Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway on Their West Wing Podcast and Why the Show Still Holds Up

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Are you looking for something that combines your '90s nostalgia, Netflix streaming addiction, and increasing political dissatisfaction? Well, you’re in luck, because Scandal star Joshua Malina and film composer Hrishikesh Hirway have the perfect treat for you: a weekly podcast revisiting each episode of Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama, The West Wing. Aptly titled The West Wing Weekly, the podcast will retrace all 156 episodes of the Emmy award–winning political series and feature commentary from castmember Malina and superfan Hirway, with trivia and guest interviews throughout. With the premiere episode of the podcast up today on iTunes and their website, we got the two on the phone to discuss what we can expect from the show, Sorkin’s writing style, and what it was like to revisit 1999.

Can you give us a little bit of a background about your relationship and the genesis of this podcast? How did we get to where we are now?

Joshua Malina: That's really Hrishikesh's question. All credit to him. This whole thing is his idea, so go for it.

Hrishikesh Hirway: Well, the way we first met was because I emailed Josh. Josh gave me some advice, saying that if I wanted to work in film I really needed to be in L.A. And eventually I took his advice. In 2012, my first feature film score came out. I had tried to be in contact with him after I first moved to L.A. to let him know that I took his advice, but the email address I had used for him didn't work anymore. So I didn't know how to reach him until I found him on Twitter, and from there found his Facebook page, and I sent him a message saying, "Hey! I don't know if you remember me, but you gave me that advice. I finally followed it, and, look, my first movie came out. So I wanted to say thanks. Can I say thanks in person?" And he said yes. And we really quickly became friends after that. 

Did you bond over your love of The West Wing?

JM: Probably not.

HH: Not right away.

JM: The truth is, for me, this is a return as a fan. I was hesitant at first when Hrishikesh came up with the idea, because I thought, I'm not qualified. Although I was on the show, there probably are episodes that I'm in that I haven't seen. But before I joined the cast, I watched every episode and I was a big fan of it. And I thought, I can't hold my own in an arena with a superfan. But then he convinced me, "Just rewatch it and we'll just chat.” We're friends. Hopefully people will feel like they're a friend in a conversation about the show. And so once I started to rewatch it, I was like, "Wow, yeah. This is firing me up. I do love this show. I've got plenty to say about it."

What will the structure of each episode of the podcast look like?

HH: We both watch the episode and take notes and then we start talking. We've taped a few so far, and what we've discovered is that there isn't really a structure. One of us brings up one point, and any structure we might have in our notes completely disappears. We just get caught up in wanting to talk about "And then did you notice that?" and "Isn't this part great?" And so we refer to our notes and try and bring things back around, but really it's kind of a freewheeling discussion.

I loved how you ended the pilot episode with a little piece of trivia about Leo and the New York Times crossword. Are there bits that you might revisit?

HH: We haven't formally put together something like that. There are different things we've talked about. So far we've done three episodes, and so there are things that have come up, like how much people talk about their résumés.

JM: We'd like to codify technobabble too. There's a lot of technobabble on The West Wing and we will try to point out each episode's dose of technobabble. But yeah, other little featurettes may come up. As we do this more, we might get a little more formal about little things like that.

I think a lot of people might be watching the show for the first time. What is your general spoilers policy? Should people who have not watched the whole thing through be cautious?

HH & JM: No.

JM: We presume that the episode being discussed has been watched by the listener. You are definitely at risk of getting a spoiler for that specific episode if you haven't watched yet. But we are trying to be mindful not to spoil upcoming events or anything. I'm really trying to watch it the way I would like someone else to listen to it. So if Hrishikesh and I are going to discuss and record an episode on Tuesday, I'm probably going to watch it once or twice on Monday, but I'm not getting way ahead of myself. And I don't have the superfan's recall of everything that's coming. So occasionally we will maybe obliquely allude to upcoming events, but we're trying not to spoil the show for anybody.

Josh, you mention in the pilot that you hadn't seen the show since it first aired. What were you most surprised by in watching it again?

JM: I have a very fond memory of it, but that's sort of all it was, like, "Yeah, that was good." I mean, I know what it turned into, so it was impressive to me to revisit the very first episode and see how fully formed a world it was — in the writing, in the performances, and in the direction. A lot of shows, if you watch the early episodes, you can see, "Wow, they really were still on their baby legs"; they hadn't quite figured it out yet. They really knew what they were doing. The chemistry was all there with all the actors. The writing was on-point. And stylistically and visually, they were doing a fresh thing right off the bat.

People watching the show on Netflix might not remember 1999 and what the TV landscape was like at the time. Can you describe, when the show premiered, how different or similar was it to other shows that were on?

JM: Well the funny thing is, I go to the personal right away. I was on Sports Night then. It's interesting. It's probably beyond my ken to analyze it well, but there are similarities between Sports Night and The West Wing, having both been created by the same person and executive-produced and directed by Tommy Schlamme. So obviously there were stylistic similarities, but they caught on and worked more fully in a way with The West Wing than they did with Sports Night. So the two were pretty different from most other shows in the TV landscape. Sports Night was a single-camera sitcom, and thus very different from what had come previously, but very similar to what is now widely accepted and very popular. Now the multi-camera sitcoms are less frequently seen. 

In the pilot you jokingly compare The West Wing to Scandal, saying how Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe’s character) would just murder the prostitute he sleeps with if this happened on Scandal.

JM: That is something I'm finding I'm doing often when I'm talking to Hrishikesh. Saying, "Now here's how this might be handled on Scandal."

They'd be dead.

JM: Right. Very different visions of D.C. Although, my guess is Scandal owes something to The West Wing — as do House of Cards and Veep — in just making Washington, D.C., considered a fertile setting for a television show. 

How do you think The West Wing would be received if it were on now?

HH: In some ways it's a little too gentle for the sort of the cable landscape we're used to now, in terms of an hourlong drama. That's part of what's so great about rewatching it. It does feel like a palate cleanser from the world of Breaking Bad and Sopranos and the hard-edged, cynical really dark. Everything is super dark now and it almost feels like it has to be part of the recipe. So I don't know that it would work. There would have to be a lot more sex on it or something.

What aspects of the show have really stood the test of time?

HH: So far I feel like the whole thing holds up incredibly well. The only thing that has felt dated is the way that technology might play into [the story]. But in terms of the style, and certainly in terms of how it fits into politics, it's incredibly relevant. We keep noticing all these ways that the show was prescient, and that came up a little bit. Even in 2008 when Obama won. But even now, eight years after that, it still feels au courant.

JM: That's true. The story lines are not creaky in any way. And this reflects not only how sharp Aaron is and the writing is, but how much things don't change in the world and how the same issues get played out again and again and again on a national and a world stage.

Are there things besides the technology that to you feel dated? For me, I always think of the episode where Sam is questioning if we still need the penny. And it's so funny to think in 2016 we'd be having the question, "Do we still need the penny?" 

JM: But we still have them! They are still here and worth even less than they were back then. I think that you could make that argument today. Enough with the penny!

It's like a Seinfeld bit.

HH: There's one line from the show that I feel responds to a lot of the questions of relevance. It’s when the president at one point is telling the first lady a quote from Max Weber. Weber said that "history is the process of boring a small hole" or something. It takes an incredibly long time to make any kind of dent in the world. And as much as we're like, "Whoa, 16 years! The television landscape has changed, everything has changed so much!" Sayings like that, pennies still being in circulation, shows us how slowly things actually move.

Are there any episodes or arcs that you guys are really excited about?

HH: I can't wait until Josh shows up as Will.  

JM: It's gonna be a while. You better find something you look forward to earlier than that.

HH: But I'm really curious how, even though we're still only a couple episodes in, I know the whole flavor of our conversations is going to change fundamentally when we start talking about episodes that Josh was in. I just love the way that was handled on the show, too.

It was very natural. A problem a lot of shows have is that introducing a new character can feel shoe-horned in, but the genius of Josh's arc when he's introduced is that it fits with the show and it fits with Sam's arc and it seems like a very easy transition.

JM: Aaron did very well by me. I agree with what you're saying about it. That was a real gift he gave me.

And I think you guys touch on that a bit in the pilot because something I think Aaron handles very well is exposition and how we learn about these people.

HH: We were just talking about that.

One of my favorite lines is when we find out about Toby's ex-wife. Leo comes into his office talking about a congresswoman and Toby goes, "That sounds like someone I used to be married to." It felt so natural. Of course we had never heard about Toby's ex-wife before.

HH: Yeah, and the episode we just talked about, Leo and the president are in this huge fight because the president is upset about having Morris Tolliver's plane shot down and the military options that are in front of him. And in that fight he says to Leo, "When I think about all you did to get me to run." And that just like, the economy of backstory in that one phrase is so smart. It's so nice to be watching a show again where things aren't laid out. You're given these breadcrumbs. That's something I feel like it laid the groundwork for a lot of shows afterwards.

Are there other things people should know about the podcast?

JM: I was just going to say that we welcome feedback. So I hope that people will drop by. We have a website, I can't promise we're going to give everybody exactly what they want, but I'm happy to hear it. So if there are people they'd like to see on as guests, if there is a feature or featurette people want to hear about. Since it's a celebration of this thing that we all love, I'm happy to hear someone else's take on it and maybe where they'd like us to go or what they'd like us to discuss or do. 

HH: Someone today left a comment asking us if we would discuss the contents of CJ's fishbowl. Which I think is a great idea! In a lot of episodes there's a little joke or reference to what the plot is in the fishbowl.

You guys mentioned Dulé Hill. Are there any other guests that you can hint at that are coming up?

JM: Sure. I had an email exchange with Aaron. Getting him to agree is the first and most important step. Scheduling him is gonna be another thing. This is a busy man, but obviously he’s the big fish I want to reel in. And I know that he is, at least by email, onboard. And if he tries to retract I'll publish the email.

HH: Another busy man who, at least on Twitter has said he wants to do it — again, scheduling could be harder, but Lin-Manuel Miranda and his director Tommy Kail have already requested to be guests. And, you know, we would love to have them.

Talking about influences on current pop culture, could Hamilton exist without The West Wing? Do all of these things owe a debt to each other?

HH: Absolutely. "I'm looking for a mind at work" in Hamilton — that's a reference to The West Wing.