By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun
2:07 PM EDT, March 11, 2012
After weeks of partisan sniping, the public finally gets to judge HBO's Sarah Palin docudrama "Game Change" for itself this weekend. But the campaign for more politics as TV drama has only begun.
Aaron Sorkin's"The West Wing"notwithstanding, prime-time television has never gone as far into the deep end of the political pool as it is about to do this year. At least four Washington-centric shows are in the works or set to premiere, including Maryland-based "VEEP" and"House of Cards."
And while Baltimore is one of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend, our local productions aren't the only political players coming to the small screen.
So why the burst of politically themed programming this year?
While our being in the midst of a presidential election cycle might seem like a contributing factor, there was nothing approaching this level of political drama, satire and docudrama in 2008 or 2004.
No, this looks more like TV reacting to a major issue in national life — media responding to a troubled spot in the national psyche. This is pop culture that matters.
Think of the burst of programs, such as "24,"with Kiefer Sutherland, that washed across our TV screens in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. They are still coming in the form of programs like Showtime's"Homeland."
What some of Hollywood's best and brightest are reacting to this year is what some of them see as a state of crisis in Washington — the out-of-control partisan fighting that has resulted in gridlock at the very time that millions of Americans are looking to Washington for a way out of an economic trough that has left them jobless or owning homes that are hopelessly underwater.
Both Jay Roach, the executive producer and director of "Game Change," and Armando Iannucci, the creator and executive producer of "VEEP," pointed to their concerns about the political process as driving forces in their productions.
"We try to pose it as questions in the film," Roach says. "Is this the best we can do in terms of leaders today? … Where are the Abraham Lincolns and Kennedys and Reagans of today?"
Iannucci says of D.C. politics today, "You know, everything is so ground to this kind of standoff. It's kind of a depressing dynamic, but I find it interesting."
No one lays out the link between the troubled state of American politics and the new shows like Frank Rich, an executive producer on "VEEP" and one of the nation's most widely respected cultural critics.
"From the time I started to get involved with this show, which is late summer of 2010, Washington has gone from being contentious and somewhat dysfunctional, but still a little optimistic about a new president, to completely dysfunctional and complete gridlock," Rich said.
"So here is this show ["VEEP"] that has very strong views, but they are not partisan views," he added. "Here is this show that, I think, through talent and luck ... has hit the moment where the country is just fed up with both parties at a level that is hard to imagine in my lifetime. And this show captures it."
There's a silver lining for Baltimore and Maryland in the nation's economic misery and political gridlock: Most of these shows need to have some of sense of Washington in their look and feel to be effective. And Baltimore, because of its architecture, an aggressive state film office and incentives, has convinced Hollywood that it is the cost-effective way to do Washington.
"VEEP" spent three months here in 2011, and will in all likelihood be back again this year if it is picked up for a second season by HBO. Look for the premium cable channel to make that call within days of the April 22 debut.
When it comes to politics these days, the nation's pain has been Baltimore's gain.Hollywood's packed ballot
• "1600 Penn": Baltimore native Jason Winer, director and executive producer of "Modern Family," is in production on the comedy pilot for NBC starring Bill Pullman ("Independence Day"). Winer created the series along with Josh Gad and Jonathan Lovett, a former speechwriter in the Obama White House.
The series features a dysfunctional family, but this one lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Pullman plays the president, with Gad as his eldest son. Amara Miller ("The Descendants") plays his 13-year-old daughter. The cast includes Andre Holland ("Friends With Benefits") as White House press secretary.
• "Political Animals": The USA cable channel announced the start of this six-part miniseries starring Sigourney Weaver as a "former first lady and newly appointed secretary of state who throws herself into the job after recovering from the dissolution of her marriage and losing the presidential nomination." Outside of the divorce, sound familiar?
It is supposed to. The closer such politically themed productions can get to what we think we know about real-life Washington, the greater the buzz in most cases.
• "VEEP": On April 22, HBO will launch the first season of this weekly half-hour political satire starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("Seinfeld") and an ensemble cast led by Tony Hale ("Arrested Development") and Anna Chlumsky ("In The Loop").
Filmed in Baltimore last year, the series created by Iannucci ("In The Loop") takes a satirical look at the life of a former U.S. senator (Louis-Dreyfus) who suddenly finds herself vice president of the United States. The series is about the office and what it does to people: "The fact that she's so near to power, and yet so removed from power — yet could be in total power," Iannucci says.
• "House of Cards": The first original production from distribution giant Netflix is scheduled to start filming in April in the Baltimore area. Netflix and producer David Fincher are moving the remake of a critically acclaimed 1990 British political drama from the halls of Parliament to the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
The 13-episode series stars Kevin Spacey in the role Ian Richardson made famous in Britain. Fincher, who directed the films "The Social Network" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," is scheduled to direct the pilot, though the Hollywood Reporter suggested last week that Fincher might want more money to stay on board.
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