On Sept. 22, 1999, almost exactly a year after the House Judiciary Committee released the video footage of Bill Clinton’s grand jury testimony in the Lewinsky investigation, the President of the United States was in a bike accident. This President was Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, and for seven years he sat in the Oval Office of an idealized America — a country where political bipartisanship wasn’t a pipe dream, where Glenn Close played a Supreme Court Justice whose far-left jurisprudence made Merrick Garland look like Ted Cruz, and where government, as White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) once lyricized, is “a place where people come together.”
This vision was The West Wing, and its critically monumental seven seasons began with the President of the United States running into a tree on his bicycle. On Wednesday, the actor Joshua Malina (who played staffer Will Bailey in the series’ latter seasons) and film composer Hrishikesh Hirway released the first episode of a podcast that will discuss and meticulously deconstruct each of the show’s 154 episodes. When Malina first teased it on Twitter a few weeks ago, the show’s still-devoted fanbase wasn’t sure if they should take him seriously. (Malina was an inveterate prankster on The West Wing set.)
But lo and behold, he wasn’t joking. The first episode is a 48-minute casual meditation on the pilot episode, in which the White House staff — sage Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer); his outspoken, whip-smart deputy Joshua Lyman (Bradley Whitford); Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (legendary Allison Janney); Ziegler and his deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) — deal with the bike accident but also an impending Cuban refugee crisis, friction with an outspoken right-wing Christian group, and Seaborn’s accidental liaison with a call girl.
The podcast was Hirway’s idea. He’d been working on his podcast Song Exploder, in which he has musicians dissect their songs and the backstories behind them, and wanted to apply this premise to The West Wing — his favorite show, he says, which he regularly rewatches. He turned to Malina, an old friend, who “could reveal some of the mechanics and ideas that went into the show’s creation.”
“Our hope is to bring in lots of the actors and writers that worked on the show, to reveal their perspective on a particular episode, as well as people outside of The West Wing, from the worlds of comedy, politics and news,” he wrote in an email to TIME late Wednesday night.
In the first episode, Malina and Hirway muse about the episode and its origins, recalling that in early drafts of Aaron Sorkin’s script, Sheen’s President Bartlet almost never actually appeared. The show would focus instead on the staffers that kept the ship upright. (Sheen proved too good to do away with, but a balance was struck: most reflective rankings of the show’s characters have C.J. Cregg and the curmudgeonly Toby Ziegler atop the list of fan favorites.)
They also note how the pilot — and the series at large, really — was in many ways prescient. More than a decade before “New York values” controversially fell into the argot of the 2016 election, a scene has a spokeswoman from the aforementioned Christian group scoff at Josh Lyman’s “New York sense of humor” — igniting Toby Ziegler, who interrupts to say that “she meant Jewish — when she said ‘New York sense of humor,’ she was talking about you and me.”
“We think the show is incredibly relevant today, and besides general fandom of the show, we’re interested in seeing how it contrasts or reflects the America we live in now, 17 years after the show premiered,” Hirway wrote. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker once called the show “helpful counterprogramming to the Bush Administration,” but it also makes a decent cure for election fatigue.
Malina and Hirway haven’t said when they’ll release the next episode. This podcast is an ambitious project — 153 more episodes to discuss for nearly an hour each; you do the math — but not without precedent: such recap efforts have been done for The X-Files and The Simpsons.
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