Originally created 09/21/03

Weird 'K Street' gives audience fact and fiction



NEW YORK - Next fall, could Democratic strategist James Carville win a best actor Emmy for playing himself on K Street? And if so, in what program category: Drama? Comedy? Public Affairs?

That's just one of the issues sparked by K Street, the new HBO series about political consultants in Washington, D.C., whose second episode airs at 10 tonight.

Executive-produced and directed by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, K Street is a largely improvised fusion of truth and fiction that throws actors (Mary McCormack and John Slattery among them) together with Mr. Carville and other real-life Washington insiders for 10 half-hour episodes, each of which will be conceived, performed, filmed, edited and aired all in the same week.

If the premiere is any indication of what lies ahead, this kookie project is a candidate to be the fall's most addictive new series.

Why not? Aiming to have it both ways as a story-telling enterprise, K Street does. It packs the immediacy of a newsmagazine, yet it's as crisp, cinematic and literate as any scripted drama.

The performances are solid - and not just from the real-life, albeit larger-than-life Mr. Carville (who's already familiar to viewers as a political pundit, including host of CNN's Crossfire). In particular, actor Roger Guenveur Smith scores as the mysterious, fastidiously groomed Francisco Dupre, whose scenes bookend the first episode.

But watch out. As with anything new and different, K Street can mess with your head.

I know. After watching the K Street debut, I went to bed, then dreamed that I had been sucked into the show.

The weirdness of the K Street concept paid off right away, as viewers discovered that a one-liner they had heard from presidential hopeful Howard Dean during the real-life candidate's debate Oct. 9 was fed to him the day before by Mr. Carville while they taped the K Street opener.

That episode found Mr. Carville and Ms. Matalin setting up a fictitious new consulting firm - and Mr. Carville infuriating Ms. Matalin when he agrees to join lobbyist Tommy Flannegan (played by Mr. Slattery) in coaching Dean for the debate.

Ms. Matalin, of course, is a top Republican strategist, and she's riled at her hubby for his "casual-favor debate prep." That kind of favor, she tells him, could threaten potential business from Republican clients.

"We're not gonna lose any business!" he protests. "This is James Carville acting as a free citizen of these United States of America!"

Meanwhile, Mr. Carville huddles with Mr. Dean, during which he hands the former Vermont governor a ready comeback to any suggestion that Vermont's overwhelmingly white population means Dean has minimal interest in the needs of black Americans.

Mr. Carville advises Mr. Dean to say, "Look, if the percentage of black folks in your state determined your position on civil rights, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King." (The Mississippi Republican resigned last year as Senate leader after expressing support for a 1948 segregationist ticket.)

As everybody knows, Mr. Dean grabbed this advice during the televised debate, which took place five days before K Street would air and expose the source of his seemingly off-the-cuff quip.

What an odd new kind of backwash between what we used to call reality and fiction! Here's a drama series that not only takes its cue from the week's real-life events, but can then influence them. It uses the news, but it can also make it.

The push-pull of K Street makes it something different in the extreme. Not only is it smart and entertaining, but, if it takes hold, also a little spooky to anticipate.

TUNE IN

K Street airs at 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO.