I played a bit part in HBO’s new docudrama/political reality hybrid “K Street” Wednesday night, though there’s no doubt the scene will wind up on the cutting room floor.
I stumbled onto the show’s traveling set at a benefit roast of “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt sponsored by CNN’s Judy Woodruff at Washington’s Hyatt Regency. I was mingling with the crowd when the spotlights and cameras and Steven Soderbergh appeared with James Carville and Mary Matalin, the show’s real-life political odd-couple stars, in tow.
I had interviewed Carville the day before to see how he thought the experimental drama was going after four episodes, so I thought I’d introduce myself in person.
We exchanged pleasantries before Carville and crowd began chatting up D.C. socialite activist Debbie Dingell, wife of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who is known as “dean of the House” for his longevity.
The dean was standing by himself, so I struck up a brief conversation. Before I knew it, the dinner bell was chiming and Carville was whisking the congressman away, telling me under his breath that he didn’t really think I wanted to be in the shot being a journalist writing a story on the show and all.
I was happy to comply, but ducked away from the cameras with a new understanding of the constraints “K Street” faces in trying to depict insider Washington in an orchestrated pseudo-reality.
A combined creative effort of Soderbergh, George Clooney, Carville, and executive producer Mark Sennet, the show has no script. The production crew races around the nation’s capital with a loose storyline in mind, trying to capture the behind-the-scenes lives of lobbyists at a fictional bipartisan firm and their interactions with real-life lawmakers and politicos.
With all the hype the show’s received in D.C. and so many big names involved, the challenge is producing a believable story in a contrived setting, and too many times the show can’t get around the artifice.
Everyone the cast encounters has a lighted handheld camera in their face and is desperately trying to act natural without acknowledging that fiction and reality are merging before their eyes (and that they are mesmerized by Clooney and Soderbergh’s presence).
In order to reflect a newsy feel, it’s shot in three days and edited in a day and a half — every week.
So far, inside the Beltway and around the country, the show’s getting mixed reviews. As Carville puts it, “K Street’s” “like anchovies: You either really like it or you don’t.”
It’s clear the program’s big-name producers don’t much care if the show has mass appeal. They’re in it for the creative freedom HBO allows and to try to bring reality television to a more sophisticated level.
“I am just enjoying the experience,” says exec producer Henry Bean. “So much of what I do I feel like I have to apologize for. This, I’m really proud of.”
In many ways, “K Street” comes off as the anti-“West Wing,” an attempt to convey the tedious real-life underbelly of Washington politics “from the inside out,” with all of D.C.’s venality and pettiness on full display.
In one episode, actor John Slattery, who plays lobbyist Tommy Flannegan, ends his day by soliciting a prostitute. In the next, he’s enduring a counseling session with his wife.
The program has already managed to blur the lines between reality and fantasy. In the first episode, Carville gave real-life Howard Dean a line to use in an upcoming presidential debate — which Dean repeated a couple of days later during the real-life version.
In another episode Carville (who plays himself) is trying to convince wife Matalin (who plays herself) to take on Saudi Arabia as a client.
After watching, Carville’s sister called and upbraided him for making the pitch. “I told her I don’t really want to represent Saudi Arabia,” he recalls. “It’s just a show. In some ways it’s so real, it’s like having a dream or something.”
Whether or not K Street continues next year or manages to produce a dramatic plot, HBO and the talented team of producers involved deserve some serious credit for boldly pushing the limits of cookie-cutter reality television and taking on the powers-that-be in Washington.