Friday, July 26, 2013

K Street

K Street was a short-lived television show created by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney that aired on HBO for one season in 2003. Looking back at it now, the show has not aged well unless you're a news or politics junkie. Even among Soderbergh fans it is generally regarded as a failed experiment. However, it is a fascinating snapshot of a prolific filmmaker at the height of his mainstream popularity having just come off the one-two punch of the highly acclaimed Erin Brockovich (2000) and Traffic (2000). He used this newfound clout to push through a very unusual T.V. series that examined topical news stories, mixing fictional characters with actual politicians playing “themselves” to comment on American politics.

K Street stars real-life couple James Carville, an ex-Democratic strategist, and his wife Mary Matalin, a former George Bush staffer. They first gained serious mainstream attention when their unlikely romance was chronicled in D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' documentary The War Room (1993), a behind-the-scenes look at the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign. On the show, they are partners in a start-up lobbying and consulting company called Bergstrom, Lowell. Their assistants are fictional characters played by Mary McCormack and John Slattery.

In the first episode, James and Mary butt heads over his decision to agree to help Governor Howard Dean prepare for an upcoming debate. It's James and his assistant Tommy Flannegan (John Slattery) against Mary and her assistant Maggie Morris (Mary McCormack) as they argue over the notion of bipartisanship. After Tommy and Maggie leave the room, James and Mary discuss Francisco Dupre (Roger Guenveur Smith), a mysterious figure that their shadowy owner, Bergstrom, says they must give a yet undefined job. We get glimpses of Dupre early on and he comes across as a quietly confident man who gets his shoes shined, gets a manicure, gets his haircut, and buys a new suit, all in preparation for meeting with James and Mary. Intertwined throughout the ten episodes are two storylines - the relationship between James and Mary and the murky motivations of Bergstrom.

Veteran character actor Roger Guenveur Smith portrays Dupre as a self-assured enigma who appears to say who he is without giving away much of anything and this leaves James and Mary understandably wary. At times, he's coyly evasive and at other times, warm and reassuring, but even then you wonder if it is an act. As always, John Slattery is good as James' right-hand man. The scene where he argues with Dupre over the difference between Ice-T and Ice Cube is amusing. Over time, we are given tidbits of insight into these characters, like Maggie's fascinating subplot that involves the messy fallout with a girlfriend, which weighs heavily on her mind.

K Street was as inside as it gets when it came to depicting American politics as executive producers Clooney and Soderbergh had incredible access to politicians on Capitol Hill featuring the likes of Orrin Hatch and Rick Santorum. Soderbergh adopts a restless, hand-held camera for a verite look that invokes Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (1969), which was a docudrama set amidst the chaos of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and also combined fiction and non-fictional material. Along with Robert Altman's Tanner '88, which placed a fictional candidate in the middle of the 1988 Democratic primary, both are arguably the most significant influences on K Street. Soderbergh adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach that makes you feel like eavesdropping on these folks. Soderbergh also utilizes his trademark filters throughout with cool, gun-metal blues and sickly, queasy yellows. This was achieved by shooting on digital video utilizing multiple cameras with no special lighting and direct sound.

James Carville and Republican image-maker Michael Deaver came up with the idea for the show, which the former envisioned being “about power: building power, applying power.” As luck would have it, producer Mark Sennet, who was friends with Deaver, called him up one day asking if he had any ideas for a Washington, D.C.-set show. He approached Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney who liked the idea enough that, along with Sennet, pitched it to HBO where it eventually aired. When Soderbergh and his two executive producers began discussing the possibility of doing the show, they watched Tanner '88. Soderbergh said, “All of us felt it was a terrific show and it was time to do something similar. But we wanted to take advantage of the new technology to shoot in run-and-gun fashion,” to create what they called, “real-time fiction.” The three men spent six months with lobbyists and consultants to study their daily routines and learn how they did things.

HBO, which had also backed Tanner '88, continued their habit for courting high profile talent, like Clooney and Soderbergh, and gave them the creative freedom to experiment. K Street had no scripts or written outlines and no one took a writing credit. All the dialogue was improvised, but all the locations and guest appearance were pre-arranged. On Monday mornings, Clooney and Soderbergh, along with their creative team and the actors, would meet and discuss the news that occurred over the weekend, read all the newspapers for the morning, and pick the topical news item that would be the focus for that week's episode. They would shoot for two-and-a-half days, edit for two days and then it would air on Sunday. Soderbergh directed, edited and acted as cinematographer for all ten episodes. Principal photography usually ended on Wednesday, sometimes Thursday, with the director editing right up to the Friday deadline.

K Street received mostly negative reviews from mainstream critics. The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley wrote, “Mr. Soderbergh's original idea was to fuse real people and up-to-the-minute political happenings into a drama about Washington. But in the first episode, at least, the director did the reverse: he built a superstructure of Washington retreads and threaded it with the thinnest filament of fictional intrigue.” In his review for the Washington Post, Tom Shales wrote, “K Street is highly unlikely to become a national sensation, but in big cities of the East it ought to be quite the conversation piece-for a little while anyway. In a sense, the show comes off like a marvelous party, but one to which many of us are bound to feel profoundly uninvited.” USA Today gave it one-and-a-half out four stars and Robert Bianco felt that it was a “pointlessly rambling inside look at Washington's spindocracy - a self-contained, self-satisfied group of political hangers-on who are fascinating to each other and of no interest to anyone else.” However, in her review for the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Brainy, beautifully shot, consistently funny and audacious in its disregard for narrative convention, this HBO show about the power elite in Washington was among the very best and most misunderstood cultural achievements of the year.”

One way to look at K Street is that the topical news storyline is merely window-dressing while the heart of the show is the dynamic between the gregarious James and his no-nonsense wife Mary. The most entertaining parts of the show are when they argue. For non-actors they are very charismatic and act naturally in front of the camera. The problem with K Street, and what dates it, is its ripped-from-the-headlines format so that you wonder who some of these people are that our protagonists interact with. Unless you are politically savvy there is the real possibility of feeling frustrated like you're missing something. The show doesn't spoon-feed its audience and assumes that they follow the daily news, which is probably why it didn't last long. 

That being said, in this day and age of Google and Wikipedia, it wouldn't be too hard to figure out who everyone is and their significance, but most people don't want to do that kind of legwork. At its best, K Street shows what a PR firm does - lobbying politicians, creating ad campaigns and running them through test groups, and so on. Clooney and Soderbergh should be commended for updating what Wexler and Altman did before them, but the immediacy of a lot of the subject matter dates the show, which ultimately prevents it from being something truly great instead of being merely a curious footnote in both of their respective careers.


SOURCES

Frey, Jennifer. “Hollywood Cues the Capitol.” Washington Post. September 13, 2003.

Galupo, Scott. “K Street: Potholes or Road to Fame?” Washington Times. September 12, 2003.

McCollum, Charlie. “K Street is Fresh Fictional Avenue for Real Issues.” San Jose Mercury News. September 11, 2003.

McConnell, Bill. “Hollywood Goes to Washington.” Broadcasting and Cable. September 8, 2003.

Mullins, Brody. “HBO Gets Ready to Take on K Street.” Roll Call. August 4, 2003.

Taubin, Amy. “K Street: Washington Inside-Out.” Film Comment.

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