Chitchat: Battleground is one of the year’s best new series [that you’re not watching]

I talk television with a lot of people. Friends, family, other critics on Twitter, vagrants on the street. I just love talking about TV. Because I don’t have the time and resources to do a podcast like I used to in college, I’m going to sort of replicate that experience in textual form in a new recurring feature. Basically, I’ll just exchange a few emails with someone on a particular topic. You’ve seen this kind of thing done tons of other places, but it’s something I enjoy doing so expect more of it here on TVS.

Hiya, folks! As you may or may not know, I am current in the midst of a period that necessitates I keep my television criticism to a minimum. But although I do not really have the time to fit much in, I cannot stay away. There are too many interesting things to discuss. That is where a feature like Chitchat comes in handy. After a handful of exchanged tweets, Wes Ambrecht, Andrew Rabin and I decided to pull together a more organized discussion about one of the most overlooked new series of the year, Battleground. Below, we talk the series’ willingness to try new things and why Hulu has dropped the ball promoting its first original series.

Cory: We’re here to discuss Hulu’s first foray into original programming, Battleground. The OfficeWest Wing hybrid is nearing the end of its first season, and although it appears to be fairly popular based on Hulu’s mysterious and unidentifiable metrics, it often feels like the three of us are the only ones on Twitter watching it. Frankly, that’s really unfortunate. I started watching the series on Wes’ recommendation and I was pretty much hooked instantly. As I said today on Twitter, Battleground isn’t necessarily a great series, and sometimes isn’t even that good, but it’s most definitely an interesting and engaging experiment. Throughout these initial episodes, the series has not only toyed with the documentary/mockumentary format, but also tried to mix and mash various generic conventions and themes as well. I think people view Battleground as a poor Office rip-off, and that’s just not fair. It’s certainly not as funny, or as heartfelt, but there’s a certain edge and, let’s say…muddiness to the characters and proceedings that I find really appealing. Wes, you obviously got me hooked on this damn thing. Why did you start watching? And why do we think no one else is really giving it a chance?

Wes: While most of the critical community was a buzz about Netflix’s dive into original programming, very few pieces have been written about Hulu and the steps they’ve made to enter the fray. Unlike Netflix, which made flashy buys like David Fincher’s House of Cards, Eli Roth’s Hemlock Grove and a new season of Arrested Development, Hulu chose to take a more conventional approach to development. For a few years now, they’ve been reviewing scripts and plotting a new direction. Battleground, which had previously been set up at FOX, became the centerpiece of that plan after creator J.D. Walsh self-financed a pilot and director Marc Webb came on board to produce.

A few months back, Hulu took the project to the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in advance of its February premiere date. Sadly, it is my understanding that few outlets actually attended Hulu’s portion of the tour, and those who did have made no effort to cover Battleground. For some reason, that made me inclined to champion the show. Thankfully, it ended up being quite good, because if it had been bad things would have been awkward.

The Office still has enough goodwill among young viewers that being branded a show in the same mold isn’t inherently terrible, but Hulu hasn’t done a great job promoting the show. They’ve run ads for the show on their own site, but they’ve done very little to bring in new eyeballs. So, to answer one of your questions, I don’t think people are writing the show off. I just don’t think they’ve heard of it. And, that’s unfortunate, because I REALLY like it. I think it’s smart, funny and willing to do things tonally that other shows simply aren’t. 

Take the show’s third episode “Hold The Whipped Cream,” for example. Although largely comedic for the first 18 minutes, there is an undercurrent of real drama to the events unfurling. Events that culminate in an absolutely heartbreaking scene involving Tak and his wife. Jay Hayden acts the hell out of that scene, and many more since then. He’s a real find. Andrew, what drew you to the show and how do you feel about its run thus far?

Andrew: I’d like to say I was drawn to Battleground because I went to college in D.C. and studied political communication, and not because I had a crush on Alison Haislip after several episodes of Attack of the Show! and a season of The Voice. So I’ll say it was a combination of the two.

As for how I’ve felt about it, I’ve been impressed. I knew little of the production team before hand and had heard of none of the main cast, aside from Haislip. Stylistically, I would have to disagree with the comparisons to The Office. Unlike The OfficeParks and Recreation, and any other mockumentary shows I can remember, the interviews on Battleground take place after the events of the entire season, if not later. This provides some interesting dramatic irony, and that differentiates it from the other shows. We know from an interview that Lindsey and Ben end up together before we even meet Lindsey in the campaign, but I think this enhances the story more than a generic “will they/won’t they.” Imagine how difference The Office would be if we knew from the start that Jim and Pam were married with two kids. We also know something is coming with Cole, although with only three episodes left, I’m not sure how we’re getting there.

I also like the focus on the campaign staff. The West Wing was originally supposed to be focused on the staff, with the president only making cameos. That didn’t happen, but even if it did it is not quite the same. Josh, Sam, CJ, Toby, and crew were all genuinely ideologically tied with the president. Here, outside of Jordan, these people are only working for Samuels because she hired them as political operatives. The press photos don’t even feature Samuels or her husband. This focus, to me, on being a political show rather than a government show, is much more interesting. It also leads to an ambiguous future.

Obviously, as Cory stated, we have no idea how many people are watching this show. By keeping all the episodes available for free, Hulu seems to be hoping that people will choose to catch up at their own rate, but we’ve all noted a lack of discussion of the show by critics and others on Twitter. At the same time, just this week Hulu announced their next slate of original shows, including three scripted series.

So I’m wondering where you guys think this show is heading? Is there a season two in the future, or should this be a single, 13-episode story? And what would you want that to be?

Cory: I think the lack of “big names” has most certainly hurt Battleground‘s ability to attract the attention of most critics. People know and like Marc Webb, but no really turned out to watch his (pretty fantastic) direction on the Lone Star pilot either. Armed with a cast of basically no-name actors, and it’s easy, though disappointing, to understand why people have shied away. However, I’m still a bit surprised, if only because Hulu is an important player in television and the idea of online-only original content is even more important. Battleground might not be Emmy-worthy, but it is certainly part of a sea change in television product and for that alone, it deserves more attention that it has been given. And really, it’s odd to me that Hulu hasn’t even tried that much to push the series. It’s not like Hulu’s afraid of paying for ad space on traditional media outlets, would it have killed them to throw a mention out there?

As for the series itself, you both make great points. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how willing Battleground is to shift tones and focus more on the characters, or even the format, more than trying to get super-obvious laughs. This is definitely a comedy, but it’s not especially funny all the time, and I’d like to think that’s pretty purposeful. This isn’t a zany workplace comedy, or hyper-earnest ideological stump speech, this is a very realistic story that isn’t afraid to make its characters look terrible, flawed and not especially heroic. Tak is a compelling lead character because he’s all those things. We’re trained to root for him because he is the lead character, but the series keeps forcing us to re-evaluate what kind of person Tak actually is. He’s a massive mess of a person who can barely hold it together on a daily basis. This is a simplistic, base-line criticism, but I enjoy Battleground because the characters feel like real people, and this feels like a real situation. The stakes aren’t super-high, but they feel earned in the series’ world.

The most recent episode bent the mockumentary style by showing us a flashback episode to a True Life-like documentary about Tak and his father from years ago, and although it wasn’t an entirely successful experiment, it’s the sort of experiment a Hulu-only series needs to do. I mean, why the hell not? How do you guys feel about the characters and the small, purposeful risks the series has taken thus far?

As for the series’ future, I’m very, very curious to see what happens. I can’t imagine Battleground costs a whole lot to make and Hulu might be inclined to bring the series back as a way to evoke a certain level of “success” (one that, again, we’re entirely in the dark about), and yet, I’m not sure I want more until I actually see how the season plays out. It feels like they’re playing a bit of a long game with Cole’s prison jumpsuit and the lack of future talking head from Tak, but a lot of things could happen in three episodes. If there is a second season, I’d like to see the team win, and then move on to an even bigger campaign. Or actually be on opposing sides.

Wes: The point you bring up about a lack of big names is important, because it helped add to illusion of Battleground being actual campaign footage in the early going. Obviously, as this first season has gone on, we’ve seen more and more of Ray Wise. But, outside of him, it would be difficult for me to name anyone else without looking on IMDB. That dearth of big names isn’t something that would drive me away and honestly I don’t think it’s Battleground‘s problem either. People turned out in droves for Modern Family a few years back, and no one in that cast was really a name at the time. I really think it comes down Hulu not pushing it via traditional media. Maybe a spot during The Office or Parks and Recreation would inspire people to check it out. Neither of those shows is a tremendous tonal fit, but you could easily cut a spot that suggests otherwise to net eyeballs.

You bring up the notion of Emmy-worthy and, although it won’t be eligible, there are things about Battleground worthy of recognition. As I mentioned before, I’m particularly taken by Jay Haden’s performance, but the show is also more enjoyable and (quite frankly) better than much of what will be nominated. No, this week’s experiment didn’t really work but, like you, I admire their willingness to take risks. It was interesting to see where these characters were like 8 years ago, since their past decisions inform the ones they’re currently making. Unfortunately, had the special that served as this week’s episode aired, I doubt Tak would have allowed the cameras to film the Makers campaign.

Two weeks ago they seeded the idea of Tak joining a presidential campaign and, if that’s what season 2 is, I’m on board. Truthfully, I’m on board regardless, and I think Hulu is too. Why wouldn’t they want a 2nd season? It’s not as if the show brought them negative criticism. If they could grow it properly, they might have a cult hit on their hands. What about you Andrew? Are you expecting a 2nd season?

Andrew: I’m not totally sure where I stand on a second season. To be clear, this has nothing to do with the quality of the show or my enjoyment of it. I just have no interest in seeing these characters as a political staff for a theoretical Senator Samuels. Part of the problem is that I’m not totally sure how the timeline of this show would work. Assuming the season ends with the general election, would any of these characters really have a campaign to work on for the next year? Would they be able to skip ahead to 2014 in their timeline? 

The idea of a presidential campaign helps avoid this issue. Assuming the presidency is on the West Wing style 2 years off schedule (so presidential elections would be 2010/2014), them beginning a campaign in 2013 is certainly realistic. The question there would be what role this team would play. Tak, with a poor record in local elections, is not set to run a presidential campaign, but perhaps he could run a field office.

What I’d almost prefer, if the show is renewed, is almost a spinoff-style, with a focus on only one or two of these characters. We know that Tak and KJ have been in Wisconsin a while from the most recent episode, but I’m not sure we have much background on any of the other members of the campaign staff (aside from Jordan, who would be almost guaranteed to be gone next season unless they continue with Samuels). So as much as I’ve enjoyed Jay Haden’s performance, I’d almost rather see KJ (who we know has received offers) or Ben and Lindsey go off and run a campaign on their own, than see this team move together to run another campaign.

As for big names, I agree it may have hurt from a gaining-an-audience standpoint, but I agree it makes for a more believable campaign staff. As I said before, I knew Haislip from her prior work, but the role of Ali seemed like such a logical place for a “political Alison Haislip” to exist in that it never bothered me. That said, it would not surprise me if the candidate in a second season would be a bigger name, perhaps even a big enough name to follow in the footsteps of Alec Baldwin and Will Arnett as the advertising face of Hulu.

This brings us back to the origin of this discussion- why aren’t more people talking about this show? And, while Wes commented that more people were talking about the Netflix originals, the shows that have been most hyped (House of Cards with exceptionally famous talent and Arrested Development which obviously isn’t exactly an original) haven’t actually been released yet. On the other hand, Lilyhammer, which came out around the same time as the first episode of Battleground, has been talked about, if not as little as Battleground  than only a bit more. So Cory, do you think Battleground‘s problem are series-specific, or are people just not interested in full episode length, non-televised original programming?

Cory: As I mentioned, my desire to see a second season is also a bit…complex. Like you Andrew, I don’t really want to see the team stay on with Samuels, but you make a great point about how Tak hasn’t been particularly successful to actually make the logical leap to the presidential playground. Though, I’m guessing the show could try to convince us that a Samuels win plus more involvement from Tak’s dad could equal that sort of impressive promotion. I’d personally love to see him be thrown into a much deeper, seedier and more challenging race. I’m very attached to Tak (and Jay Hayden’s performance, as you mentioned, Wes), so I can’t picture the story without him. And yet, this is all very conditional for me thanks to the mysterious nature of the post-campaign talking head segments. I’m certainly curious to see how those play out, how they’d impact a future second season and even curious to see if the series would include them in said second season. If there’s a twist coming — and I think there is — I’m not sure if I’d like to see them try that again in a second go; if they do, it becomes like Damages, all about the twist and not necessarily about the journey getting there (although this story is far less complex). 

The possibility of a big name for season two is very intriguing, but not necessarily crucial. Ray Wise is a familiar, but not famous face, and I think the series could certainly cast someone at a similar level, or even a bit higher, for a theoretical second season. Now that I’m thinking about it, shouldn’t Battleground embrace its West Wing similarities and cast Bradley Whitford in a substantial role? I’d love to see him play Tak’s boss in a larger presidential campaign. But again, casting a big(ger) name requires more money, and it’s just so unclear (and unfortunate) how much this cost or how well it is recouping those costs. It drives me nuts that Hulu doesn’t release any sort of quantitative data to the media for series that are available elsewhere, but it feels especially frustrating in an instance like this. If Battleground is doing well, wouldn’t Hulu want to trumpet it via press release? We know that two dozen media outlets would copy-paste the damn thing in an instant, and that would almost certainly result in an uptick in baseline interest. I just don’t understand the business model here. 

On that note, I think Hulu is the most to blame here. As we’ve discussed throughout this conversation, Hulu hasn’t made much of an effort to get the series to eyeballs outside of its own HQ — which again, makes no sense considering they’ve been paying for ad space to push the brand anyway. Hulu has done an okay job giving Battleground quality time on the homepage and in ad breaks for other series, but that it’s hard for me to believe that most people are going to take a flier on a series that’s trapped between quick blurbs for last week’s Modern Family and the Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol “Now on DVD” nonsense. Perhaps they assume indirect association with things like Modern Family or The Office will help, and maybe they will, but I still struggle to see a clear path for making sure people watch Battleground

Andrew, you make a fine point about the similar lack of discussion about Lilyhammer. Netflix obviously took one approach to their forays into original programming and Hulu is taking another, one that is less expensive, but also less splashy. Netflix might lose a boat-load of money on House of Cards, but I do think that creating that sense of pre-release buzz is more helpful in garnering critical and media attention. Not to be glib and cliché, but if Hulu creates originally programming and no one talks about it, but does it even exist? 

It’s possible that viewers have yet to warm up to “online only” programming, if only because the previous iterations made us think of cheap, product-placement-focused additional content (all those terrible Heroes webisodes come to mind). In that regard, maybe Arrested Development “season four” is the big, buzzy product that viewers need to feel confident that online only programming might be solid? Wes, what do you think about that?

Wes: I have to disagree with your assertion that Lilyhammer went unnoticed, Andrew. Netflix rolled out every episode of Lilyhammer at once and, for a brief moment, it was the talk of the town. They paid for billboards in Los Angeles to make their presence known to perceived competitors, littered the internet with banner ads and got a decent amount of press coverage. Considering how low their investment was on Lilyhammer, that’s impressive. I can only imagine what the campaign for something like House of Cards will look like.

Similarly, I don’t think people care whether the show they’re watching has a network home, if they’re watching on Hulu. It would be interesting to know how many of Hulu’s users actually know when and where their favorite shows air, but I’d reckon the number isn’t that high.

I guess the next logical question to pose is this. Do you think Hulu was wise to roll a new episode of Battleground out every week or is the Netflix approach of releasing an entire season at once more beneficial to web based programming?

Cory: I’m okay with the one-a-week schedule. Maybe audiences don’t care about where they watch programming, but there’s probably something to be said for the familiarity of the release schedule. And, theoretically, releasing one per week keeps the series in the minds of viewers for a longer period of time (though it also gives the series more time to leave their memories). That could just be me, though. Ultimately, this is an experiment, and really one of dozens that are going to occur over the next few years. I think we’d all love for programming like this to exist in the future, and I think the industry is headed in this direction, but it’s a challenge. We want online only programming, but we still need to be led there. Contemporary audiences are active, but still need a little help. It’s likely that Netflix’s buzzier projects will help Hulu and things like Battleground in the long run, even if those projects aren’t as good as this one.

Andrew: I have to agree with Cory here. I personally like knowing that on a Tuesday when I have a free half hour I have something to watch. Additionally, I think the best advertising this show has is between when it goes up on Tuesday and has the front page of Hulu, and when Glee goes up on Wednesday. If the entire series had debuted at once, maybe it would have gotten a bit more press at the moment (the AV Club did review the pilot, but that is about it), but by now it would be stuck in the depths of the Hulu archive between Pamela Anderson’s Stacked and the 2008 Knight Rider reboot (both available in their entirety, even without Hulu+!).

Still, as Cory said, this is just the start of the process, and an impressive first showing. Hulu, Netflix, and I’m sure eventually YouTube and others will continue to build on this. As for Battleground, it’s very good, even if it isn’t great, and at the very least it filled a spot that otherwise may have led to some “Hulu considering saving Breaking In” stories.

3 thoughts on “Chitchat: Battleground is one of the year’s best new series [that you’re not watching]

  1. Low production values, B-grade main arc, laughably unrealistic glimpse behind the scenes of a campaign…I saw nothing to distinguish this show from any other poorly done web series before. Perhaps the fact that I’ve worked on similar political campaigns in the past made it impossible for me to swallow what I was seeing, but I thought it wasn’t even good as the weak The Confession series.

    Like

    1. Awesome show. I think people just avoid political shows. I watched it three times.
      It was intereseting…best TV I have seen in a long time. Refreshing nuance.

      Like

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