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Don’t Be Fooled

HBO’s “K Street” blurs the line between reality and drama with confusing results.

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“K Street” peeks inside the power-politics world of political consultants. What distinguishes it from, say, “The West Wing,” is that instead of creating a fantasy world, “K Street” mixes the real with the imaginary, commingling actors playing roles with real political players playing themselves. And to keep the show reflective of what’s happening in politics right now, “K Street” is filmed down and dirty — complete with the kind of shaky camera angles and bad lighting you’ll find in most political documentaries — in the week before it airs. What you’ll see on Sunday night was written, filmed and edited in the preceding five or six days.

To keep things even more realistic, “K Street” specializes in the kind of stepping-all-over-each-other dialogue that happens in real life. Characters seem to speak as they are thinking, which is not all that surprising, since much of what they say is improvised. And they don’t usually wait for the other guy to finish saying his piece before jumping in with their own take on the subject. You can’t multitask while you’re watching “K Street”: The chances are too great that you’ll miss something important.

The series, slated to run for 10 episodes, was the brainchild of four producers, among them George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh. It’s filmed on location in Washington, D.C. — even inside the Capitol, until they got kicked out. The focus is on a lobbying firm headed by Washington’s real-life odd couple, James Carville and Mary Matalin, who play themselves and also serve as consultants to the show. The firm’s staff is rounded out by a handful of top-notch actors including John Slattery (“Traffic”), Mary McCormack (“Full Frontal”) and Roger G. Smith (“Oz”).

To make it even easier for viewers to confuse life on “K Street” with the real thing, real politicians and political consultants pop in and out of episodes with neck-snapping speed. Sens. Don Nickles and Rick Santorum, Democratic adviser Paul Begala and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean are among those I recognized. Dean’s cameo specifically blurred reality and fiction. You’ll remember that in the real Democratic presidential candidates’ debate he answered a question about coming from a state with so few blacks by saying that if the percentage of blacks in his state were a consideration, then Trent Lott would be a civil-rights leader. On “K Street,” Dean played himself being “prepped” for the debate by Begala and Carville, among others, who suggested he use that joke in the debate. Then “K Street” used a clip from the real debate as though Dean had taken the fictional suggestion. Viewers can be forgiven for saying, “Huh?” — for being flummoxed about what’s real and what’s not.

No matter. What’s real is that “K Street” is so consumed with being inside politics that its appeal will be primarily to politicians and political junkies, not a large enough group to sustain a series on one of the Big Three networks.

But that’s not a problem for HBO. Since it’s a pay channel, HBO can afford to pimp to smaller audiences. HBO subscribers don’t have to like everything it offers. They just have to like one show enough to tempt them to subscribe. And for those who like to immerse themselves in the game of politics, “K Street” is reason enough to fork over the money. S



“K Street” airs Sunday nights at 10 on HBO.



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