Do you find the current political climate to be openly volatile? Does your blood boil the second you turn on the news or browse through social media because of the unrelenting slough of incompetence and vitriol coming from the current Administration? Do you scream into your pillow in the futile hope that answers will come to you between gulps of air? Do you long for the halcyon days of George W. Bush’s presidential buffoonery? Bill Clinton’s sex scandals? Barack Obama’s calm and reassuring demeanor in the face of ridiculous amounts of adversity?
Well, I don’t know what to do about all of those feelings
I’m you’re having, but I can recommend a podcast about The West Wing! Will it stop the relentless onslaught of anxiety? No. But it will kill an hour of your day while you listen to an engaging discussion about a fictional idealized behind-the-scenes world of politics!
Okay, that’s a gross oversimplification. Here’s the over-explanation.
The West Wing Weekly is a podcast hosted by musician and composer Hrishikesh “Hrishi” Hirway, also the host of Song Exploder, and actor Joshua Malina, currently of the television program Scandal. The purpose of the podcast? To talk about the much beloved West Wing, created by Aaron Sorkin. Week by week, episode by episode, the two recap and analyze the show giving it equal parts praise and critique with some added trivia and real-world examples of the government dealings presented in Sorkin’s fictional White House. Unlike many podcasts devoted purely to talking about a favorite tv show long since cancelled, Malina’s involvement lends the podcast the advantageous position of first-hand access to the actors, writers, directors, and consultants. A friend and frequent player in Sorkin’s tv shows and movies (i.e. Sports Night, The American President, A Few Good Men), Malina also joined the West Wing cast in Season 4 as Will Bailey and stayed until the series’ end.
The dynamic between Hirway and Malina is the real draw of the podcast. Where Malina hasn’t watched an episode since it first aired (17 years ago), Hirway has gone through multiple rewatchings. Where Hirway presents a sunnier, perhaps more optimistic look at Sorkin’s idealized political world, Malina – by his own admission – leans towards a contrarian approach to his analysis. Their outlooks, however, aren’t set in stone. The two frequently change their attitude towards characters, storylines, and dialogue depending on how well conceived the episode ends upon rewatch or how well the other can argue in favor or opposition.
The open discussion and dissection of each episode allows for some poignant and thoughtful moments to emerge. Malina and Hirway analyze The West Wing through a post-9/11 lens with the additional political strife of current and past presidential administrations informing their scrutiny. Their modern-day assessment also takes the show to task for the underlying sexism frequently portrayed by the majority of male characters as well as the unearned victories of complex arguments with no equivalent heft given to the person on the “wrong” side. The most current episode posted as of the writing of this article was “17 People” from Season 2, which originally aired 5 months before 9/11, so it’ll be interesting to see how and if their analysis changes once Season 3 begins. “Isaac and Ishmael” is a nostalgic favorite of mine, but as a response to the terrorist attack on America and its non-canonical placement in the show, there’s definitely aspects of the episode (and the show in general) that haven’t aged well. I’m also looking forward to the day when Malina’s Will Bailey shows up and how he and Hirway navigate their criticism of the episodes. Not that they’d be any less critical, but I can’t imagine it’s easy to take your own performance to task or critique the performance of a friend while they’re sitting across from you.
Other than the hosts, the guests who’ve come on the podcast to talk about The West Wing are a veritable who’s who of Sorkin players, activists, and government officials. Listening to cast members like Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman), Emily Proctor (Ainsley Hayes), Dule Hill (Charlie Young), Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler), Janel Moloney (Donna Moss), and Rob Lowe (Sam Seaborn) reveal character motives and behind-the-scenes anecdotes are thrilling to people like me who love those kinds of stories. I’m one of those featurette-watching, commentary-listening types so knowing that Moloney and Whitford played it like Josh and Donna were already in love from the word go makes me happy. Or learning that Dule Hill tap dances to pass the time on set and worked out how to tap along to Yo-Yo Ma’s cello during filming on “Noel” is ridiculously heartwarming. Or that Shonda Rhimes named Malina’s character on Scandal after a character mentioned briefly and early in the first season and was never mentioned again or featured on screen shows just how deep the fandom can go.
The reach and influence of The West Wing on the world of politics and pop culture shouldn’t be underestimated as evidenced by the amount of love and reverie many of the guests have displayed when they talk about how important the show was personally and professionally. Hearing speech writers, political commentators, NASA engineers, rabbis, crew members, and ambassadors praise and question the machinations of an episode or the subject matter therein offers a new avenue of perspective through which to enjoy or engage with the show. You want more proof? Look no further than the rap created by noted fanboy, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton: An American Musical, Moana), for the podcast. Miranda, according to Richard Schiff, stated that there would be no Hamilton without The West Wing. The musical is peppered with references and the cast and crew, knowing his love for the show, played the opening theme at the curtain call of his last Broadway performance. Hell, they even did a walk-and-talk style version of “Cabinet Battle #1” when the cast visited the White House.
I told you it was an over-explanation, right?
So, yes, you should totally be listening to this podcast. If you’re a fan of The West Wing, you’ll love the discussion. And if you’re new to the show, you can follow along with Hirway and Malina episode by episode since all seven seasons are now on Netflix. It’s definitely worth your time and a necessity for your health in these trying times. Trust me, I’m an archivist.