"Battleground" Review: It's Such a Gorgeous Dirty Game
“Battleground” is a new television series appearing exclusively on Hulu as a way to generate some added value to the site. For now at least, it’s streaming for free, not hidden behind the Hulu Plus pay wall.* This is one side effect of Netflix getting into the original content game: it’s forcing competitors to follow suit. And with all the glory of first semester economics it’s the consumers who win with more stuff for free. That’ll last until they work their way up to the chapter on collusion, but I’ll take what I can get for now.
The setting is the Democratic senate primary for the fine state of Wisconsin, focusing on the campaign senior staff and volunteers of a candidate currently buried in a distant third place. The series is shot in the faux-documentary format familiar from “The Office,” but unlike the long list of series that have also adopted the format, “Battleground” at least acknowledges the presence of the film crew and explains that they’re making a documentary on the campaign. Hey, it’s more plausible than filming a failing paper company for almost a decade. The series opens with a nice hook, the staff watching the news on the night of the election, and just as the reporter announces that they’re ready to call the race, the black screen flashes back to four weeks earlier.
Looking back, my favorite parts of “The West Wing” weren’t the walk and talks, or even Bartlett’s thunderous oratory, they were those occasional flashbacks from the original campaign. Toby drunk because Bartlett couldn’t even make a blip on the polls, Josh sitting in the back of a three-quarter empty town hall at first bored out of his mind and then slowly beginning to believe. The glimpses of the hurry up and waiting endemic to campaign life, the scraping of brain matter to find anything, anything to get someone to notice them, clawing to gain a few points here or there, playing the chess game of half lies and proclamations in order to gain a stride or two on that hopelessly distant front runner. Through the television you could almost smell the cold coffee and sweat, and the faint odor echoing of funerals and weddings seeping from nylons and rumpled suits worn ten hours too long.
That’s the part of “Battleground” that works.
It’s got an essentially unknown but very solid cast, anchored by Jay Hayden’s turn as campaign manager Tak Davis. He manages a sarcastic levity occasioned by both weariness and passion that suits the role perfectly. The format of the show, in combination with the need to resort to clever trickery to get political results, gives the character a vibe reminiscent of Jim from “The Office,” if only that character had given enough of a damn about something to use his talents for something other than torturing Dwight. Of course, the show also has what amounts to a poor man’s Dwight Schrute, the irritating son of the candidate, who needs to either evolve some complexity as a character or be shipped out on a campaign bus for the duration of the season.
The jury is still out on the nominal secondary protagonist, the geeky college kid Ben, who volunteers with the campaign. His letter of recommendation is from his boss at a Renaissance Fair, and he’s hazed by being forced to speak for most of the first episode as if he’s in character at said Fair. The attempts at cheap humor just don’t work at all, though to be fair, they move away from that for the most part in the second episode, and the trailer for the series suggests that they stick to the serious stuff that works for the bulk of what’s coming.
The first episode was hit or miss, but the parts that did hit dominated the second episode, so barring a regression, I’m in it to see how it turns out.
The first two episodes of “Battleground” are up on Hulu, with new ones being posted each Tuesday. The first season is slated for thirteen episodes.
Embedding has been disabled for the full episodes, but here’s the trailer:
* As an aside, does anyone pay for Hulu Plus. I ask not to be snarky, but out of genuine curiosity.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.