Fantasy and reality intersect on 'K Street'

Times Staff Writer

"K Street," the new HBO series on Washington lobbyists, aspires to the same profitable ambiguity as "Primary Colors." Like that bestselling novel and then feature film, which tracked the rise of a fictionalized Bill Clinton, much of "K Street's" energy and buzz comes from uncertainty about what is real and what is imagined. The show suggests that through fiction it can tell the truths that can't be told through journalism. Maybe.

But the producers -- the heavyweight team of George Clooney and Steve Soderbergh with consulting help from big-name Washington insiders like former Ronald Reagan aide Michael Deaver -- probably need to beef up both the drama and the expose if they're going to engage viewers who don't wake up with the Washington Post on their doorstep every morning.

The show is built around a fictional Washington lobbying and public relations firm headed by the real life odd couple of James Carville and Mary Matalin, playing themselves, sort of. Staunch Democrat Carville and equally devoted Republican Matalin are surrounded by a melange of fictional characters and real people, like two Republican senators and Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who interact with other real people and the fictional characters. At one point, "K Street" shows its characters engaging in presumably fictional dialogue literally next to real life politicians talking to the press.

As the stars of the series, Carville and Matalin turn out to be naturals. A few years ago, I asked Carville what campaigns he was working on in the upcoming election. "I'm not a consultant anymore," he answered more in sorrow than pride, "I'm a celebrity." He'll be an even bigger celebrity after "K Street." Matalin too: The banter and bickering between the two of them is engaging, witty and compulsively watchable. They're a Nick and Nora for the political set.

But, beyond them, the show needs work. It may not be a good sign that the apparently unscripted moments involving real people were much better than the dialogue mouthed by the fictional characters. The plot of the first episode -- Mary's fear that the firm's Republican clients would be furious because Carville agreed to help Howard Dean prepare for a Democratic debate -- seemed overheated to me: Lobbying firms usually have more cachet when they can cover clients' interests no matter who is in power. The conversations between Matalin and Carville and their fictional partners, and between one of those partners, Maggie Morris (played by Mary McCormack), and Republican Sens. Rick Santorum and Don Nickles, all sounded less like the inside skinny than a Hollywood version of what Washington sounds like behind closed doors.

The show's mixing of fantasy and reality is also an acquired taste. The characters move back and forth between the real and fictional world as easily as Neo and Trinity in "The Matrix." Forget all the cliches about art imitating life or even life imitating art. For their opening episode, the "K Street" gang has gone beyond replicating reality to manufacturing it.

The centerpiece of the first episode is a scene where Carville, and his partner Paul Begala, both playing themselves, are called in to help Dean prepare for last week's debate in Baltimore among the Democratic presidential candidates. In the session, Carville and Begala actually provide Dean with some very thoughtful strategy suggestions. It's a great behind-the-scenes moment: It feels like it's the way candidates really do prepare for debates.

Carville even feeds Dean a terrific one-liner: He tells the candidate that if he's asked how he can understand minorities when he comes from a state with so few of them, he should answer that if the racial makeup of your state were the measure of how you related to African Americans, "then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King."

Dean then delivered the line in the actual debate last Tuesday and brought down the house. In the show, Carville, sitting with Tommy Flannegan (John Slattery), his fictional partner from his fictional lobbying firm at the real site of the real debate, is then shown laughing as Dean delivers his line on television. What did the camera capture at that moment? Was that the fictionalized Carville laughing in pride, to advance a plot point scripted by the producers? Or was that the real-life James Carville laughing at the absurdity of a candidate in the actual presidential election using a line he heard while participating in the filming of a half-hour drama series on HBO?

Much of the show left me with that same unsettled feeling. At one point a fictional lobbyist named Francisco Dupre (Roger G. Smith), who speaks with such portentous banality that he sounds as if he wandered in from "Carnivale," the arty "Twin Peaks" in the Dust Bowl series HBO premiered just before "K Street," asks Matalin if her brother has recovered from surgery. I sat there thinking: Is Matalin's brother sick? Does she even have a brother? Does it matter?

Well, maybe not. But it's revealing that during the fictional debate prep, Joe Trippi, Dean's acerbic real-life campaign manager, is shown with a look on his face that says as clearly as if he had bought a billboard: What are we doing here?

The show even sparked a mini-flap late last week when one of Dean's consultants mistakenly told ABC that Dean had thought up the Trent Lott line himself. On Monday, conservatives on the Fox News Channel were bashing Dean over importing the line from the show into the debate. That's fiction morphing into a reality in a way that Dean probably didn't imagine when he signed up for his star turn.

It's possible to get too overwrought about all this. Politics and Hollywood have been mixing for a long time.

Cameos from politicians in movies have become routine. HBO even ginned up a ride much like "K Street" (minus the you-are-there-but-feeling-queasy hand-held camera and jump cuts) 15 years ago, when Robert Altman and "Doonesbury's" Garry Trudeau created Jack Tanner, a fictional Democratic presidential candidate who also rubbed shoulders with the real contenders on the 1988 campaign trail.

And, of course, bashing Howard Dean for mingling with Hollywood seems a little excessive when Arnold Schwarzenegger has become a front-runner in the recall race for the California governorship almost entirely on the name awareness he acquired as an actor.

"K Street" did push the boundaries between life and art to an uncomfortable degree by influencing the presidential race in a way that trivializes the process. But democracy will survive the injury.

It's more difficult to say whether "K Street" can keep viewers interested without a more engaging plot than it managed in its first show.

The only time the show had much edge was when it shoehorned itself into the presidential contest with Dean at the debate or let us eavesdrop on the shop talk between Carville and Matlin. The fictional characters, and the fictional lobbying firm, were about as interesting as lobbyists really are, which is not very. Based on episode one, "K Street's" biggest problem isn't too much reality, it's too little drama.

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Ronald Brownstein is The Times' national political columnist and author of "The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection."

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