Test Pilot: K Street

An appraisal of the pilot episode of K Street, originally written for the Test Pilot feature at TV Surveillance, Oct. 26, 2011. Republished with permission. Read the original post, including a response from Cory Barker.

***

I have a love/hate relationship with politics. I’ve always had trace elements of policy wonkery in my blood, and I’m broadly curious about the ways law, economics, and governmental philosophy can shape civilization for better and for worse. On the other hand, I harbor a deep and visceral loathing of the horse-race elements of politics, the conception of democratic government as little more than a game of thrones.

I also have a love/hate relationship with politically-driven fiction (like, well, Game Of Thrones), except it’s sort of the reverse. I sink my teeth into a drama that captures the maneuvering, machinations, and manipulations that propel complex human institutions, whether it’s city government on The Wire or a high-end law firm onThe Good Wife. Yet the more deeply these depictions delve into real-world political issues, the more I recoil. I suppose I don’t like to be reminded of the way frequently amoral, occasionally insidious calculations are actually brought to bear on society.

In other words, I am not the viewer K Street has in mind. And make no mistake, K Street does have a very particular viewer in mind, practically to the exclusion of all others. The intriguing concept—celebrity political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin play fictionalized versions of themselves*, engaging with actual current events and Beltway bigwigs—isn’t rounded out by any other storytelling elements. Forget character, theme, or narrative arc: K Street “Week 1” is simply the inside-iest of inside baseball.

*Interestingly, IMDB lists them as playing characters named “James Carville” and “Mary Matalin”—much like Jerry Seinfeld played “Jerry Seinfeld”—whereas guests are credited as “himself” or “herself.”

There’s nothing in the pilot episode for anyone who isn’t a hardcore political junkie to latch on to. If you don’t know who Paul Begala is, or if you can’t identify Rick Santorum on sight, well, you’re not going to get much of an explanation. It’s easy enough to identify their roles in the story when they show up, but that story itself is so thin that the significance of these roles only registers with audiences who know their way around Democratic political consultants and (then-) Republican senators. [ed. note: This piece was written well before Santorum became highly recognizable via his campaign in the 2012 Republican presidential primary.]

If there’s any place on the dial that such a niche program could’ve worked, it’s HBO. But, as per the theme of this batch of Test Pilots, K Street didn’t work. Was its target audience too small? Possibly; it aired in 2003, during a pretty politically apathetic moment in American culture. It might have fared better had it come along circa 2008 and tapped the current Politico-infused zeitgeist.

The pilot of K Street has deeper problems than the subject matter, though. The style and the structure throw you into the center of this world of lobbyists and lawmakers while also keeping you at a reserve. It’s shot (by Steven Soderbergh, who also co-executive produced and edited) as a quasi-documentary, but remains devoid of almost all context signifiers—no narration, no score, no talking heads, not even Chyrons to identify the VIPs who strut in and out of the action. The effect is less that of following a documentary crew than of watching through hidden cameras.

Soderbergh obviously wanted the semi-improvised series to feel like an unmediated immersion—almost an intrusion—into the daily goings-on at a high-powered D.C. lobbying and consulting firm. Yet this bloodless approach creates the sort of distance that precludes any emotional response. We spend hardly any time meeting Tommy Flannegan (John Slattery) or Maggie Morris (Mary McCormack), the aides-de-camp to Carville and Matalin respectively, who are offered as the viewer’s entry points. Maybe they’re better developed in later episodes, but for now the relatable human element is conspicuously absent.

The third completely fictional main character, Francisco Dupré, was the source of my only curiosity in continuing with the series. Characterized by Matalin as “mysterious” and by Carville as “odd,”* the guy came across like a version of Parks and Recreation’s Chris Traeger downshifted a few gears. He also hovers along the closest thing this episode has to a narrative arc, schmoozing his way through a meticulous grooming voyage that terminates at a job interview with the firm.

*I lean towards Team Ragin’ Cajun in this dispute.

Still, the most interesting aspect of his presence (beyond a certain vulpine energy that Roger Guenveur Smith brings to the performance, which manages to be charming and off-putting at the same time) is the hint of satire it offers. In his interview, Dupré describes himself as “an equal opportunity ally”—a statement he clearly means as a positive trait, but which evokes a popular view of lobbying and politics as mercenary and eternally fungible. That’s a notion with potential to build on, which is hard to find elsewhere.

The close involvement of real-life power players makes it difficult for K Street to make overtly critical observations about the system in which they made their bones. Dupré, on the other hand, is so far a blank. He’s not aligned with either Carville or Matalin, the way Flannegan and Morris are, and he’s given no clear partisan affiliation or industry background. He could readily function as a cipher/scapegoat for any kind of commentary the creators wish to make.

I don’t know whether he does, of course; that’s just me projecting. After one episode (which, I’ll grant, was briskly paced), I didn’t find much on or immediately under the surface of K Street to bring me back. Lacking narrative cohesion, compelling characters, or an emerging point of view, your appreciation of K Street depends entirely on how fascinated you are by prepping a governor for a primary debate or smoothing a senator’s ruffled feathers. It’s not too surprising that such bouts of Beltway navel-gazing failed to hook a sizable audience. If we wanted to watch that, we have cable news.

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