Making 'K Street' Special

Political consultants James Carville, left, Mary Matalin, part of HBO's new reality-drama show "K Street," pose in this undated publicity photo.
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This commentary from The Weekly Standard was written by Matthew Continetti.

I have a soft spot for "K Street," the new HBO series that follows the lives of a group of Washington lobbyists. It's not necessarily because the show goes to great lengths to incorporate real-life Washingtonians into each week's episode. And it's not necessarily because the show focuses on the capitol's lobbyist culture, which is deserving of more attention than it has received in general. No, I have a soft spot for the show because there are few sights that give me more pleasure than watching James Carville blow a gasket.

Which makes me sad to say that the series has gotten off to a rocky start, primarily because of its purported stars, Democratic strategist Carville and his Republican strategist wife, Mary Matalin. The show's producers, director Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney, obviously thought that the over-the-top Carville and Matalin would make for engaging television. They thought that focusing the show on the couple's efforts to open a major new consulting firm would offer up ample opportunities for drama. They thought that Carville and Matalin could hold their own against actors like Mary McCormack, John Slattery, and Roger G. Smith. They were wrong.

The problem is that, while Carville and Matalin are five-star pundits, they are half-star actors. It can be painful to watch them improvise dialogue. This shouldn't come as a surprise: The duo got their start in the behind-the-scenes world of consulting, not in the spotlight of retail politics or show business. Carville is a colorful character, but, strange as it may seem, there's no "acting" involved in his public persona. (Tucker Carlson makes this point about Carville in his new book, Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites. In one passage, Carville regales Carlson with tales of his sexual fantasies -- in front of an audience of several hundred people. Carville "was all id, a wild man, the only person I've ever encountered whose personality had to be toned down for television," Carlson writes. "None of it was an act.") What you see is what you get. The same goes for the real-life journalists who show up each week: The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz and Time's Joe Klein are first-class writers, for example, but I think it's safe to say that Steven Spielberg won't be calling them anytime soon.

On the other hand, senators like Orrin Hatch and Charles Schumer, two professional politicians who've been public figures for decades, are in some sense "acting" whenever they step in front of a camera. The result is that the supposedly marginal senators and congressmen, along with the other professional actors, come across as more engaging than the behind-the-scenes insiders who are supposed to be the show's focus.

"K Street"'s producers would like to have it both ways: They'd like to produce a show that is dramatically engaging while also providing a glimpse of Washington's daily grind. In effect, they want two shows in one: a "West Wing" knockoff and a "War Room"-esque documentary exercise.

If I were George Clooney I would . . . well, I would do a lot of things. But when it came to "K Street," I would decide which show I'd rather produce and then kill the other half. I would focus on making a documentary of Carville and Matalin's strangely intriguing marriage and professional life, or I would ditch James and Mary and produce a racy, dark drama about the tortured private lives of lobbyists. Because you can't eat your cake and have it too -- even if you are George Clooney.

There are signs that Clooney and Soderbergh are cutting back on the show's documentary aspect. Last Sunday's episode, a flashback in which we learned more about the back-story of the show's fictional characters, made for quirky, compelling television. Carville and Matalin's roles were minimized. Instead of trying to chew up the furniture, they argued about the furniture for five minutes. Last week's "K Street" was the best episode yet.

The question is whether the producers stick with this approach, focusing on fictional storylines and giving McCormack, Flattery, and Smith room to stretch their legs. They can still incorporate today's headlines. They can still film in and around Washington hot spots. And every now and then, they can bring out Carville so he can blow a gasket.

Here's hoping.

Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

By Matthew Continetti