‘K Street’ Reaches a Dead End

Nov 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

It was heralded as a show that would break new ground. HBO’s “K Street” would be a hybrid reality show crossed with a scripted drama that brought together the best and brightest in show business and politics. It certainly sounded impressive on paper.
Movie star George Clooney and Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (“Erin Brockovich”) were producing through their Section 8 Productions. And it was a totally bipartisan effort-the inside story of a fictitious Washington consulting firm featured real-life Democratic stalwart James Carville and his wife, Republican Mary Matalin, who until recently worked for Vice President Dick Cheney.
HBO had a great track record. The pay network created mega-hits including “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos.” HBO had won 18 Emmys earlier this year.
For weeks before it premiered, “K Street” was the buzz of newspaper people pages and gossip columns and infotainment shows. Before the first episode aired, there was serious talk about bringing back “K Street” for the presidential elections next year, perhaps in a limited run.
It premiered two and a half months ago with a 12 rating in its figurative hometown of Washington, which seemed like a landslide victory for all involved. Then the real returns started coming in.
“`K Street’ is extremely bad,” said TV Guide critic Matt Roush. “So much so that I don’t see how it stays off any critic’s 10 Worst list.” Added USA Today critic Robert Bianco, who is based in Virginia, just across the river from the nation’s capital, “Some people have said that it is a show that would only be of interest to people in Washington, and that’s an insult to the people of Washington.”
The ratings went into a downward spiral and the buzz quickly evaporated. As the show finished its 10-episode run, it was averaging only a 4.3 rating in HBO’s universe, or about 2.2 million viewers. HBO hits such as “The Sopranos,” by contrast, typically attract numbers almost five times larger. “The Sopranos” has attained a 20 rating in HBO households.
HBO has not made any official announcement about the future of “K Street,” and has been coy about chances of renewal. Mr. Soderbergh is said to have already made other professional commitments. Few expect it to be renewed.
“K Street” was especially unpopular in the big media buzz centers of New York and Los Angeles. The New York Times’ Frank Rich recently suggested in a column that HBO should put the show “out of its misery.”
“I love the show, but that’s because I live here [in Washington] and I like the city. This is not mainstream TV,” observed Tucker Carlson, the co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire” who is now developing a new show for PBS. “Nobody thought that `K Street’ would draw a huge audience.”
Put another way, if it was a great show for a Washington insider, could it be that it might have baffled even ordinary Washingtonians? Even The Washington Post, which felt compelled to offer regular updates on the show’s progress, headlined these missives, “We Watch So You Don’t Have To.”
What happened? How did it all go so wrong?
The answer, according to most, is that it was a program that had so little cohesion and narrative flow that even one of its stars wondered aloud what was happening on the set. “There are no scripts, there is no [proper] lighting, they don’t even filter out outside noise,” Mr. Carville observed while the show was still in progress. “I’m confused half the time.”
Among those who appeared on the show were John Breaux, R. James Woolsey and Marian Wright Edelman. While they may be familiar to Washington insiders, they are among a dizzying parade of consultants and other obscure Beltway movers and shakers who appeared without ever being identified.
While that technique works on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which features well-known guest stars such as Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, on “K Street” it was downright baffling, especially for those who don’t regularly watch C-SPAN. HBO seemed to recognize the problem; its Web site recently asked, “Need help identifying the people who’ve appeared as themselves?”
HBO apparently did at least momentarily try to get more identification. Its failure to do so illustrates why most observers feel the show failed. Total creative control was vested in the hands of Mr. Soderbergh, who has directed his share of hit movies (“Ocean’s Eleven,” “Far From Heaven,” “Traffic”) but has also helmed some projects that were a lot less popular, including last year’s “Solaris” and “Full Frontal.”
In reviewing “Full Frontal,” the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert noted, “Every once in a while, perhaps as an exercise in humility, Steven Soderbergh makes a truly inexplicable film. There was the Cannes `secret screening’ of his `Schizopolis’ in 1996, which had audiences filing out with sad, thoughtful faces, and now here is `Full Frontal,’ a film so amateurish that only the professionalism of some of the actors makes it watchable.”
“K Street,” said Mr. Carville, was Mr. Soderbergh’s vision. “This thing is 99 percent Steven Soderbergh, and 1 percent everyone else,” he exclaimed. “You know how they talk about a person who can keep an ice cube in their mouth and not have it melt? He could drink water and make it into an ice cube.”
This explanation is echoed by others who worked on the project, who said Mr. Soderbergh turned frosty when given advice of any kind, especially that emanating from network executives.
HBO, of course, has retreated behind its comfortable stance that it never tells creative types what to do once a “vision” has been agreed upon. “HBO never does that,” said an executive at the network. “That’s what creative freedom is all about.”
This show, onlookers seem to agree, was an experiment that went awry, that just didn’t work, a kind of abstract television against a confusing and obscure backdrop.
Neither Mr. Soderbergh nor Mr. Clooney would comment, but in a video posted on HBO’s Web site, even Mr. Clooney seems to acknowledge that the show is experimental and choppy. “There are no second takes; we don’t really know what we’re going to do,” he said. In an interesting turn of phrase, he added, “I hope we get it right, and if we don’t, you’ll let us know.”
In his own turn at an HBO video interview, Mr. Soderbergh said, “We wanted to show how [political] consulting firms work.”
“The show could be easier to follow and be more expositional,” conceded Henry Bean, an executive producer on “K Street” who is best known for his feature film “The Believer.” “It could have been made easier to follow.”
But Mr. Bean said this is not what Mr. Soderbergh, who has directed most episodes, was going for.
“K Street” was deliberately unconventional. According to sources on the set, the lack of scripts was based on Mr. Soderbergh’s idea that the show should be improvisational, based on the news of the week. According to Mr. Bean, producers started with a clean slate each Monday. Production meetings were offbeat as well, with principals sitting around reading newspapers at the outset. “Nobody is saying, `What are we going to do this week?’ But things pop up that have a certain gravitational pull, and if they sound right, Steven will say, `That’s cool,’ and he’ll note it on his notepad. By the late afternoon, we may not be completely sure what the show will be all about. Sometimes we’re at the end of the week and we don’t know.”
Jon Macks, a political consultant and writer on NBC’s “Tonight Show” who also had production chores on “K Street,” cautioned, “It’s not for everyone,” adding that HBO knew that going in. “In the end, is Sarah Jessica Parker [of HBO’s `Sex and the City’] going to get better ratings than political consultant Jon Macks? If their goal was just to get ratings, then they wouldn’t do our show in the first place.”
The offbeat production techniques “K Street” used, meant to evoke the chaos and confusion under which politics operates, was about as experimental as TV gets. “It can be incomprehensible,” said Robert
J. Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. He compared the show to an abstract painting by the late Jackson Pollock, noting it is “not entertaining, not terribly pleasant” to watch.
However, Mr. Thompson observed that a production like “K Street,” with its impressive credentials and aura of prestige television, is far preferable for HBO, especially as a limited 10-episode experiment, than would be a more popular but conventional series. “Take a show like [CBS’s] `Becker,’ which was in the top 10 for a couple of years,” said Mr. Thompson. “Would anyone call up their cable company and say, `Give me HBO because I want `Becker’?”
Carolyn Strauss, executive VP of original programming at HBO, defended the show against charges that it was difficult to follow. “I don’t think we strive to be incomprehensible, but we have chosen to follow a vision. In this case, we are following the vision of Steven and George.” Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Clooney, she said, “have achieved their prominence through their artistry. That’s why we’re their partners.”
Despite its official hands-off policy, there was a suggestion that simply adding chyron titles to identify obscure guest stars would help with coherence. Ms. Strauss said she “mentioned it once” to Mr. Soderbergh but hardly made an issue of it.
Mr. Bean said HBO has had a minimal presence on set, and Mr. Carville said that if any major suggestions were made by the network to the production, “I’m not aware of it.” HBO clearly wants its “partners” to see the network as offering creative freedom.