When the ATX Festival announced their Season Five line-up, I knew that, like last year’s “Gilmore Girls” reunion, there was one panel where I knew I had to be in the room where it happens. Although “Gilmore Girls” and “The West Wing” cover completely topics, both shows crammed a remarkable amount of dialogue into their 45-minute runtimes, earning both showrunners reputations for creating fast-talking and ultra-informed characters. For my shoe money, there’s no television or movie writer with an ear for dialogue like “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin. To paraphrase a quote from his first show “Sports Night,” it’s like hearing dialogue the way it’s meant to be written.
On Saturday, ATX Festival reunited many key members of “The West Wing” cast—and President Bartlet’s administration—as well as Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme (who created and choreographed all those famous walk-and-talks) during “The West Wing Administration.” The participating cast members included Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman), Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler), Dule Hill (Charlie Young), Josh Malina (Will Bailey), Janel Moloney (Donna Moss) and Melissa Fitzgerald (Carol Fitzpatrick). After playing the series’ very first walk-and-talk from the pilot (anchored by the always wonderful John Spencer, the late actor who played Chief of Staff Leo McGarry), the panel commenced, as moderated by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who was part of the show’s writers’ room.
The actors clearly had a comfortable rapport with each other, joking and teasing, with Malina gamely landing as the butt of many a dig. Throughout the panel, Schiff and Whitford shared popcorn out of a bucket, delighting any fan of Toby’s penchant for eating on the job. Some moments from the series the panel touched on included their remembrances of filming with Yo-Yo Ma in one of the show’s best episodes, “Noel,” as well as fond memories of the late John Spencer. Hill recalled, in a pitch-perfect impression, how whenever they would shoot a big scene or emotional moment that Spencer would say, “You couldn’t do this on a cop show.” Overall, the actors all seemed grateful for the experience of being on the show and the privilege that came with being the ones to deliver Sorkin’s words. As Sorkin himself was quick to date the show over and over again (the series debuted in 1999 and ran for seven seasons, although Sorkin and Schlamme left after season four), for many fans, the show seems even more relevant and necessary than ever in a year like this one. The warmth, camaraderie, intellect, passion and hope that the show offered in its symphony of characters is unmatched today, and after the panel, fans had to be asking themselves, “What’s next?” For this writer, it’s a return to season one and “The Crackpots and These Women.”