TV previews of 'V' and 'By the People'

WORKING THE PHONES: "By the People" tracks Obama's campaign. (Hbo)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

There are some twisted little microbes living in the algorithms of the television programming grid, which might explain the delicious scheduling of "V" and "By the People: The Election of Barack Obama" back-to-back on different networks Tuesday night. It's a nice night of hope, change and delayed ironies -- if you watch both with a suspicious mind.

You can dive into the paranoid, things-are-not-at-all-what-they-seem world of "V," ABC's exciting new science-fiction drama, and then, after a quick potty break, hop over to "By the People," HBO's uplifting but stultifyingly naive, please-drink-a-little-more-Kool-Aid paean to the historical highlights of President Obama's campaign and election.

The telltale alien behavior is everywhere. In "V" (a remake of the early-1980s series), the otherworldly "visitors" want to bring us universal health care. They possess a knack for speechwriting and managing the message. In "By the People," well . . . same thing! It's all about happy people flying in from strange places, smiling at complicitly available TV cameras.

"By the People" is a documentary from filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams, who've both worked in film production and had the lucky idea of asking Obama's people if they could follow the Illinois senator around with a camera during his involvement in the pivotal 2006 midterm elections. It is here that Obama -- oozing his trademark confidence and still living in a world of coach airline flights and minimal entourage -- calculates his odds in 2008. Soon enough, he decides to go for it. History takes over.

Rice and Sams (with funding and guidance from actor Edward Norton, and what appears to be some heavy lifting and shaping in the editing room from the folks at HBO) tag along for the duration of the Obama campaign. Access is everything, and what's plain in "By the People" is how hard the filmmakers and their crew worked to get every moment they could. They are never not there.

But being there is not everything. At a recent VIP screening in Washington, the campaign's advertising director joked that Rice and Sams wound up in the way of all best shots of America's Obama moments. The audience -- made up mainly of political reporters who lived through the campaign, and some White House staff -- laughed at that, mainly because, as almost everyone acknowledged, "By the People" is really just a very long commercial for Obama.

The vast amount of footage gathered for "By the People" needed to sit in a cellar for a few years and ripen. It's all still too fascinating -- still unfolding -- to require this sort of documentary, which is really more like a souvenir for campaign staffers. For all their access, Rice and Sams capture an awful lot of situations with Obama's minions that go a lot like this:

Filmmaker: Hey!

Obama campaign staffer or volunteer: Hi! Oh, hi!

Filmmaker: How are you?

Staffer: Tired! But it's all good! How are you?

Filmmaker: Great.

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