No one has asked for a roll-call vote or suggested a filibuster, but the new CBS series "Top of the Hill," about the adventures of a freshman lawmaker, is sparking lighthearted debate in the halls of Congress.
"I think it's a marvelous idea," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), an attorney who is a first-term lawmaker from Newport Beach. "If television can make a show about cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians, they can certainly make a show about the war zone here on Capitol Hill."
The show, from Stephen J. Cannell Productions, features a handsome young California surfer named Thomas Bell Jr., played by William Katt, who arrives in Congress to fill the seat of his ailing father. Needless to say, Cox--who maintains that his congressional district has some of the best surfing--was curious about a television show focused on a freshman lawmaker representing a similar area.
"I honestly believe that real life in the Capitol is more exciting and dramatic than the show gives it credit for," Cox said.
Similar complaints were voiced by two members of the House of Representatives who have appeared in television series.
Rep. Fred Grandy (D-Iowa), who played Gopher on "The Love Boat" and is now in his second term in Congress and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, watched the first episode Sept. 21.
"Beyond the obvious inaccuracies and cliches, it was boring," Grandy said. "I was debating whether to watch the whole show or finish a report on crop insurance. Crop insurance won."
"It didn't look like Congress and it didn't feel like Congress," said Rep. Ben Jones (D-Ga.), who appeared in "The Dukes of Hazzard" and is serving his first term in Congress. "It struck me that what they were doing was pretty silly.
"The real experience has been much more interesting and substantive and more compelling that what they were doing on the show," Jones said. "I don't understand why they didn't try to present a more thoughtful and realistic portrayal of life in Congress."
Attracting a congressional audience on Thursday night, when the show airs, is difficult because that is the night when many of the lawmakers leave Washington for their district offices. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Jill Long (D-Ind.), say their schedules leave little time for television. "As a freshman member of Congress, I don't have time to watch situation comedies," she said.
Rep. Glen Browder (D-Ala.), a former secretary of state in Alabama, came across "Top of the Hill" by accident when he happened to be watching television. He said he found it "entertaining from a personal standpoint--being a new congressman (watching) a show about a new congressman."
"I think it's like everything else on TV," he said. "If they made it realistic, not even I would watch. No one wants to watch someone for 30 minutes to an hour signing papers or going over reports. It is a typical entertainment treatment of a government institution.
"It may even improve the image of Congress," Browder said. "I've got a 14-year-old daughter who comes down to the office a good bit and I don't think sees me running off to rescue any hostages. Maybe it will raise my status in her eyes."
While Cox found the Katt character believable, he agreed that the show has skimped on realism.
"For Washington insiders, the show lacks verisimilitude," he said. "As amply pointed out by reviewers, there were glitches from a roll-call vote to an L.A. Federal Building in place of the Capitol." (In the House of Representatives, members vote electronically and not as depicted by a voice roll call.) But Cox disagreed with the critics who charged that the gallivanting adventures of a freshman lawmaker, including a rescue attempt of a constituent in a foreign country, are far from the reality of day-to-day life in Congress.
"Frankly, I don't think that was so far off the mark," Cox said of the rescue episode. "I think members of Congress do things like that, but they may not get into such physical difficulties." He recalled a trip to observe elections in El Salvador where he and other members found themselves donning bulletproof vests for protection.
"We suspect the show was modeled after our boss," said David Eisner, press spokesman for freshman lawmaker Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), with a laugh. "He surfs all the time."
Rohrabacher, an avid bodysurfer and a writer with a screenplay currently under consideration, said: "I think it's good to have a show about Congress as long as it tries to be accurate.
"I'm worried that because you basically have people from the (political) left writing the scripts, you may end up with a show where the only heroic people are liberals," he said.
Rohrabacher also said that "coming up with good ideas that are interesting and entertaining about politicians is very difficult. Most people want to turn the TV off when a politician's face comes on."
Then, lightheartedly, he added, "It might have been better to make this a cartoon instead of a dramatic series. Having worked in Congress now, it looks like the Mad Hatter's tea party." If not a cartoon, he said with a laugh, then maybe an episode of "The Twilight Zone."