Something of a reality TV variation on “The West Wing,” Ivy Meeropol’s “The Hill” is a slickly produced and irresistibly engrossing docu series that offers a multilayered look at various forms of politics — local, national and, perhaps most important, office — while focused on the day-to-day activities of U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler and his sometimes cooperative, sometimes contentious staffers. Set to run in six half-hour segments from beginning Wednesday and ending Sept. 17 on the Sundance Channel, series will leave many addicted viewers eager for follow-up episodes.
Wexler, a Democrat serving his fifth term as representative for Florida’s 19th District, largely comes across as principled but calculating, compassionate yet cautious. (A singular exception: In episode two, he boldly breaks with his party’s risk-averse leaders to support a detailed alternative to Republican-supported “Social Security reform.”) Not surprisingly, he prioritizes the interests of his constituents, sometimes — as in episode five, when he devotes his full attention to Hurricane Wilma’s assault on Florida — to the exasperation of staffers more concerned about Iraq and Plamegate.
But even as Wexler grapples with complexities and compromises, he recedes to the background during long stretches of “The Hill” as director Meeropol renders the interactions of Wexler’s staffers as the stuff of a D.C.-based dramedy. Eric Joel Johnson, the congressman’s openly gay chief of staff, unapologetically behaves like a domineering drama queen while enforcing his whim of iron. (Out of the office, he and his partner consider marriage, purchase a spacious home — and devote themselves to their adopted son.) Communications director Lale M. Mamaux, who describes herself as “a very pushy and outspoken person,” often chokes back obvious annoyance (and, occasionally, unmistakable rage) while dealing with Johnson’s demands.
Foreign policy adviser Halie Soifer rarely goes through an entire day without pushing Wexler to condemn Bush administration policies in Iraq. (After initially voting to authorize the war, however, he feels uneasy about demanding an immediate troop withdrawal.) She is only slightly less passionate while discussing which pictures should be hung where as she sets up housekeeping with her fiance in their new apartment.
Filmed over several months throughout 2004-05, “The Hill” has been artfully shaped into individually satisfying episodes that subtly build to an emotionally and dramatically potent payoff. (Here and elsewhere, Brendan Canty’s mood-enhancing score is a major plus.) Like most documentaries of its kind, it may cause some viewers to wonder just how much of the observed behavior was affected or influenced by the presence of cameras. But even if the staffers (and their boss) engaged in on-camera image buffing, there appears to be more insight than spin, and much more truth than truthiness, here.