The world is not short on podcasts, the commuting masses not clamouring for more content to fill their earbud-clogged brains. The truth is that we have more than enough to listen to, from old standbys like Marc Maron’s increasingly relevant WTF or any of Slate’s intellectual gabfests to new additions like Bill Simmons’ sports and pop culture riffs on The Ringer network. If you’re scrolling through your unplayed list on your phone, there are likely more 45-minute shows on washed-up actors, quirky historical facts, or Donald Trump than you have 45-minute chunks of time free and available to listen to them all. It goes almost without saying that the last thing you needed was a podcast dedicated to recapping each and every episode of The West Wing. This should not be a real thing, you think. This should not be the best way to spend your time.
You could not be more wrong.
The West Wing Weekly is not only a very real thing, it’s a very good thing. The podcast is an episode-by-episode recap and reconsideration of the Aaron Sorkin series, which ran from 1999 to 2006, hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, a musician and host of NPR’s Song Exploder, and, crucially, Joshua Malina, a former star of the very show he’s now recapping.
Malina is the crux of the podcast, and he represents an interesting perspective: since he only joined The West Wing in the fourth season, he is, when talking about the first few episodes, both expert and novice, close and distant at the same time. He is a viewer first, a participant — with insights into the minds and lives of the show’s cast and creators — second. He is smart and insightful and totally charming. And he’s the embodiment of the way we tend to watch TV now in the Netflix cultural economy: first as rabid, binge-watching, completely impartial fans, and second as de facto experts on every aspect of the show, beholden to the inane trivia about actors and showrunners that we’ve gleaned from celebrity websites, Wikipedia, and recap podcasts just like this one.
Every week, Hirway and Malina dissect each episode plot point by plot point. They revel in the nostalgia of re-watching a hit show, and at the same time try to bring a 2016 critical lens to it. (For example: they’ll call out Sorkin and co. for sexist dialogue and early-stage Internet paranoia, not to mention all of the bad suits and haircuts.) And if you’re a real West Wing fan, no doubt you’ll enjoy the special guest interviews with the likes of Dulé Hill, Janel Maloney and Richard Schiff. But what really sticks is how they, not always explicitly, do their best to re-situate the show in the current-day cultural canon.
Remember, The West Wing premiered at the very tail end of the Clinton presidency, and became a kind of left wing beacon of hope (or derision, depending on your point of view) during the Bush years — with the Jimmy Smits campaign of the final season almost eerily presaging Obama. Now, in the era of Donald Trump v. Everybody, dusting off an old show about the power, prestige, and outright hope of the highest office in the land seems not just relevant, but necessary. At any rate, it’s worth clearing some room on your podcast schedule.