If HBO's new series K Street doesn't pick up a following, blame Arnold. With the announcement of his California gubernatorial run, movie star Schwarzenegger stepped into the spotlight as that most amusing of circus acts: the celebrity political candidate. And once one tumbled out of the clown car, innumerable others followed, including diminutive actor Gary Coleman and a provocative billboard-sign model.
Coming after such antics, a drama on the inner workings of the D.C. lobbyist world seems a little drab. Co-producers Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape; Solaris; and Traffic) and actor George Clooney are certainly giving their series as much juice as they can -- punching up their show with ripped-from-the-headlines stories, casting D.C. politicians and consultants as themselves, and generally wreaking havoc on the borders between reality TV and, well, reality.
The Senate hasn't taken kindly to the Hollywood invasion, forbidding the crew from shooting in Capitol and Senate space. "It would be very chaotic if we had film crews set up all over the place," declared Sen. Trent Lott. So K Street is filmed among fancy office buildings and boutique stores -- gleaming façades for the nefarious lobbyist underworld that powers the capital.
Or so the show's producers would like us to believe. While politics would seem a perfect fit for a TV drama -- the pageantry of elections and campaigning, the soap-opera backstabbing and eyerolling, the power plays -- K Street unreels like a washed-up improv act, all flapping exclamations and apopletic scenery-gobbling over the most trivial of dilemmas.
The first episode, which aired last night, features real-life Democratic strategist James Carville playing himself. This bald, barking carny presides over K Street 's little freak show: his Republican wife and consultant Mary Matalin sputters indignantly over Carville's decision to prep presidential hopeful Howard Dean for a debate, another fellow consultant runs around behind Carville's back, reassuring Republican senators that "the addict" Carville is acting on his own.
Dean blusters in, Rick Santorum furrows his brow with disapproval -- the list of cameos and insider-y, wink-wink references is long enough to make D.C. viewers feel particularly smug and satisfied with our perch at the epicenter of power. After all, K Street is merely the most recent in a number of D.C.-centered shows: The West Wing, the short-lived Mr. Sterling and Charles Lawrence. Even Elle Woods of Legally Blonde goes to Washington. The difference is that K Street lacks the optimism of those shows and movies -- it replaces dewy-eyed idealism with hard real-politicking.
K Street also rests on the personalities of its "real-life" characters -- perhaps too much. We're supposed to relish the friction between a real person and the "fake" version of the show's character. As a result, character development and motivations are sketchy at best -- and without these elements, how can the show's producers hope to draw in viewers who aren't already political mavens? K Street reads like a nightmarish high school one transfers into several months too late -- all incomprehensible, cackling cliques and dramas that run years deep. Soderbergh has always shot life as if he were eavesdropping on it, so perhaps it's no surprise that we feel like clueless outsiders, watching everyone else bicker, jostle and rant.
Yet it's this outsider's eye that gives the first episode of K Street a few, shining moments. The series opens with a shot of two shoes being shined -- the screen is full of nothing but those lace-up politico shoes and the black shoeshiner's hands. "You know," says the shoes' owner, finally revealed as a handsome, be-suited young man. "I came all the way to our nation's capital for this." A bit later, disembodied hands file the young man's nails -- the manicurist is from Tokyo. He gets his hair cut a bit later, and again, black hands hover over him. These people of color are the true outsiders in D.C. and in politics, Soderbergh seems to suggest, disembodied, seen only in service of someone else.
The sequences gain resonance as Dean travels to a Democratic presidential candidate debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, fully prepped on his positions on racial issues, and ready to get those African-American votes! That fully primped young man eventually turns up at the doorstep of Carville's firm -- the staff has already been ordered to hire him in a display of D.C. nepotism at its finest. Matalin can't help gushing over the young man, regardless. "Is he black, is he white? Is he straight, is he gay?" The job candidate's ambiguity is appealing, his identity turned into a precious, rare commodity in the lobbyists' lily-white world.
It's a cynical, sub-level storyline -- one that is far more engaging than the bulk of the episode, devoted as it is to Matalin hissyfits and Carville bellowing. One would hope that the outsiders will find voices and bodies, collide with K Street 's power elite more strongly. Perhaps they could give the show a sense of heightened relevance -- and reality. For a series aimed at exposing a secret world, flirting with truth and fiction, K Street reveals very little. The show's producers should take a lesson from that other hybrid of acting and reality, the California governor's race. In the end, if you're not going to be edifying, at least be entertaining.
Noy Thrupkaew is freelance journalist who writes frequently on culture and international affairs.