There’s a nasty little truth about network TV’s portrayal of an idealist — right-wingers need not apply. Doctor, say, lawyer, or teacher, the careers of television’s paragons may vary, but their politics rarely do. There are many Josiah Bartlets, but few John Galts. And, as might be expected from the network that spawned the West Wing, NBC’s Mister Sterling is no exception.
As NBC describes it, the new drama is dedicated to “chronicling the daily struggles of [a] well-intentioned young senator…who brings a fresh perspective — and his own agenda — to Capitol Hill.” “Well-intentioned” with a “fresh perspective”? Anyone familiar with the entertainment industry’s idea of political thought (or writer Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., a veteran of the West Wing and a former Democratic chief of staff on the Senate Finance Committee) will know what that means; and, trust me, it’s not an enthusiasm for trickle-down economics.
O’Donnell himself appears to acknowledge this, sort of. According to the New York Times, he sees his hero as an “activist” rather than someone who is particularly Democratic or liberal. He then goes on to note that it “would be a little problematic dramatically if you tried to make a show about a conservative and the Republicans would probably agree. They want to do less in government, and that’s a trickier thing to go at in drama. How does a scene work when your character is the guy who doesn’t want to do something? It’s a trickier thing to find the drama in that. So for a TV show, being activist is a good thing.”
It’s a nutty argument, and one that must rely on the assumption that there can be no real (or, at least, no real likeable) activism on the right. Of course, Mr. O’Donnell is quick to deny that he is trying to use the show “to teach any lessons,” a claim that reveals he has indeed found his true vocation in fiction.
When we first meet young Mr. Sterling (Josh Brolin — with a dour, holier-than-thou attitude and the biggest hair since LA Law’s Michael Kuzak) he is working as a teacher, a top profession in the world of prime-time altruism. Nobler still, his school is inside a prison. As if all that wasn’t enough, when the governor of California comes calling, Sterling keeps him waiting — naturally he is not prepared to interrupt a lesson or — whatever Mr. O’Donnell may say — ever stop giving us one.
The governor, Carl Moreno, a wily and enjoyably sly Democrat nicely portrayed by Bob Gunton, has arrived at the big house carrying a ticket to D.C.’s upper house — the Senate. One of California’s Democratic senators (so crooked that he is known as “Senator Scandal”) has dropped dead, and who can blame him? The threat of indictment with, presumably, a stint at Sterling’s grim little class to follow, was simply too much to bear. Moreno needs a safe replacement to serve out the remainder of Scandal’s term — and Sterling, the squeaky clean son of a beloved former Democratic governor, has the good name and the lack of a bad reputation that Moreno needs.
Needless to say, Sterling, a hipper, less agrarian Cincinnatus, has to hesitate before taking the job. To be too quick to accept would be to show too much ambition, an unacceptable emotion in this universe, albeit one that is necessary if this series is to proceed beyond its premiere. This difficult dilemma is resolved by virtuous posturing (“I don’t like politics”), self-important posturing (can he be replaced at the jailhouse schoolhouse?), Top Gun-style “rebellious” motorbike ride posturing (against a setting sun backdrop, inevitably), self-indulgently melodramatic father and son posturing (Sterling Junior has a tricky relationship with Sterling Senior) and, finally, of course, by an agreement to serve as old Scandal’s successor.
The D.C. Sterling finds is the Washington of John McCain’s more fevered propaganda — a fat-cat fat city of vulpine corporate lobbyists, where senators might be won over by the price of a good breakfast and no meal can pass without glad-handing interruption from big-business shills. The first lobbyist he meets represents nuclear power, the second something even less popular: Wall Street. Of those other, more politically correct, lobbyists, the environmentalists, the “good government” types, the trial lawyers, the race hustlers, and the unions, no mention is made.
So far, so predictable. More surprising is the revelation that Sterling is not actually a Democrat. Unknown to those who had appointed him their man is, in fact, a “registered independent.” His team, all of whom were happy enough to work for the crooked Senator Scandal, are horrified — financial unorthodoxy is one thing, but political unorthodoxy, it seems, is quite another. Sterling’s replies to a quick quiz from a panicked staffer provide just enough reassurance — it turns out that he’s anti-death penalty, pro-choice, and, forced to decide between a capital-gains tax cut and healthcare spending for the elderly, he reveals himself to be no supply-sider — the green, he agrees, should be reserved for the gray. In a rare — and welcome — nod to the dark side, Sterling does, however, favor drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge, (“better than on the California coast, don’t you think?”).
So, if he’s an independent, he’s been house-trained in the big-media consensus. Karey Burke, EVP for development of prime-time series in NBC told the New York Times, “It’s the same thing we saw with E.R. Those were the doctors you wished could treat you. With Mister Sterling, these characters are the people we wish had these jobs in Washington in real life.”
And what “we” want, it seems, is a liberal.
When it comes to his independence, Sterling is Jim Jeffords, not Teddy Roosevelt, and, like the Vermont “independent,” he is a committee whore. Sterling has arrived in a Senate where the Democrats are in control, but only by the narrowest of margins and, sensing his opportunity, he bluffs their leadership into thinking that he will only support them in exchange for seats on a couple of key committees. These maneuvers could have been a nicely cynical touch, but they are merely used as a device to underline the youthful vigor of the new arrival, impatient with world-weary Senate convention and eager to press ahead with that sanctimonious “agenda” of his.
And as to what that agenda might be, we can only be sure of two things — it will come drenched in sub-Capra corn (the first item on Sterling’s wish list is, for D.C., pathetically modest — $38,000 for his former jailhouse school, an echo of the boy’s camp that Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith wanted when he went to Washington) and it will be liberal. The senator may not formally be a Democrat (indeed, Mister Sterling’s roster of the villainous, cynical, and complacent includes a fair number of Democrats), but the show’s scripts are designed to leave viewers in no doubt that virtue is generally found on the left.
So Sterling’s only real problem with his father’s party is that it is not liberal or “authentic” enough. Thus he marches (despite being told that “senators don’t do marches”) with protesting farm workers (cue: jolly Mexican music — if there’s one thing less subtle than Mister Sterling’s script, it is its soundtrack), adding to the pressure on the (Democratic) California governor to sign a bill to give these fine, hardworking but oppressed folk more rights.
Of course, (well, this is network TV) the new senator’s policy prescriptions are not so iconoclastic that they might alarm the show’s presumably upscale target demographic. Sterling is in favor of the “decriminalization” of marijuana, but (the wimp) not its legalization. Similarly, the new senator may have taught in a jail, but he’s no softie, he’s also a former prosecutor and (we have been told earlier) a supporter of military tribunals for suspected terrorists.
The only hint, so far, of any originality in this series came with the appearance of a Native American character in the second episode. Under the conventions of contemporary television this is normally the prelude to faltering flute tunes, embarrassingly banal folk wisdom, and dollops of environmentalist pap. Senator Jack Thunderhawk Jackson (portrayed with devious aplomb by the always watchable Graham Greene) is made of sterner, more cunning, stuff. He is a man who knows how to play the Indian card. His office is filled with more upscale Native American kitsch (Teepee-shaped lamps! The rugs! The Remington warrior!) than a Santa Fe furniture store, and so is his conversation. Over a shared pipe of sage-scented tobacco Jackson cleverly manipulates Sterling’s reflexively deferential attitude towards a representative of a wronged, but noble people.
As a result Sterling agrees to co-sponsor a bill that supposedly allows Indian tribes to control the access to their reservations, only to be told later that its real purpose is to allow them to use some of their land as storage for nuclear waste. Whoops. Has a saint just been tricked into endorsing Satan? Pressed by his staff to renege on the deal, Sterling confronts Jackson, who explains that the bill will never pass, but the mere fact that Thunderhawk has found it another sponsor will be seen by Native Americans as a sign that they too should believe in the legislative process. Sterling’s gesture will thus be both meaningless yet mean a lot. Sterling agrees to stick with this flawed, cynical, yet good-hearted plan.
In a show that is rarely able to rise beyond the level of the crudest of morality plays, it was a surprisingly subtle storyline. With more like it Mister Sterling might deserve a full term.
— Mr. Stuttaford is a writer living in New York.