As a character in a James Thurber cartoon once said, I am still waiting for greatness to be thrust upon me. Watching cable news, I clutch my remote in rage as I imagine myself, gifted with overnight power but unburdened by political debts or campaign commitments, striding the corridors of influence and driving the Beltway crowd before me like the wind.
Well, fellow control clutchers, we've got our man inside the Beltway now: William Sterling Jr., the eponym of NBC's mid-season replacement drama Mr. Sterling, which premiered last Friday night. Like Jeff Smith in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Bill Sterling (Josh Brolin) is a squeaky-clean outsider appointed to the Senate by a governor looking for a patsy. But whereas Smith stayed true to his ideals until his simple heartland goodness turned the Senate upside down, Sterling is a sharp-elbowed trickster whose tactics would make Sen. Al D'Amato (R-N.Y.) blush. I'm not sure whether the differences between Sens. Smith and Sterling say more about changes in public attitudes toward politics during the last several decades or the recent, unnerving merger between Washington's elite and the entertainment industry (as embodied by, among other things, The West Wing and the Clinton-Hollywood connection).
First, the good news: Unlike the execrable First Monday (which Mr. Sterling co-creator Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. also produced), Mr. Sterling is passable TV. It's no West Wing, though -- the first episode contained not even a hint of a chuckle from beginning to end. Indeed, the pace and tone of the show owe more to 24 or Law & Order than to the witty banter of Aaron Sorkin's White House staff. And as our hero, Brolin is grimmer than Capt. James T. Kirk on a bad day, entering rooms preceded so far by his chin that I suspect every character on the show owes him money.
Sterling, the son of a former California governor (James Whitmore), has left law practice and now runs a high school for federal-prison inmates. When a scandal-plagued California senator drops dead, the current governor needs someone to warm the seat until his own son is ready to run. He settles on Sterling, who agonizes for the obligatory 12 seconds ("I hate politics! I hate politics!") before heading off for the shark-infested waters of Washington.
So far it's a great story (Duh! That's why the brains behind Mr. Smith Goes to Washington came up with it!) but once we cross the Beltway there's a potential problem. Whatever his cachet at home, a mere senator -- particularly a junior senator with no reputation or independent political base -- is, to put it mildly, no big deal in Washington. Left to itself, the drama of getting to the Senate gives way to the tedium of presiding over hearings on the Klamath suckerfish harvest or debating an amendment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission appropriation. Important stuff, sure, but, well, boring.
O'Donnell, a former Senate staffer and former West Wing story editor, and co-creator Jim Hart, son of the late Sen. Phil Hart (D-Mich.), know these facts of life. When Sterling walks out of a hotel and tries to climb into a limousine, a senior aide stops him. "Sir," the aide says, "senators don't get limos."
How then to inject drama into the humdrum life of a Capitol backbencher? Capra's Smith tried to fund a federal boys' camp, which quickly led him to the corruption behind an unnecessary federal dam project. Mr. Sterling feints in this direction: At first, Sterling's only legislative priority is a $38,000 appropriation to get an extra teacher for his prison high school. But the story quickly takes a more cynical turn. It seems that nobody back in Sacramento bothered to check Sterling's party affiliation. His dad was a Democrat, but his unpredictable scamp of a son is actually a registered independent. With the Senate evenly split, his choice of caucus will determine control of the chamber.
Within 15 minutes, the "naive" Sterling has faced down the party leadership and bluffed the majority leader into resigning his own seat on the Finance Committee so the political rookie can serve there (as well as on the Appropriations Committee). Sterling gets coaching from his chief of staff, Jackie Brock (Audra McDonald), but I have to say he's a suspiciously quick study. This is a man so ethical he fires an aide who tries to stop him from paying for a cup of coffee, but he has no visible qualms about humiliating the governor who named him to office. OK, the governor's people didn't ask -- their bad! But if I were Sterling, I think I would have brought it up myself. This man is in a dizzying downward ethical spiral -- at this rate, he'll be taking cash in paper bags by episode 14.
Why did the show's creators take this tack? One clue appears when Sterling's aides tell him that his bait-and-switch act is unpopular with Democratic voters. On the other hand, they say, "You're scoring big on talk radio." In fact, the show's irascible hero seems to have been created intentionally to reach the angry-white-male demographic. And I couldn't help noticing that, in the pilot at least, the faces of power in Mr. Sterling manage, remarkably enough, to be even more exclusively male than they really are in today's Washington. The talk-radio crowd is mostly male as well. Perhaps NBC hopes that Brolin's good looks alone (it is quite a chin, I must admit) will satisfy the female viewers.
When I have Friday nights free, I'll probably tune in to see what Sterling's up to. But nonetheless, I felt a deep regret at the pilot's end. We've had James Stewart's Jeff Smith, Eddie Murphy's Jeff Jones and Robert Redford's Bill McKay; now we have Josh Brolin's Bill Sterling. When will Ms. Smith finally get to Washington? Now there's a show I'd clear my Friday nights to watch.
Garrett Epps is an associate professor of law at the University of Oregon. He writes regularly about popular culture for TAP Online.