K Street

K Street, the new HBO series from George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s Section 8, promises to expose “how things work in Washington.” It doesn’t do that — or at least, it hasn’t yet. But this addictive drama accomplishes something just as significant. It reveals, better than any program on television today, how life among America’s professional class is lived right now.

The premise is both gimmicky and ambitious. To hear its creators tell it, the idea was to create a general narrative framework, based on a new political consulting firm in D.C. launched by veteran operatives James Carville and Mary Matalin. To add edge, each episode would be filmed the week before it aired, with room in the script left to incorporate the pressing real-life news of the moment.

Because of this emphasis on topicality, we’ve been subjected to a great deal of HBO drumbeating about K Street‘s intersections with current events: Wesley Clark’s candidacy, Schwarzenegger’s election, terrorism in Iraq. The show, however, doesn’t deliver. When references are made to the news of the day, they’re typically throwaway, a sprinkle of C-SPAN dust among plot-driven conversations. For instance, HBO pledged that last week’s episode, its fourth, would address the California governor’s race. It did — when two characters joke about the contest over lunch, in a scene that was written weeks ago. That’s it.

But if that is a bait-and-switch, it’s a forgivable one. Turning K Street into Nightline wouldn’t do anyone any favors. Every night of the week, we can watch cable news shows divided into four squares, with talking heads colliding like superheated molecules. Another one isn’t necessary.

What does make K Street fascinating is the pinpoint accuracy with which it details the day-to-day lives of its principals (a disclaimer: the reviewer lived and worked in D.C. for three years, talking this talk and walking many of the steps these characters take). No show on television better understands its milieu. For all the police procedural vernacular in series like CSI and Law & Order, K Street gets it closer than any of them. To aid this, Soderbergh, who has directed every episode (a good reason to watch), borrows the “documentary” style and color palette from his film Traffic (2000). The myriad scenes set in offices and conference rooms feature florescent tones, illuminating lives that exist primarily under an electric blue sun.

Obviously, much of the show’s verisimilitude stems from its casting of Carville and Matalin. That said, they are supporting players to the three fictional lobbyists, Maggie Morris (Mary McCormack), Tommy Flannegan (John Slattery), and Francisco Dupre (Roger G. Smith), who work for Carville and Matalin’s fledgling firm. The actors perform much of the heavy lifting in each episode, with Carville lost in a sort of endlessly repeating “wily Cajun” loop, alternating lip-smacking bons mots with cranky diatribes, and Matalin largely limited to joking about Carville. (Their Tracy-and-Hepburn shtick plays like a vintage Seinfeld episode by now, exhaustingly familiar but still amusing.) Oddly, because Carville and Matalin are such recognizable, defined figures, they come off somehow as less real than the fictional characters with whom they work.

That’s because Maggie, Tommy, and Francisco have messy, complicated lives, but, in keeping with the show’s vérité style, we’re given almost no backstory for any of them. Instead, we gather clues as K Street proceeds. Maggie is reeling from the end of an apparent relationship with a woman named Gail. She stalks Gail at restaurants. (It isn’t until the fourth episode that some of this comes together.) Tommy has an unhappy marriage, an attraction to prostitutes, and an unexplained obsession with an elusive woman in a red dress. Francisco, a shadowy operative financed by reclusive millionaire Richard Bergstrom (Elliot Gould), looks to be working both sides of every issue; he could have tentacles instead of hands.

The ongoing narrative thread concerns whether the firm should represent a new client, the Council for Mid-East Progress. There are hints that the organization isn’t what it appears to be. Some in Washington (politicians and journalists playing themselves in cameos) warn that it fronts for terrorists. There are other suggestions that the client has motives involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The puzzle makes for a lot of kvetching, either in posh (and, to anyone who has lived in D.C., familiar) restaurants or over wireless phones, debates peppered with in-jokes and references to current events.

It is, in short, precisely how political professionals in Washington spend their days, networking, gossiping, glad-handing, and shoving their personal lives to the margins. “I work,” Maggie Morris says in one episode. “I work hard.” The statement is made without pride or remorse. It’s merely a comment on her state of being, an unalterable truth. We rarely, if ever, see these characters at home (which is just a bed and a closet, anyway). Their element is the hotel bar, the Senate cafeteria, the ornate downtown steakhouse, their phone always a second away from purring. They live for one drug: information — and the power it brings with it. It’s never given away, but instead traded, with hooded eyes and elliptical sentences. Everybody is a player because everyone carries an agenda, like a palm pilot, visible for all to see.

To the extent that this comes as news to anyone who doesn’t read the New York Times or Washington Post — that a cadre of largely apolitical and highly paid lobbyists and consultants interact with the highest levels of American power — then the show pulls back the curtain somewhat. But the universe that K Street seeks to portray is both more and less sinister than the show would have you believe. The political process isn’t driven by manipulative, clandestine figures with undisclosed motives as much as it is by corporations and interest groups unafraid of daylight, who shell out big bucks to have their concerns advanced. That may not be as sexy, but the truth is out there for all to see. You just have to be willing to look.

If there is a troubling aspect of K Street, it lies in its unapologetic blurring of fiction with reality. In a landscape where it’s already difficult to separate politics from entertainment (e.g., Schwarzenegger), K Street feels no responsibility to make a distinction. In the first episode, “real” consultant Carville and fictional consultant Tommy both prep Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean for a debate in Baltimore. Dean then used a line supplied by Carville in the (actual) debate. So what was real and what wasn’t? Are our Presidential candidates being advised by imaginary people? By Hollywood actors? By HBO? Think about it for too long and it turns disturbing. Think about it for less than that, and you can enjoy this splendid series for what it is: the smartest thing going.