- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

There’s no telling what the rest of the country will think of “K Street,” but HBO’s experimental series, premiering Sunday night at 10:30, had better make good on its promises. We Washingtonians won’t be easily convinced.

The director Steven Soderbergh will be in town periodically over the next 10 weeks, using a small digital camera to shoot a succession of half-hour shows (airing at 10 p.m. Sundays after the debut) about the District’s famed boulevard of pin-striped, cigar-smoking bullies.

HBO has leased a real office suite near K Street; plots will be written on the fly and tied to real-time events. The cable network is promising that “K Street” will seem so “fly-on-the-wall” realistic, so rooted in up-to-the-minute controversies, that we’ll be doing double-takes.

“We’d like to completely erase the line between fiction and reality,” says Henry Bean, an executive producer. “That’s the fantasy of all art.”

Real senators, congressmen and candidates will be invited to make cameo appearances on the show. For example, the “K Street” crew Wednesday night shot footage of Sen. Don Nickles — the Oklahoma Republican who turned up in Mr. Soderbergh’s “Traffic” — at a meeting at the Ronald Reagan Building downtown.

Such off-campus meetings will have to suffice; Congress has already shown signs of resisting commercial overexposure.

Roll Call newspaper reported yesterday that the Senate Rules and Ethics Committees sent a joint letter to the show’s producers, announcing that “K Street’s” cameras are barred from Capitol Hill and congressional offices.

“This has never been tried before,” says Mark Sennett, who conceived the idea for the show while working on an unreleased HBO biopic about Lee Atwater, the legendary, guitar-slinging GOP political operative who died of brain cancer in 1990. “We don’t look at this as reality television. We’re really blurring the lines.”

Seamlessly blending fact with fiction? Where have we heard that before?

Sounds like — what? You guessed it: the California recall race. As HBO readies “K Street,” Calif. Gov. Gray Davis has already tumbled through a rip in the fabric of political reality. He’s a real politician facing a real challenge from an actor, the action-movie star and political novice Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“K Street” also sounds like a reverse angle on the saga of Stephen Glass, the disgraced writer who wrote putatively nonfiction features for the Washington-based New Republic magazine with a creative imagination that would’ve impressed Tinseltown’s best screenwriters.

While Mr. Glass concocted bits of fictional color to enliven the inconveniently prosaic truth about Beltway political life, “K Street” will borrow bits and pieces of the prosaic truth to lend their fictional drama an air of political reality and topical urgency.

“Shattered Glass,” a movie based on a Vanity Fair profile of Mr. Glass, is currently making the rounds at the Toronto Film Festival — piling fiction on top of fact on top of fiction pretending to be fact.

If “K Street” is half as entertaining as Mr. Glass’ profile of an evangelical cult that worshipped George H.W. Bush, it’ll be a smash.

But we know better than to believe Hollywood’s hype.

Washingtonians love to watch the left coast try to “understand” our town. Congressional staffers snickered in disbelief at how badly the WB network botched “D.C.,” a short-lived drama about suspiciously well-heeled Capitol Hill interns that came and went in 2000.

This year, “Mister Sterling,” about an idealistic U.S. senator from California, crashed and burned for NBC, which cancelled the show after a lackluster nine-episode run.

Presidential dramas such as “The West Wing” TV series and “The American President” feature film, have fared far better, lending themselves as they do to global thrills and personality cult.

But the nexus between K Street and Congress?

Carolyn Strauss, an HBO executive vice president, says in a statement that the show “will offer a fascinating look inside a world that few people ever experience firsthand.”

“Fascinating?” Miss Strauss must be thinking of the back-room drama behind the passage of the National Transportation Modelling and Analysis Program Establishment Act.

Still, Mr. Sennett says he’s “confident that there’s an infinite number of great stories” to be mined in Washington, and that HBO gives them the kind of creative latitude that mainstream networks could only dream of.

In quest of fascination, Messrs. Bean, Sennett and Soderbergh and his pal, actor George Clooney, another executive producer, have for the past six months spent quality time with lobbyists and consultants, trying to soak up the daily routines of how K Street crafts messages; how it influences Congress; how it subtly and not-so-subtly flexes its financial muscles.

For maximum verisimilitude — and partisan balance — it will feature communications gurus Michael Deaver, James Carville and Mary Matalin playing themselves, but in the context of a thinly fictional plot.

They’ll be working for a fake public relations firm and talking about the latest hot button issues, as gleaned from the immediately preceding Sunday public affairs shows.

“There’s no script,” explains Miss Matalin over the phone. “I just do what I would do in real life in any given scene.

“This show doesn’t have any bias,” she continues, “it just wants to be a show about power and process.”

Steve Glass’ political journalism was always too good to be true; from the sound of things, Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Clooney may be so naively fascinated with political process and Beltway tick-tock that “K Street” risks being too true to be any good.

“I have never seen a political show or political book that captured who we are and what we do,” Miss Matalin says, but she’s confident Mr. Soderbergh is savvy and open-minded enough to understand the culture of Washington politics — and understand it quickly.

The director and his creative team better be quick on the uptake: Each show — 10 episodes are booked so far — will be written the same week it’s filmed, based on current events and buzzy issues.

Writing will begin on Monday and production will wrap in time for the Sunday night broadcast. In addition to the real-life consultants, the actors Mary McCormack and John Slattery are also part of the cast.

“K Street” is a chancy experiment, for sure. It could go down in flames, like “D.C.” and “Mister Sterling.”

But it has a potential ace up its sleeve. The ace’s name: Arnold.

Just picture a guest appearance by Mr. Schwarzenegger on the HBO series: a Hollywood actor turned politician, playing himself on a Hollywood show about real political figures in fictional settings.

Call me post-postmodern, but I kind of miss dull politicians…and escapist entertainment.

Still, I’m willing to give “K Street” the benefit of the doubt, if only because “K Street’s” creators themselves seem just as unsure as your average Washingtonian about how well the show will turn out.

Says Stuart Smith, one of the show’s writers: “We’ll know in a month.”

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