Dear Aaron Sorkin:
I am reading everywhere lately that you’re giving serious thought to rebooting “The West Wing,” the Emmy Award-generating machine that ran on NBC from 1999 to 2006. I’m a great fan of the show — I’ve built multiple columns around it — so I hope you bring it back.
But I have to warn you. Television has changed a lot since those halcyon days when a weekly drama in which characters debated serious ideas in a fair and thoughtful manner could bestride the Nielsen universe like a colossus. The audience’s tastes have changed. So let me toss a few thoughts your way about some features you might consider adding.
First, I’m assuming this is still drama, right, not a comedy? Well and good, but you’re going to need murders. Seriously. On scripted television, shows come in basically two varieties: the ones that make you laugh and the ones where people get killed. (OK, there was “Mad Men,” but you see my point.) You can’t do a presidential assassination plot, because that’s been done to death. You can’t do a president who’s a killer, because of a certain show whose former star we no longer mention in polite company. But how about a West Wing staffer who’s a serial killer? Or who’s on the track of one — and nobody believes him? Or, better, nobody believes her. Which leads us to …
Nowadays, television rises or falls on the strength of its female characters. “The West Wing” didn’t have many flaws, but the biggest was that it was mostly men talking to men. I mean, Anna Deveare Smith was brilliant as national security adviser Nancy McNally, but she didn’t get enough screen time, and after a while she faded away. Making the first lady a physician was a nice touch, but she hardly ever got to do much doctoring stuff, except for the doctoring stuff that got her in trouble. Press secretary C.J. Cregg earned the respect of her colleagues and ultimately got promoted to White House chief of staff, and that was a great touch, but it took a while.
So, how to fix this? First, you get Elisabeth Moss back. Doesn’t matter what it costs. She played President Josiah Bartlet’s daughter on the original and has always been a fine actress. Yes, OK, she was a bit of a victim, managing to get herself kidnapped, not to mention the time white supremacists took a shot at her black boyfriend and winged the president instead. But now, off her success with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she comes back combative and tough. I’m thinking a crusading journalist, maybe for the New Yorker or the New York Times, who’s the current administration’s sworn enemy. Second, you don’t make the president a woman. Great idea for the real world, but on television it’s been done to death, and it might feel gimmicky. But the female chief of staff thing — that’s worth bringing back. Make her ruthless and intimidating. Everything in the West Wing would be run through her, and she’d have her minions scared stiff. She and Elisabeth Moss could have some great interactions. The role’s even precast: I hear Kerry Washington is available.
Third: You need superpowers. Or the supernatural. Everywhere you turn on television today, there are people lifting things with their minds, moving between universes, trying to change the future. There are alien invaders and zombies. There are vast supersecret government agencies and vast even-more-super-secret private agencies. And billionaires. Lots and lots of billionaires. Sci-fi and fantasy, paranoia and fear, and the good old-fashioned supernatural have become a sort of blob that spreads across the screen, reaching tentacles into unexpected places. You might think about how to get some of this weirdness into your reboot. So here’s a suggestion: C.J. Cregg and Danny Concannon, the Washington Post reporter she dated on the show, have now married. They have twins, a girl and a boy, currently in their mid-teens. (You’ll have to fudge the timeline a little.) The twins have mental abilities that evil government agents want to harness for evil government doings. Their only protector is a shadowy billionaire who turns out to be Mallory O’Brien, daughter of former White House chief of staff Leo McGarry, whose character died during the final season. Mallory has this computer that predicts when bad things are going to happen, and she wants the twins to help her prevent them. Or is she secretly even more nefarious than the evil government agency? Well, you’re the writer. You’ll work this out.
Finally, you need Easter eggs. Easter eggs galore. For those unfamiliar with the term, an Easter egg is a callout to another bit of popular culture that exists mainly to allow pop-culture geeks to pat themselves on the back for noticing it. The callouts can go pretty far down the rabbit hole — in fact, the further the better. (Like the scene in “Avengers: Infinity War” when Star-Lord calls Thanos “Grimace” — you’d have to be geeky indeed to get the reference to a certain fast-food chain.) So you’ll need to load up on cute references to video games, comic books and, of course, “The Social Network.”
Oh, and people. A person can be an Easter egg. For instance, you yourself are sort of involved in a really clever callout from season 3 of “Breaking Bad,” where the doctor who tells DEA agent Hank Schrader’s family how the surgery after his shooting went was portrayed by the same actor who played the hospital administrator who, in season 2 of “The West Wing,” tells the White House staff that the surgery on President Bartlet after his shooting went well. If you want to follow that lead, I’ve got a few ideas. Ally Walker, who played the psychopathic federal agent on “Sons of Anarchy,” would be perfect as the psychopathic head of an intelligence agency — maybe the one chasing those Cregg-Concannon twins — unless she’s too busy doing something similar on “Colony.” And if you need another quirky billionaire to do battle with Mallory O’Brien, do take a look at Michael Emerson, who’s played a quirky billionaire before and has been a fan favorite in so many shows that he’d embody multiple Easter eggs at once.
Anyway, I hope reports of the return of “The West Wing” bear fruit. The show is rightly considered one of the best dramas in television history. But I do have one last suggestion. This time maybe you shouldn’t build the show around reimagining a recent Democratic administration (attractive though that idea might be). This time, why not throw caution to the winds and put a Republican in the Oval Office? I’m just brainstorming here, but maybe the commander in chief could be bombastic and vindictive and under investigation. Maybe a real estate developer. Along that line. But, hey, you’re the creative guy. You’ll come up with something.
A Big Fan