idea of America as a polymorphous, all-welcoming dance party — feels like both celebration and requiem for the irreplaceable delight dancing together on a stage. (In all these staged-film productions, the shut-in’s medium of TV is filling in now for the community of Broadway and the multiplex.)
But it also plays like a call to action. We’ve had to close up our houses for now. We might as well take advantage of the pause, “American Utopia” says, to think about what kind of home we want to live in once we get to open up again.