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Political Ploy

5/14/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

Last summer, Boss creator Farhad Safinia told reporters
attending the biannual Television Critics Association tour that he’d concocted
oodles of “over-the-the-top” scenarios for his Chicagoland political drama
on Starz.

“And I was explaining some of them to this person who works at City Hall,
and … I realized that I’m not even scratching the surface of the truth of that
city,” Safinia said. “It’s almost cosmically operatic how corrupt they are, and have been
— and, as a place to set a show, you just can’t get better than that.”

While Chicago’s political corruption is as legendary as the city itself, television audiences
might not have embraced the plausibility of Kelsey Grammer’s ruthless,
power-driven mayor Tom Kane — a role that earned him a Golden Globe award for best
dramatic actor — until the past few years. We just didn’t see — or want to see — our leaders
that way.

Before Boss, before HBO’s behind-the-Washington-curtain comedy, Veep, and before
the campaign games of Battleground — or the primetime politico-soap drama of ABC’s
Scandal and CBS’s The Good Wife
there was NBC’s The West Wing, a
slightly more utopian look at government
run by passionate, moralistic
people trying to do the right thing.

“It was a show that had us yearning
for some idealized time in Washington,
which I think was a very specific
response to the Bush years,” Michael
Lombardo, president of programming
at HBO, said of the show that began in
1999, just after President Clinton’s impeachment
for his involvement with
Monica Lewinsky, and ended two
years into George W. Bush’s second
term in 2006.

CYNICISM REIGNS

Consider the current polls on how people
feel about Washington, and that’s
not the perception in America right
now. “And looking at what’s happening
in European politics, it seems to be the
same,” Lombardo said. “People are just
weary of the process of politics and of
politicians, and about the press.”

It’s an age-old chess match that has
long been ripe for storytelling. “That’s
why Shakespeare set things in the world
of kings and rulers,” Carmi Zlotnik, managing
director of Starz Media, said. “It’s
a heightened world and a great place
to set the stage for human drama. It
comes down to a commentary on leadership:
whether we want leaders who are good or leaders who are effective.”

Boss, which draws its inspiration for Mayor Kane from Shakespeare’s tragic ruler King
Lea
r, returns for a second season on Friday, August 17, at 9 p.m. (ET/PT). And when we
catch up with Kane, he is continuing his ruthless reign while battling the psychological
manifestations of the neurological disease that threatens to snatch it all away.

Currently filming in Chicago, the series adds Jonathan Groff and Sanaa Lathan to its
cast as members of Kane’s new inner circle as he seeks to defend and repair his political
empire while his list of enemies grows. (Rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris will also co-star as a former
street gangster with his sights set on a career in City Hall.)

“We wanted to play with the fact that he was now surrounded by virtual strangers and
how he would rule with that being the case,” Dee Johnson said of the series. Johnson (The
Good Wife
) is on board this season as executive producer along with Safinia, Grammer,
Gus Van Sant, Brian Sher and Stella Bulochnikov.

“It’s really modern warfare,” Johnson said. “The days of duels and whatever are gone,
and have now been replaced by, as the show sort of employs Farhad’s use of the term, ‘verbal violence,’ and a lot of that
is about plays and strategy
and how you duel for power.”

Battleground creator J.D.
Walsh was inspired to develop
his series after something
he experienced in
real life: the in-the-trenches
warfare waged by the John
Kerry presidential campaign
in Ohio in 2004. “I met
a guy who took me under
his wing, and he taught me
these different things about
elections that I’d never
really thought about,” Walsh
said.

But it was the post-election
story that most intrigued
Walsh. “We were
saying goodbye, and I was
going back to my wife and
family, and the guy I’d met
was going up to Michigan to
do something called voter
suppression,” he said. “I was
so fascinated that my life
was going back to as close
to a realistic life as you can
have in Los Angeles, and he
was moving on with the carnival,
and that’s where the
idea came from — the people
who have committed to
this cause and move from location to location and never
really go home.”

PLOTLINES, NOT POLICIES

Battleground — Hulu’s first original scripted series, which
recently wrapped its first 13 episodes earlier this month —
is not unlike most political scripted shows in that governing
or social issues have little place in the story.

“I may be interested on a personal level about tax incentives,
but not from a storytelling point of view,” Walsh said.
“It’s more interesting to me to talk about and examine the
show that’s being presented than to talk about governing.”

And, borrowing again from The Bard, “all the (political)
world’s a stage” anyway.

“So much of politics, with the 24-hour news networks
and with YouTube, has itself become entertainment,” said
Danny Strong, writer of HBO’s recent film adaptation of
Game Change based on the book written by John Heilemann
and Mark Halperin chronicling the events of the 2008
campaign for president.

Strong, who also wrote the screenplay for HBO’s Recount,
about the Florida ballot debacle in the 2000 presidential
campaign, believes the way we view politics now is “more
about the race, the polls — who’s leading who, and it creates
an entertainment-like atmosphere,” he said. “It seems
a natural progression that we would want that in our entertainment
as well.”

While some show-runners present political games in a
cynical way, others treat it as comedy. The Greg Berlantihelmed
USA Network series Political Animals promises to
be ”Berlanti at his funniest,” Laurence Mark, also an executive
producer on the show, said. The series is currently filming
in Philadelphia and is scheduled to premiere in July as
a six-episode event.

“This is a big step for us into more serialized programming
and back to event programming,” USA Network executive
vice president of original series Bill McGoldrick said.
Back in 2004, USA Network rolled out popular alien-abduction
series The 4400 in a similar fashion.

Led by Sigourney Weaver as divorced former first lady and
current secretary of state Elaine Barrish, Political Animals is
“kind of a present-day fictional American royal family,” Mark
said of the series, which also stars Academy Award winner Ellen
Burstynas Elaine’s mother, described as a “tough Chicago
broad and former Vegas showgirl”; Ciaran Hinds (Rome)
as the former president and Elaine’s ex-husband; and Sebastian
Stan (Gossip Girl) as their openly gay son, TJ, who struggles
with a drug addiction and a rivalry with his more astute
twin brother. Rounding out the cast are James Wolk, Brittany
Ishibashi and Carla Gugino as a Pulitzer Prize-winning
journalist hell-bent on bringing Elaine down.

“These folks live reality television without actually signing
up for it,” Mark said about politicians and their families,
“and it’s amazing how it effects how they live their lives and
have to live their lives, and Elaine’s family is having a hard
time, and so is the country.”

Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer
is also juggling the complexities of her private life as a divorced
single mother and the ever-demanding rigors of being
the president’s second-in-command while trying to repair
her dysfunctional relationship with the chief executive.

MAKING LIGHT OF IT

“Watching the political process at the moment, your instinct
is to laugh — because the alternative is to cry,” Veep
creator Armando Iannucci said at the January TCA press
tour. The comedy, which airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET, was
recently renewed for a second season.

“I think a lot of people are genuinely frustrated because
they don’t understand why so many clearly very able people
concentrated in one locale can’t sort something out,”
Iannucci said. “It seems to be the right moment to come
up with something that starts asking you, or showing you,
how this happens.”

A self-described junkie of U.K. and U.S. politics, Iannucci
is also the creator of The Thick of It, the ballsy award-winning
British political comedy, and subsequent film, In the
Loop
. The show’s third season is currently running at midnight
ET/PT as part of the channel’s “Ministry of Laughs”
programming block.

The story follows the foibles of Nicola Murray (played
by Rebecca Front, The Catherine Tate Show), the newly appointed
Secretary of State for Social Affairs and Citizenship,
and her “burnt-out team” of advisers as they struggle to get
anything done while under the watchful eye of the prime
minister’s Machiavellian spin-doctor, Malcolm Tucker (Peter
Capaldi).

HBO’s Lombardo said he had noticed an increase in
pitches for scripted political series lately. But as with every
programming trend, he sees a finite life cycle for this one.

“Those of us in television and in film, we’re always looking
for something new,” Lombardo said. “My guess is, two
years from now, we’ll be talking about something else. Politics
is having a moment, no question. But there will be a
phasing out of it.”

Until the 2016 presidential election — and that’s just
around the corner.

September