Test Pilot #26: K Street
Debut date: September 14, 2003
Series legacy: An odd, too inside-baseball-like look inside the Beltway’s power players
Hello again, loyal Test Pilot fans! It is nice to see the six of you. It is time for a new theme! The last time we explored a network in Test Pilot we were focused on tracing touch-points for long-term, dramatic and systemic failure. NBC has had a disastrous start to the 21st century (one that hasn’t improved this year, by the way) and therefore choosing just a few series to be representative of larger Peacock problems was our challenge (one I think we did a fine job of tackling, might I add).
This time, though, we look to the failures of a much different kind of television network, one that is arguably at the exact opposite end of the public opinion spectrum from NBC: HBO. For nearly a decade-and-a-half, HBO has been the biggest power player in the television industry. More than any other individual network or entity, HBO has shaped our perceptions of quality and complexity and perhaps most importantly, the cable giant has led the charge in raising culture’s expectations and evaluation of television as a storytelling medium. Though other networks have gained ground on HBO in recent years (most notably FX and AMC), the “not TV” network still remains the gold standard for A-level television.
But we aren’t here to celebrate HBO’s obvious and warranted successes. Instead, this theme hopes to explore five of HBO’s supposed missteps from the last handful of years. HBO programming takes risks, but these five series apparently didn’t take the proper ones or executed those risks improperly. Why did these series fail? What about these series made them incompatible with HBO’s (or its audience’s) expected level of quality? Are they even failures at all? The goal here is both to address these questions and pull forth some of the blemishes on the record that HBO has purposefully tried to whitewash in recent years. HBO might not be TV, but it also isn’t perfect.
Up first in our exploration of HBO’s supposed nadir is the political docudrama K Street. Executive Produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh and directed by Soderbergh with his typically compelling, naturalistic style K Street followed fictionalized versions of James Carville and his wife Mary Matalin as they rubbed shoulders with real politicians (playing themselves, notice the lack of quotes there) and other Washington D.C. insiders. The 10-episode series put together episodes just days before air time with hopes of seeming timely (and as I’ll discuss momentarily, impacted “real” politics in some ways). I feel like I had to provide this brief description of K Street because chances are very good that you have never heard of it or completely forgot it existed. And based on my experience trying to find the pilot through illegal means, I think HBO would be content if that is the case. It’s like this thing has been completely wiped from the internet and even taking into account HBO’s well-known crusade against piracy, that’s an impressive feat.
In any event, basically no one* has seen K Street and that means that there is no veteran viewer this time around. That’s OK though, because I’ve brought back friend of the blog Andy Daglas, who helped out with a look at thirtysomething last theme, to discuss this forgotten political time capsule. In case you’re unaware, Andy writes the TV-centric blog The Vast Wasteland for ChicagoNow, occasionally dabbles in non-TV-centric writing at andrewdaglas.com, and devotes an inordinate amount of energy to Twitter. Mr. Daglas, your thoughts on James Carville’s acting abilities:
*Of course, by “no one,” I mean the people I talk about television with on Twitter. But on this issue, I feel like this is a solid sample group to deduce from.
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 on The 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.
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.
And now, my thoughts on K Street:
How verisimilitude is too much verisimilitude? How “real” is too “real?” When is something not “real” enough? I don’t want to go Baudrillard on you folks, but there is a sense, at least to me, that HBO programming is often interested in addressing these questions and providing the most authentic and most verisimilitude-y representation of whatever setting that particular story takes place within. Think David Simon’s meticulous stewardship of The Wire and Treme’s story worlds. And Alan Ball’s similar handling of Louisiana in True Blood. I’m kidding. Critics and scholars praise David Simon for his fervent commitment to “reality” and “authenticity” in such a way that the terms begin to get conflated with “complexity” and “quality.”
This is both a good and bad thing, but the important point here is that The Wire is so beloved at least partially because of the way in which it strives to represent Baltimore as Baltimore. The series does dozens of other things tremendously well, but its handling of Baltimore is an element that people keep coming back to.
With Treme, Simon pushes the ideas of “real New Orleans” and straight-up, 100 percent REAL New Orleans together even further. Real, living people aren’t just represented by barely fictionalized, close composites perhaps played by quasi-actors who are also from the neighborhood, they play themselves, even if they can’t act one damn lick. “Television Real” and REAL collide and it’s staggering, weirdly compelling and uncomfortable at the same time.
But like in so many other regards, David Simon’s work is an exception, not a rule. Although many of HBO’s great works reflect REAL events, people and places, they do so in a Television Real context. Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Recount, Too Big To Fail*, all of them mix REAL elements with Television Real elements. Situations are altered, history is contextualized and individuals’ motivations shift, all in the name of entertainment**. Television Real is absolutely fine, in fact, it’s oftentimes very great. We can embrace the REAL elements that went into making Television Real possible and perhaps feel as if HBO is serving as the 21st century’s best mass media educator of American history and politics.
*Also: Entourage. That shit is SO REAL.
**And to make things more dramatic and mysterious, you could argue. There’s always discussion about how a series like Boardwalk Empire is going to manage the life trajectory of its characters based on real people because the assumption is that viewers could just go to the history books, I mean Wikipedia, and discover what actually happened to them. Dramatic license allows productions to mix up timelines, keep people alive longer, whatever.
But REAL? Like REAL REAL? That makes a squirm, if even a bit. There’s a reason why we as a society have basically accepted reality television as our most popular genre of programming. We know what we are seeing there isn’t REAL, but we like to know that in the back of our minds there’s an iota of that REAL-ness. We don’t actually want straight-up REAL because it’s generally not entertaining. Even documentaries shift perspective and shape narratives to make a story and we can barely take those.
This is all one long-winded preface to this statement: K Street is just too REAL. The pilot episode feels like the most awkward parts of Treme’s second season involving the real people playing themselves, only turned up to 11 and with less functional writing behind it. Even though the episode reaches a somewhat heightened level of REAL that isn’t quite REAL but also not Television Real, K Street doesn’t really work. There have been talks about Treme existing almost exclusively as a reflection of post-Katrina New Orleans for people who lived/are living in a post-Katrina New Orleans, but K Street feels like a more insider-y, supremely narrowly targeted story than even that. I have to guess that a few general HBO subscribers not interested in politics or not living in D.C. tuned into this in the fall of 2003 and felt dramatically alienated and confused and perhaps wished they could just watch The West Wing instead.
The problem with K Street is that it is almost entirely defined by its REALness. It is one thing for David Simon to allow popular New Orleans figures to cameo as themselves, it is quite another for Clooney, Soderbergh and writer Henry Bean to ask Carville and Matalin to power much of the action each week, even for 25 minutes. The two of them are fine in the pilot episode, but there’s still a weird disconnect between viewing Carville and Matalin as actors, performing as themselves, only not. Clearly, that awkward feeling is entirely intentional, as Soderbergh has always been interested in blurring the lines between scripted and unscripted representation, REAL and Hollywood Real, if you will.
Perhaps most curious is everyone is that makes up K Street’s world. James Carville and Mary Matalin are playing heightened versions of themselves, but what about the random power players and talking heads that they bump into? Is Paul Begala playing Paul Begala or “Paul Begala?” Is Begala even in on the joke? K Street doesn’t tell us and I’m not entirely sure it knows or really cares what the answer is. This pilot asks us to dig into the gray REAL/TV Real space between Paul Begala and “Paul Begala.” Everything on K Street could need air quotes around it, or it could eschew them entirely.
John Slattery, Roger Guenveur Smith and Mary McCormack give the audience a slight reprieve from the politico tidal wave, but only slightly. None of them seem particularly comfortable in their roles, though Smith does craft an intriguing persona for his character quite quickly. As Andy so awesomely put it, this pilot gives the audience zero signifiers. There is little explanation of who is who, what is what or why it really matters. The pilot is entirely assumptive, which ultimately makes it somewhat suffocating for anyone not interested or at least compelled by political maneuvering.
K Street’s purposeful attack on REAL and TV Real is more interesting and compelling than good. Soderbergh’s direction adds his recognizable raw, intense energy to the proceedings and the story is modestly engaging, especially when you start asking yourself whether or not everyone even knew what the hell was happening. Nevertheless, K Street falls into a curious rut where it tries to completely immerse the audience into a world but simultaneously keeps them at arm’s length. The audience is asked to experience this world but not given the proper tools to do so. This pilot is definitely too REAL for general audiences, but it also fails to signify when the REAL action stops and the Television Real stories begin.
I would suggest that perhaps Soderbergh and Clooney should have just done a documentary about Carville and Matalin – or anyone else they wanted – but that wouldn’t have been any more REAL. Politicians and political minds are the perfect test subjects for a weird experiment like this because they aren’t REAL anyway. Their personas are expertly crafted, their words painfully mulled over and their entire appearances constructed. Being a politician is like going method for a role but then never kicking out of it. If Carville, Matalin, Begala or any other political figure knew they were part of a documentary, they would have taken much more care of their persona or perhaps not participated at all. Giving them dramatic license to screw off under the guise of air quotes around their names means a lot.
Ultimately then, K Street is kind of the perfect way to attack “people” like this and “stories” like this. Politicians get to embrace the air quotes and while still probably acting a lot like they would in that situation anyway. K Street embraces the performativity and the construction of the real K Street, of modern day politics and what we could probably call Political Real. It is fitting that the series’ most famous moment occurred when Democratic Presidential Candidate Howard Dean used a line in a debate that “James Carville” had given to him as part of a scene for the series and Soderbergh’s cameras caught the whole thing. In that instance, REAL life was impacted by two people putting on reportedly different, but generally similar performances. Television Real impacted Political Real which then transferred to the REAL REAL. I could put so many air quotes around each word in that sentence that it wouldn’t make any sense. Which is basically all you need to know about K Street.
Remarkably, this all makes K Street the perfect kind of HBO series. It makes you think, it confounds you and forces you to do things as a television viewer that maybe you’re not used to. The pilot still isn’t particularly good or as immersive as I think Clooney and Soderbergh would have liked it to be, but the ways in which K Street blurs the lines between all caps REAL and all the other Reals out there and puts air quotes around whatever the hell it wants is supremely fascinating. There are no questions as to why this series was a commercial failure (though I am a bit surprised at its critical failure), but if you are HBO and you want to take risks, K Street is definitely one of the bigger, more interesting risks you can take. This is “not TV.” I’m not really sure what the hell it is, but K Street certainly fits that vague branding campaign well.
Conclusions on legacy: Tremendously flawed and barely engaging, but still kind of fascinating