With a title like that, Judge Mike Pinsky half expected Elmo to explain to his goldfish Dorothy all the great words starting with the letter K.
"This is not a TV remote control. You don't control everything."—Mary Matalin to James Carville
On K Street, the insiders plot their next moves. If you want something done—a piece of legislation favorable to your company, a truckload of cash to develop your country—talk to the slippery operators on K Street. James Carville and Mary Matalin, two of the shrewdest Beltway handlers around, have just started up their own firm here, under the aegis of a reclusive billionaire kingmaker (Elliot Gould). For the right price, you can have them boost your public image or spin your crisis into opportunity. Their ace crew of consultants (Mary McCormack, John Slattery, Roger Guenveur Smith) will schmooze congressmen and grease the palms of any white-collar Washington drone who gets in your way. That is, if they can get their own rickety house of cards in order…
Blame Traffic. After the critical and commercial success of Steven Soderbergh's color-coded fusion of Frontline and Reefer Madness, the one-time darling of the indie film scene had his choice of staying in the land of art films or reaching for the pyrite ring of Hollywood studio product. He chose both, switching back and forth between star-driven commercial work (Ocean's 11) and messy experiments (Full Frontal, Solaris). He also became an energetic executive producer, backing unusual projects that skirted around the periphery of the mainstream.
As intelligent and informed as Soderbergh might be as an artist, he has translated that into some of his work rather awkwardly. Let's go back to Traffic for a moment. One of the weakest parts of that sprawling film is its tendency to tell rather than show: long stretches of exposition about the drug trade and government policy presented to Michael Douglas's drug czar character in the film. Soderbergh's fascination with Washington politics—and how Beltway insiders turn real problems into talking points—obviously continued beyond the confines of that one film.
K Street is a ten-episode series crafted for HBO with handheld cameras and improvised dialogue. Soderbergh and his crew would study the newspapers to find the latest political news, whip together an outline, then gather their cast and shoot quickly, wrapping the entire affair up in a week. Some rapid editing and a little color correction (that is, strategic tinting as in Traffic), and the show was ready for air. The show's gimmick: real life political imagemakers Carville and Matalin, who were so colorful that their relationship became more of a story in the 1992 presidential campaign than Clinton and Bush, play themselves—or at least the slightly cartoonish versions of themselves they play on the speaking circuit and talk shows. They set up a consulting firm (fictional) to wheel and deal inside the Beltway, with the help of assistants played by professional actors. As in Traffic, the actors then interact each week with real Washington insiders as the Carville-Matalin crew work on some hot-button issue (music piracy, Saudi links to terrorism).
At first, K Street promises a clever look at D.C. politics without the blather of cable news pundits. The show's vérité style gives it a raw feel that suits its improvisational nature. In the first episode, Carville angers his conservative wife Matalin by agreeing to help Howard "Depression" Dean prep for a television debate against the rest of the Democratic hopefuls for the 2004 election. In the second episode, Carville wants to jump in bed with the RIAA and fix their public image problem in the battle over music copyrights. In the third episode, the firm's new Saudi clients may be fronting for terrorists, but the firm's staff seems more interested in making them change their medieval attitudes toward women. These early episodes offer each issue from a variety of perspectives without coming across as preachy. As with Traffic, there are no pat answers to complex social questions here.
But as the series reaches its midpoint, all the strengths and weaknesses of Soderbergh's approach becomes apparent. The strengths: Soderbergh can make the series look quite real and coax naturalistic performances even from non-professional actors. The weaknesses: the winding quality of the show's first few episodes give way to muddled and forced plotting, as Soderbergh decides that he wants to tell a specific story after all, rather than just let the show evolve on its own. The overall arc of the show caves to Hollywood storytelling practice. This mostly involves a shift away from Carville and Matalin and their strange relationship (political opponents who somehow maintain parity at home) toward the assistants. Mary McCormack plays Maggie, the overeager lobbyist struggling through a bad breakup with her girlfriend (yes, the big twist to her requisite personal problem is that she is bisexual, since, well, bisexual is hip these days). Tommy (John Slattery) is a jaded veteran attracted to his father's sexy trophy wife. Dupré (Roger Guenveur Smith) is the bad guy, a "completely passive-aggressive, whispery freak," according to Maggie. He is working behind the scenes for the oily Bergstrom (Elliot Gould), whose loopy behavior feels like a Brooklyn Howard Hughes.
The antics of these characters overwhelm the "ripped from the headlines" conceit that propels the initial episodes, and as Soderbergh shifts tracks toward an FBI investigation of the firm, he crams in flashbacks, espionage movie devices (is there a security breach in the firm?), and even a comically inappropriate porn addiction for Tommy. The show becomes progressively less about how a real Washington PR firm might work (which is exactly the show's original appeal) and more like melodrama. Instead of letting the series really explore the shifty terrain of modern politics for its full run, it steers toward soap opera. Think of this as Traffic the television series, but focusing only on the weaker Beltway story of that feature.
If Soderbergh meant the show to slip away from its premise so quickly, he certainly is not telling. While HBO packages the show's ten episodes in widescreen (the package incorrectly states they are 4:3) on two discs, the studio offers no extras. No promotional footage or interviews. No guide to the political cameos. Nothing. Knowing how much James Carville likes to hear himself talk, you would think at least they could get him to provide some additional material.
Here at the Verdict, we often review shows that never last long enough to hit their stride, or were cancelled in their prime. We lament that television audiences and studio executives never give the innovative shows a chance. But at ten episodes, K Street is probably about as long as it needs to be. Think of this as a very long movie (five hours) that starts off promising but never quite pays off by the end. At least Steven Soderbergh took a risk in giving his political soap opera a more documentary feel in an effort to energize the audience. Politics can be boring, and in spite of its numerous flaws, K Street is at least not boring.
Steven Soderbergh is instructed by this court to try again—this time making his next television series deliver on its promises and not abandon them halfway through. We suggest he hire Carville and Matalin for an image makeover. Their fee will be donated to this judge's reelection fund. Court is adjourned.
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