Hollywood Goes to Washington

HBO is mixing real-life politicos and actors in series about a lobbying firm

Some of D.C.'s best-known politicos think they can teach Tinseltown a thing or two about making TV. This week, production begins on HBO's K Street, a behind-the-scenes drama about a fictional lobbying/public-relations/crisis-management firm in the nation's capital.

It would be impossible to overstate the meaning of begins. Nearly every aspect of creating a weekly half-hour episode will start Monday morning, when actors, writers and producers walk onto a set just blocks from the White House. That means generating storylines from current headlines, outlining dialogue if not actual scripts, filming, and finishing post-shoot production in five days—in time to deliver to HBO by Saturday for a Sunday airing.

That schedule sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the veteran Beltway hands helping create the show say they have been working at that frantic pace their entire careers.

"The nature of putting this together will not be foreign to political people. That's how we are: doing things on the fly," says Mary Matalin, a political adviser to both George Bushes and a consultant to the show. She'll also play herself as one of the partners in the fictional lobbying shop. Her real-life husband, James Carville, the rakish former Clinton campaign adviser, and former Reagan Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver also will play themselves. The firm's partnership will be rounded out with characters portrayed by actors John Slattery, Mary McCormack and Roger Guenveur Smith.

The three political strategists have, at different times in their careers, been among the biggest political players, and Carville and Matalin remain regulars on the talk-show circuit. The fictional firm's composition will mirror the both-sides-of-the-political-fence they made acceptable. K Street bows Sept. 14 after HBO's new drama series Carnivale.

Carolyn Strauss, HBO's executive vice president of original programming, says the "run-and-gun" production was the best way to get into the world of Washington. "It will be driven by what is on the minds of Washington that week," she said earlier.

Executive producers George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Mark Sennet pitched the idea to HBO, and—as is typical for the pay channel—HBO executives are actively involved. The unusual format, Strauss said, was necessary to achieve the right feel for the show.

That feel, says Carville, will be an accurate portrayal of Washington's primary product: power. "I envision a show about power: building power, applying power. There will be a lot of conniving going on."

To start, HBO plans to make 10 episodes, but the show's producers hope early success will persuade the net to carry the show through the 2004 presidential election, which they expect to be rife with storylines.

To add the feel of reality to the fictional show, K Street aims to routinely feature politicians in both scripted parts and in shots making actual speeches or pacing the halls of Congress with the usual gaggle of real reporters in tow. HBO won't say which policymakers have committed to the first episode, but Sens. John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Orin Hatch appeared in a 20-minute trailer prepared for the cable industry press tour in July.

Despite the last-minute pace of production, Matalin predicts politicians will have little trouble making room in their hectic schedules if they want to do the show.

But will they want to guest star on a show that aims a spotlight on how Washington reallyworks with its incongruous blend of idealism and realpolitik? The trailer, for instance, portrays the firm's partners debating whether to take on controversial, self-promoting anti-Saddam dissident Ahmad Chalabi as a client given the political headaches that would clearly result.

No problem, Matalin says. Image-building is a necessity for elected officials and showing they can lighten up enough to laugh at themselves, or at least be honest about the Machiavellian bargains their jobs require, is one way to fill that need. "This is in the same genre as Clinton going on Arsenio."

She dismisses anticipated criticism that a spot on HBO would be a way for parent company AOL Time Warner, the country's largest media conglomerate, to curry favor with policymakers as Congress debates media consolidation. "They won't think we're trying to buy them off; they'll be petitioning to get on the show."

Additional reporting by Allison Romano