K Street Cred

Ersatz realism in a city of spin

HBO's new cinema not-quite-verité political series K Street came imbued with all the buzz of a Portugese espresso spiked with Nutrasweet and crystal meth. The creative team of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney combined a big Hollywood hook with just the right amount of alternative cachet. The promise of camera-hungry politicos doing unscripted cameos had Beltway junkies feverishly dreaming of an unholy Crossfire/Temptation Island hybrid that would make Dr. Moreau blush. An extra element of mystery was added by program's hyperkinetic one-week schedule, which in addition to allowing the creators to tackle timely issues kept reviewers from seeing the pilot episode in advance. In light of the lackluster Sunday premiere, that was probably just as well for K Street.

Realism, spontaneity, and immediacy in television typically sound nice on paper and play out badly in practice. The jerky camera work and heavy use of jump-shots that worked well enough in ER to simulate the frenetic mood of an emergency room have the opposite effect when applied to talking heads. Instead of adding verisimilitude, they make the viewer all the more aware of the camera and editing: Techniques that should be transparent become distractions. Ironically, the casting of "real" DC players has the same effect, creating a greater feeling of artifice than would the use of trained actors. Even though the players are authentic spinmeisters, pundits, and elected officials, they are somehow less believable in those roles than, say, characters on The West Wing.

In part, this is attributable to a moving picture version of that bane of family snapshots—camera face. Put ordinary, intelligent people in front of a camera and their actions, speech, and mannerisms suddenly seem wooden and contrived. Even—perhaps especially—when they're basically meant to be playing themselves. There are few things so difficult for those of us without theatrical training as "acting natural" after being told to act natural.

The situation becomes much worse when the characters are politicians. What we see on the screen is a second-order simulacrum—people playing out ultra-self-conscious reproductions of public personas that are already elaborate constructs. The result is not only unconvincing, but vaguely eerie. In one scene, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) is supposed to be at least mildly peeved to learn that James Carville, an analyst at a consulting firm Nickles employs, has taken on a pro bono gig prepping Howard Dean for the Democratic primary debate. Yet even the lines in which he's meant to be voicing his severest displeasure are delivered in unnaturally serene, modulated tones, and he manages to keep a wide shit-eating grin plastered on his mug the whole time. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) displays a comparable level of Buddhist tolerance, though he does seem constantly on the verge of hitting on the young blonde consultant the firm has sent to placate him.

There's also an enormous amount of inside baseball here. Diehard political junkies may know Nickles and Santorum by sight; the average viewer is apt to be a little lost when they appear without introduction. Creatures of the Beltway will also pick up on the subtext: Santorum is the pointman for the GOP's K Street Strategy, which involves enforcing rigorous discipline on DC's lobbying and consulting firms. Even quite well informed viewers who don't breathe politics, however, probably know Santorum for little more than his notorious obsession with "man on dog" sex. But without that subtext, the audience could be forgiven for wondering why, precisely, Santorum or Nickles are supposed to be surprised or upset that James Carville, of all people, is (gasp!) working for a Demorcrat. The high-powered Washingtonians who act as consultants for the series have forgotten, as do so many who linger too long in the Swamp, that people in the rest of the country have lives that don't involve scrutinizing political horse races with forensic intensity.

The show's timeliness guarantees it plenty of media attention. Already, we've seen a minor brouhaha over the show's right to film in Senate halls and ample discussion of Howard Dean's real-life use of a "fictional" one-liner supplied in the pilot episode by Carville. But the now standard view that the show "blurs the line" between politics and show business is not quite right. There is no such line. There hasn't been for decades. Can anyone deny as much after taking even a cursory glance at California? If anything, K Street will blur the absence of the line. The French social theorist Jean Baudrillard once suggested that Disneyland exists to convince us that the rest of America is real. What, then, is the function of a fiction constructed from "real" events and employing "real" politicians? To direct our attention away from a fact that the consultants and lobbyists who appear on the show understand all too well: Politics is already fiction.

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