For the political junky, there’s an obvious response to the lament that our civic life has become mere entertainment: Well, duh. That’s why there are political junkies. It’s built right into the metaphor — drug addicts aren’t pursuing their civic duty, either.
So perhaps K Street was inevitable. HBO’s new series, produced and directed by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, blends fact and fiction in a narrative based on the previous week’s events. It stars James Carville and Mary Matalin, the irritatingly ubiquitous Democrat/Republican married couple, as themselves in a bipartisan Washington consulting firm, where they are joined by Republican Maggie Morris (Mary McCormack) and Democrat Tommy Flannegan (John Slattery). Soderbergh’s formula (first tried in his 2002 film Full Frontal) calls for a lot of improvising before the digital video cameras, and perhaps that’s why McCormack and Slattery come off as nonentities; as Mr. Clooney has proven, actors rarely look good ad-libbing about politics.
The premier episode has Flannegan and Carville doing debate preparation, with the help of guest star Paul Begala (as himself), for Howard Dean (as himself). Meanwhile, the chagrined Republican women of the firm run around reassuring clients that Carville’s freelancing has nothing to do with the firm; their clients include Senators Don Nickles (as himself) and Rick Santorum (Tom Cruise). (Just kidding — Santorum appears as himself.)
Meanwhile, the mysterious Francisco Dupré (Roger G. Smith) grooms himself for an interview with Matalin and Carville, who’ve been urged by their investors to hire him. Dupré comes from California and professes to admire the personal and professional “bipartisan achievement” of the couple. His party affiliation isn’t the only thing that’s ambiguous — Matalin asks, “Is he East Coast, is he West Coast, is he straight, is he gay, is he black, is he white?” We can reserve judgment for now on what is obviously the long-term story arc of the show, but if the suave Dupré is the show’s idea of the uber-consultant, they’re mistaking Washington (“Hollywood for ugly people,” as they say) with Hollywood.
If Soderbergh and Clooney can’t maintain access to politicians, the show will cease to be interesting. (The Senate Rules and Ethics Committees have already barred the show from filming at the Capitol, which may be a danger sign.) It was thus a coup to land Dean — if their follow-the-leader anger is any indication, the other Democratic candidates are going to appear on the show shortly. It’s during Dean’s debate-prep scene that the show really flexes its reality-blurring muscles. The scene was actually filmed the day before the Baltimore debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and Fox News. As they’re preparing for a CBC event, the consultants advise Dean on how to handle the critique that governing Vermont, with its point five percent black population, provides little experience with issues that concern the black community. Begala suggests Dean advertise that he’s the only candidate who talks about race in front of white audiences; Carville tells Dean to say, “If the percentage of minorities that’s in your state has anything to do with how you connect with African American voters, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.” Dean used both those lines in the real-life debate. (So much for his claim on This Week the morning before the K Street premier that he’s “never scripted.”)
To the serious-minded political junky, it might be a bit disturbing that a semi-fictional show can so cavalierly mess with political reality like that. (That Soderbergh and Clooney are Hollywood liberals might make it especially irksome, though the show really isn’t about policy — at least not yet.) It also might be mesmerizing. Or both. But what about non-political junkies? If there’s a mass-audience for an ugly bald guy with a Louisiana accent and his unflatteringly-lit wife after 10 PM on Sunday, there’s been quite a cultural shift.