'The Hill,' Where Staffers Have the Floor
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
"The Hill" is an earnest documentary series about the life of a Capitol Hill office, as seen primarily through the lives of staffers for Florida congressman Robert Wexler.
In its solidly straightforward way, the show plays something like "The Real World" meets C-SPAN.
Over the course of its six half-hours, "The Hill" (debuting tonight on the Sundance Channel) captures several aspects of official Washington that scripted dramas -- with their emphasis on scandal, corruption and power-mongering -- usually don't. One is that the town can't run without the smarts and hustle of some very young people.
One of these people is the putative star of the series, Eric Johnson, Wexler's chief of staff. "I'm 33," he tells a tour group in the series's opening scene, "and I'm past my time. People look at me and go, 'What are you still doing here?' "
This basic demographic fact provides filmmaker Ivy Meeropol, herself a former Hill rat, with an attractive and intelligent group of subjects. In addition to Johnson, the series focuses on press secretary Lale Mamaux, legislative director Jonathan Katz and legislative assistant Halie Soifer.
Although he has some strong cameos, Wexler, a five-term Democrat, is almost a secondary player here -- which, as "The Hill" demonstrates, is ironically the opposite of what this group's work is all about. The show seems to have no illusions about what Hill staffers do: Their job is to make the boss look good.
In Wexler's case, that is harder than it sounds -- not because the 45-year-old lawmaker is an empty suit (from all appearances, he seems quite engaged, decent and tough-minded), but because politically he's such a small fry. "We don't control anything," Johnson tells the tour group. "What that means is, it's not our fault, whatever happens."
From this perspective, the kids score some modest successes and light a few duds. In the second episode, they help him engineer his opposition to President Bush's attempt to reform Social Security (Wexler's district in southeast Florida has one of the highest percentages of senior citizens in the country). He runs afoul of the party leadership by proposing his own reform plan. As a result, he gets plenty of face-time on the talking-head shows -- a great victory, by Hill standards.
Wexler's amendment to an extension of the Patriot Act gets shot down in committee, however, and a news conference called to highlight his concern about genocide in Darfur utterly flops (with plenty of after-the-fact recriminations flying around the office).
Some of the drama here is undercut by a sense of political inconsequence. At one point, the staff engages in furious debate about the details of a news release on Bush's nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. Not whether to oppose the nomination, but how to frame their objections.
The most interesting politics of "The Hill," though, might be office politics. The series suggests that offices on Capitol Hill are pretty much like workplaces everywhere -- filled with people of varied abilities and backgrounds, with a low background hum of teamwork, rivalry, ambition and spite.
The most sympathetic character here might be Mamaux, who seems to be the most put-upon member of the group. Among other things, she gets blamed for the Darfur debacle, and for the grave crime of sending out a news release before Katz has had a chance to read it.
Just when all this might seem a little too wonky, Meeropol pulls back to offer glimpses of the staffers' personal lives -- an approach that works intermittently.
The two women -- Soifer and Mamaux -- confess to topsy-turvy love lives (Soifer breaks up with her Republican boyfriend, and later moves in with a Democrat), but we hear about it far more than we see any of it. Much stronger -- probably because the filmmakers had access -- are the domestic sequences involving Johnson, a gay man who is raising a baby with his partner.
There are no big tricks, no screaming fireworks, no shocking pull-back-the-curtain exposés on "The Hill." Instead, it's a solid and useful look at some smart, passionate people trying do something they think is right.
"The Hill" gives some credit to the people of the Hill, in a way that television rarely does.
The Hill (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 9 on the Sundance Channel.