Battleground

Battleground debuts on Hulu today, Feb. 14, 2012.

If there’s one thing Americans aren’t burned-out on, it’s state primaries. If there’s another, it’s mockumentaries. So I think we can all agree that Hulu could not have picked a better moment to enter the original-programming game with its new series, Battleground, a half-hour mockumentary series about the campaign for the Wisconsin Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Like The Thick of It (or the original concept for The West Wing), the focus is on the staffers as opposed to the politicians. For instance, in the first episode we follow a volunteer’s first day on the job; state Sen. Deidre Samuels, the focus of the campaign, is consigned to a cameo. The show gets off to a rough start with an awkward mix of styles and an overreliance on mockumentary tropes, but slowly the elements start to come together, and like the campaign it depicts, Battleground becomes a scrappy charmer that thrives on underestimation.

It’s hard to fault a show for ambition, but Battleground tries to do so much so soon that it doesn’t feel unified. Before we ever start what I’ll call the present narrative (the main episode-to-episode campaign), we get the following: a brief glimpse of Election Night that tells us nothing about the future except that campaign manager Tak Davis survives the season; a clever credits sequence cobbled together as a montage of the staffers getting ready for work; and a talking head from the future spouting script-y portent for the election. In theory, the pieces are fine individually, but piled atop one another the barrier to entry just keeps getting higher. And the execution evokes your worst fears about the relative amateurishness of Hulu’s programming, from undefined performances to a camera shaking and zooming like it’s the first day of film school. I know it’s in vogue (The Iron Lady, J. Edgar), but this time-warp nonsense isn’t patching any holes (or, by the way, earning any screenplay awards). 

Even the present-day stuff is awkward, torn between this broad, artificial mode and the desire to pass for real life. We’re meant to identify with Ben, a young dweeb straight out of Saved By The Bell (at least at first) who shows up to volunteer for the campaign and worships Tak like he’s Zack Morris. No wonder. The handsome, sharp, overwhelmed-but-maybe-it’s-an-act Tak is played by Jay Hayden, the first actor to really capture the material—not least because the character is so effortless. Before Tak, a decent scripted joke—“I don’t know if you’ve read Moby Dick or not, but I was like the captain, the staff was my crew, the campaign,” says a staffer, “was the shark”—doesn’t land the way it might on The Office. But then Tak comes along and a restrained character bit—“The cursive’s exquisite”—works beautifully. All of a sudden, everything’s clicking. The camera finds comedy in its tight focus, pulling out from a three shot to show a fourth person we didn’t know was there. The writing and performance make a goofy conceit of speaking in Renaissance-festival language feel as real as this week’s campaign crisis. And if we’re never fully invested in the campaign, by the end we’re rooting for Tak and company to achieve some measure of victory just because they deserve it.

Hayden’s performance helps, but the key is good, old-fashioned storytelling. Instead of artificially injecting mystery through Damages-style flashforwards or trying desperately to sell us on how serious and how funny everything is, Battleground begins to paint its picture. Basic character paths are sketched, office politics reveal a bit of history, and the central campaign story opens with maximum stakes—Samuels is in third place in the polls and her campaign nearly bankrupt. It really feels like we’re jumping onto a moving train— well, skateboard anyway. And the climax delivers a great, little sequence, this triumphant orchestral score playing over our heroes speed-walking to the debate. It’s small but stirring, a little bit vaudeville, a little bit fist-pump. Was that so hard?

The other elements are a grab bag, but it’s early in the season, too early even to have a real handle on Battleground’s personality or themes beyond a puppy-dog charm that may or may not be a pretense. That surprise reveal gag I mentioned repeats in a future talking head to which my eyes could not roll more obnoxiously, but perhaps the power of these glimpses at the future will snowball in the coming weeks. Conversely, Matt Corboy plays a rival campaign manager—for a guy named Makers, polling at 52 percent to Samuels’ 20 percent—so credibly you wish Battleground had more scenes with the opposition like The Thick of It. But faux documentary style aside, Battleground isn’t indifferent to which corporeal forms play cogs in the grand machine like The Thick of It. We’re rooting for the good guys. With a couple of lines under her belt, Samuels seems nice enough, and the grounded performance feels welcome as well, but it’s uncomfortable to see a campaign stripped down to sports fandom. Maybe that’s the point.

Stray observations:

  • While the focus is on the Democratic primary, there is no discussion of issues so far, only gaffes. So I’d say Battleground knows what voters care about.
  • There are a couple of interstitial montages of Wisconsin scenery that could almost make you forget about Pawnee, Indiana. Almost.
  • Speaking of which, Parks And Recreation also tries to combine a vérité appearance with broad comedy and pathos, but even in its early days when it had a looser grasp on its identity, Parks had a modesty that made room for audience involvement.
  • For the record: “There’s gonna be a film crew following us from now on. It’s for some Internet thing or something, I don’t know.”
  • There is one surprise from the future that slapped me out of complacency: the last act break before the credits. Still totally easy and artificial and probably not what it looks like, but it worked. Not sure if that’s a good thing.
  • “That has got to be the worst campaign idea ever.” “No, the worst idea is when Jordan tried to win the AIDS walk because he thought it would get us in the paper.” “He was right about that.”