Now that The West Wing is hemorrhaging 18-49-year-old viewers to The Bachelorette, NBC is hoping that a new corridors-of-power melodrama, Mister Sterling, will staunch the flow. That’s not to say that the new series, created by ex-West Winger-er (and ex-aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan) Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., takes up precisely the same concept: this time, the focus is not on the White House per se, but on the current DC hot spot, the Senate. And this time, he plots are more pre-fab, more designed to please the target demo.
To begin with, this setting allows for nifty headline-ripping. Where The West Wing is saddled with Bartlet & Co., famously ideologically removed from the popular real-life incumbent, the Senate makes a broader and more nebulous target: there’s always someone, some shameful misstep past or present, to pick on. Second, Mister Sterling‘s aesthetics take a cue from stylish cop-and-doctor shows: where Sorkin’s show is famous for its sober tracking shots of well-informed aides and designer-suited strategists in White House hallways, the camera in Mister Sterling tends to rush around the Senate’s narrower halls and cluttered staff offices, where characters don’t wear ties, duck in and out of frame, and let their papers pile up.
Presiding over this commotion is the series’ preternaturally cool hero, the highly principled and motorcycle-riding Bill Sterling (Josh Brolin, who happens to be the real-life son of James, who played Robert Ritchie, Bartlet’s recent election adversary). Bill (whose name can’t be coincidental) comes to the Hill with a bit of crucial good fortune: he’s a stone outsider to professional politics, or as near as he can get and still seem an “appropriate” appointee.
If the series doesn’t really grapple with the unlikelihood of his appointment (when a scandal-ridden Senator from California drops dead, he’s appointed by the Governor [Bob Gunton]), it does immediately take up its lunacy, that is, the general absurdity of Beltway brokering, the Senate’s rep as “the most exclusive club in the world.” From day one, the annoyingly upright “new kid on the block” Bill confronts the ugly business of politics. His learning curve invites you to see Congressional self-indulgence not as necessary, but as evidence of diurnal corruption, egotism, and misdirection.
The ground for this excess is established right off. The premiere episode begins and ends on a TV screen: first, a reporter announcing the old Senator’s demise, and at last, Bill holding a press conference, developing his ability to “play politics.” His education actually began with his father (James Whitmore), with whom he shares a name, a retired multi-term, super-popular California Governor. Appalled by dad’s career (and lack of time for his family—hopefully the series will hold the domestic melodrama to a minimum), Bill Jr. is, at the beginning of the series, head of a high school program in a federal prison, where he’s so down that he convinces Jamal, one of his prisoner-students, to do his homework. Jamal nods earnestly and shakes Bill’s hand, convinced that geometry will help him “make something of [his] life.” Oz, this isn’t.
So admirably committed is Bill to his work that he makes the Governor wait ten minutes while he finishes teaching his class. And then, when he learns he’s the Chosen One, Bill needs to think it over. There’s the Dad Business, and there’s the fact that he works alongside his pretty girlfriend in the prison. However, she has the bright idea that once he’s in the Senate, he’ll be able to get them 15 new computers and a new teacher. He agrees to go, rather incredibly not anticipating any of the gloomy complexities of life on the Hill.
Or maybe he just figures he can handle anything that comes his way, which appears to be the case. First day on the job, he learns that lobbyists are pushy, reporters are tricky, and his fellow Senators (for instance, those played by Gerald McRaney, Harris Yulin, and Randy Oglesby) have ulterior, selfish motives. Even Bill’s staff members, inherited from his dead predecessor, come with agendas: Arthur (Stanley Kamel), his Chief of Staff, tells him to fire his Press Secretary, Jackie Brock (3-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald), because she’s been “the public face of scandal” for the past 2 years (plus, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t like her). Bill fires Arthur instead and moves Jackie to his position.
Thank goodness. Jackie is, right off the bat, the most intriguing and least stereotypical character in sight: she distrusts Bill’s lack of experience (“Do you know what you’re doing or is this just a crazy roller coaster ride to nowhere that’s going to make us all look like idiots?”), but is tempted to hang on by his ethical posturing (which you are encouraged to see as genuine, of course), questioning him on his stands on abortion, taxes, and the death penalty, among other divisive issues. (Unsurprisingly, he has considered, liberalish positions on all.)
Jackie is also admirably unruffled when Bill lets slip to Roll Call reporter Laura Chandler (Chandra West) that he’s not a Democrat, as everyone has assumed, but a registered Independent (more of that rebellious son behavior). Shades of Jim Jeffords: Senate dynamics are thrown into an uproar, Committee Chairmanships are abruptly rearranged, and everyone’s courting Sterling’s allegiance, offering sweet deals and committee assignments. Even Bill’s legislative director Tommy Doyle (William Russ) quits, briefly, coming back when Bill promises to use his sudden apparent clout to do the right (read: Democratic) thing. But Jackie only sighs, as if she’s expecting such mayhem from this newbie rube: “I guess being a Democrat isn’t as religious a thing for me.” Her stake in such identification is more practical. This which makes sense—she’s a black woman working day in and day out with white men who never pay attention to the needs or desires of any of her communities. (That, and the Democrats are the notorious only resort for the majority of black voters, many of whom resent being taken for granted.)
Jackie’s most obvious potential teammate in Bill’s office is Leon Montero (David Noroña), resident techno-geek and database keeper. He too appears to have a sense of the slippery mishmash that constitutes politics and a geek’s respect for numbers. He deems the “Independent” announcement “cool” and instantly tracks the responses: TV pundits are calling Bill a “snake in the grass,” but the radio call-in shows are registering positive feedback and the Senator’s office email and phone calls are clocking 63% approval. Good to know.
This deference to public opinions is also indicative of the way political business gets done on this show (as it presumably reflects someone’s experience in Washington). Bill puts on a show at first, expressing his frustration that he needs to worry about re-election as soon as he steps into his office, but when Leon starts spouting stats, Bill’s visibly delighted. It could be that they make him feel right, or maybe they make him feel empowered. Either way, he knows they grant him breathing room, that for a minute, he doesn’t have to be bullied by his senior colleagues. No matter that the folks being polled may be uninformed, or that media representations of issues, positions, and backgrounds are sketchy at best, malicious at worst. And no matter that the show—so far, anyway—neatens up messy dilemmas so that Bill (and you) can believe that the System, such as it is, works.
To that end—of demonstrating the System’s viability—Mister Sterling functions much like The West Wing. Bill’s neatly multi-raced staff members, as well as his association with the Senator from Arizona, Thunder Hawk Jackson (splendid Graham Green), have not suggested any particular “identity” politics, only that they understand the need for a popular (hence potentially empowered) white guy on their side to get anything done. As tedious and unbelievable as Bill’s oh-so-noble integrity may be in a TV series, it is the structuring fiction for the democratic “process” as well as the series named for him. That last shot on the first episode, Bill on TV, frames the problem, neatly.