The relationship between those who make TV shows and those who watch said TV shows has become, thanks to the Internet, an increasingly complicated one over the years. But before stars from Gilmore Girls, Scrubs, and The Office started making podcasts to fuel the pandemic-era thirst for vintage television, actor Joshua Malina and his friend, composer Hrishikesh Hirway, were talking The West Wing on the weekly.
The West Wing Weekly, which launched in 2016, featured regular deep dives into every episode of the Emmy-winning NBC drama, with much of the original cast — as well as creator Aaron Sorkin — participating in the discussion. Now, after years of digging into the complexities of DC political drama, though, the pair have teamed up for a new enterprise entitled Unnecessary Commentary, which will feature them doing watch-along which, depending on your level of Patreon commitment, you can watch live and comment on as they record.
“One of the motivations certainly to do this is do something different — we really, really enjoyed The West Wing Weekly and we enjoyed how it led to doing live events and how that led to interacting with the fans,” Malina tells Consequence. Thus, Unnecessary Commentary is kicking off with live commentaries on Sports Night, the tragically canceled ABC dramedy that established Sorkin as a showrunner unlike any other working in TV — the first episode of the Patreon series, released last week, featured them watching the pilot.
“I remember it pretty vividly,” Malina says of making said pilot, in which he starred as Jeremy, a high-strung producer with a love for analytics and a crush on fellow producer Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd). “It was so important to me, in my career and in my life.”
That’s not the limits of what Unnecessary Commentary might cover in the future, as Malina explains in the interview below, transcribed and edited for clarity. Here, he talks about the initial inspiration for The West Wing Weekly, how his relationship to these shows as an actor is different from being a fan, and how Sorkin himself feels about these projects. We also get into what might be covered by Unnecessary Commentary in the future, including one potential watch-along that Consequence will get full credit for suggesting, should it happen.
To start off, let’s go back to when the impetus to first start doing West Wing Weekly started.
Well, it started, I guess, sometime before March, 2016, because that’s when we actually started doing it. So I’m gonna estimate that Hrishi started working on me about a year before that — at least in 2015, if not earlier, Hrishi started pitching the idea to me. And my initial response was just, uh, no way. I said, “I don’t think it’s a bad idea conceptually, but I don’t think I’m the right person. I don’t think I remember enough. I don’t think I know this show well enough.” Obviously I have very fond memories of it. It was a great job, an amazing time in my life.
But I was a fan of the show before I was on The West Wing, but then once I was on it… You know, I’m sure I watched it initially, but then I think I stopped watching. It becomes a job and, you know, I just spent two weeks making that episode. What do I need to see it for? And so I just felt like I really didn’t, wasn’t in a head space where I’d be a great partner for it.
I knew Hrishi knew the show very well. And I know from years now of being an actor that fans of any particular project tend to know a lot more about it than anyone who was involved in making it. I just kept declining, but Hrishi is very persuasive and a good friend of mine, and finally I said, all right, I’ll go watch the pilot of The West Wing. And, uh, as soon as I watched the pilot, I remembered how much I liked it as a fan. And I thought, oh yeah, I can definitely talk to a good friend of mine about this show for 45 minutes. Then as soon as we started making it and [we saw] people’s response to it, it was beyond what I had ever anticipated. And so I had to admit that it was a very good idea and I’m happy that I finally gave in to Hrishi.
How did you and Hrishi meet originally?
Hrishi and I are both graduates of Yale. He many years after me, and I guess, at one point, my email address was just public and he sent me an email saying I’m a recent Yale graduate and I’m interested in scoring films and wondering whether you have any advice. And I got in touch with him and said, I don’t know anything really about anything, but I certainly don’t anything about scoring films, although my instinct would be that you probably ought to be out west rather than out east. I think he acknowledged the advice without following it, but a couple years later he did find himself out in Los Angeles, and looked me up. And then once we met and had lunch, we were just fast friends.
There used to be a really strong divide between the creator and the fan in pop culture conversations, but certainly over the last 10 to 15 years, that line has really started to fade away — there are now a number of podcasts featuring actors talking about their older shows. Did you have a sense of that change happening when you started West Wing Weekly?
I want to give the most credit to Hrishi because I think he’s the visionary, he’s the one who saw what we might do. He reawakened in me my fandom of the show — because just as an actor and somebody on the show, I hadn’t really given deep thought to what we were making. I cared about the material and dove into it and always tried to do my best as an actor, but I would never sit back and try to synthesize arcs of the seasons or themes throughout. I mean, in part because as an actor, it’s not really your job. I think you’re better off sort of focusing on the character and the text and not worrying too much about what the creator of the show is trying to tease out of you. You’re a small part of a greater picture.
But as a fan, you sometimes watch something multiple times. And if you have a probing intellect as Hrishi does, you know, he pulls all sorts of things out and recurring themes, and he’s able to do that across Aaron Sorkin’s work, because he knows Sports Night as well. And he is able to find the seed planted in Sports Night that blooms in The West Wing.
That’s so interesting, because people might assume that the experience of making a TV show would just make you automatically a fan of your own show, but there’s the other side of it, which is that there are people who just approach it as a job.
Yeah, which is generally my explanation. I mean, I think I’ve been a fan of most things I’ve been in, I’ve been lucky and fortunate to work on a lot of good things and material that I enjoy. But yeah, when your day job is making the show, you don’t necessarily feel like then watching it. I mean, it’s interesting. I think it can be helpful as an actor to watch your own work, but at a certain point, I think most actors go through the sort of transformation…
You know, early in my career, I was just so delighted to ever be working that it was like a big event: “I’m gonna be on TV or I’m in about a little role in this movie.” So I was always thrilled to see it. At a certain point, you become less enamored of watching yourself and I think also most actors tend to be critical. So when you watch what you’ve done, maybe in your head, you think it’s better than how you feel about your performance when you actually see it.
So at a certain point I stopped becoming too interested in watching. I felt like it was maybe less beneficial to me, and more like, I’m just gonna obsess about if I had a better take on that scene or I wish I had done this or done that. And so yeah, I think most actors become disinclined to watch their own stuff.
I mean, I have no hard data on this, but in the time I’ve spent talking to actors, the majority of them do not, in fact, like watching themselves.
Yeah. I mean, obviously I’m getting over it. I guess it’s not too convincing for me to say that I don’t like watching myself when I’m now doing a second deep dive into a show that I was on. So I’m obviously okay with it, but I’m also okay talking about my work critically.
You know, we watch the Sports Night pilot and I know there are people who love my performance in the pilot and others are like, what show is that guy on? It’s so big and it’s over the top. So I feel most comfortable, if we’re gonna get critical in looking at The West Wing or Sports Night, talking about myself, rather than trying to be too critical about anyone else’s performances.
You’re not gonna go trash talk Robert Guillaume or anything.
Yeah, no, I don’t think so. I can’t imagine wanting to. But even if that were my inclination, I don’t think I would do it. On West Wing Weekly, we did try also to be critical and discuss the material and occasionally discuss performance and stuff like that, so it’s, you know, it’s a sort of a fine line between not wanting to dump on… I know most people who are coming love The West Wing, who listen to the West Wing Weekly, most people who are gonna join this project love Sports Night. So there’s a, a line to sort of walk between dumping on somebody’s fandom and also trying to have a little bit of a critical eye. Does this hold up 20 years later? Is this the kind of thing that would be made now, would it be handled differently? Those are interesting things to discuss.
My natural inclination — this does not reflect well on me — is just to say no to anything new, any project in any challenge: That sounds difficult or labor-intensive or whatever. But I really enjoy talking to Hrishi — Hrishi’s a very smart, stimulating person to talk to, and there’s an upside where I push myself to certain be a little bit more interactive and take on the challenge. I’m like, okay, this is interesting. I mean, West Wing Weekly required me to actually do a little research and think about certain issues before we discussed them on the show. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just talking off the top of my head and I had really thought through things. And it’s sort of fun to, uh, to have a little challenge in my week.
Speaking of you saying no to things, do you have in your head, or even perhaps written down with Hrishi, clear lines about what’s off limits — things you don’t feel comfortable discussing in detail?
I mean, the short answer is no, we definitely have not had that discussion. And only as I’m talking to you, does it even occur to me that we never had that rule with West Wing Weekly because we edited what we put out. We always said to our guests, and we always had the understanding between the two of us, that we could talk about anything, because we would ultimately decide what the listener would hear. You know, it’s not journalism. I didn’t feel that I had any moral imperative to, you know, share something that some actor said… like if they said something that they felt was unkind to someone else, I didn’t, as a journalist, have a moral obligation to share it.
So, you know, we’d say, let’s just talk really freely. If there’s anything you would rather we didn’t include, we will honor that. Only as I’m talking to you do I realize now I’m now doing a project goes out live, depending on what tier you are in this Patreon. Most people, I think, have signed up to watch along with us. And that means there are no take-backs. Whatever I say on the mic and in front of the camera is going to go out.
Unnecessary Commentary is geared towards being able to tackle other things beyond Sports Night. Can you reveal what else you’re looking at in that regard?
Yes, absolutely. Our original inciting moment to do this was “boy, a lot of people have said they would listen to us discuss anything, so why don’t we put that to the test? I really do like talking about things with you.” So the original thought was, alright, we’ll just watch whatever we feel like watching — you know, an old episode of The Twilight Zone that I loved, this movie that’s coming out… On West Wing Weekly, there’s a lot of talk about how Hrishi hates musicals and I love them, so we’ll find a musical to discuss.
Then, we just decided since that probably the Venn diagram of people that might be interested in this is gonna a hundred percent be people who were fans of The West Wing Weekly, so we thought, okay, well, a lot of people asked us to do Sports Night, which we kind of never really entertained.
Can you give the West Wing Weekly treatment to Sports Night? We didn’t really think so. It’s a half hour show instead of an hour-long show, and although it’s more substantive than many sitcoms, it’s not The West Wing, where every episode had the underpinnings for a discussion of politics. So we never felt that the bones were there to do a full podcast about Sports Night, but this became a good way to do it. We’re like, okay, so many people wanted us do Sports Night. We’ll do these watch-alongs.
And in addition, we’ll do any other stuff that we want. So I think sometimes we’ll put up polls, we’ll suggest a few different things that interest us and we’ll let the patrons vote on what they want us to watch and what they want to watch along with us. But we’ll definitely also do occasional West Wing episodes. And NBC has Annie Live coming up in December and I’ve always wanted to do Hrishi Hruins a Musical, ruins being spelled H-R-U-I-N-S. So Hrishi Hruins a Musical may finally debut, by my forcing him to watch Annie Live.
I want to tell him why I’m delighted and why I think it’s magical and why I gets swept up when characters are feeling such intense, such intense emotion that they’re compelled to sing. And I want him to tell me why he hates it. Because I am intrigued by people who just don’t like musicals and there’s so much to Hrishi that I would’ve thought that he would have. I mean, now I just so know as part of his character and part of his personal and personality makeup, but I think I would’ve guessed that he would be a musical fan because I think he’s a romantic, he is a very talented musician himself. So I want to get down to the granular level and figure out why it just rubs him the wrong way.