The political docu-dramedy follows the staffers of the underdog campaign of a Wisconsin Democrat in her bid for a state Senate seat. Think of it as a cross between The Office and The West Wing. But not as good as either.
The story behind the story
Following in Netflix’s footsteps, this show is Hulu’s first stab at original scripted programming. Hulu has really broken away from the pack as the place to stream high-quality television legally. It is possible to watch programs almost immediately after they have aired, and at no extra cost (Hulu Plus, which comes with a monthly fee, has a larger selection). It has expanded its offerings vastly since it launched in 2008, representing most of network television (though, tragically, you will not find premium cable fare like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, or Dexter), international series, and some original programming (which, until this point, was reality-focused).
Battleground comes from the mind of J.D. Walsh, an actor (seen previously on Two and a Half Men) and comedian who worked for the Kerry campaign in 2004. The script was originally given the go-ahead by Fox, but they ultimately backed out. Walsh produced the pilot with funding from family members, and the series was picked up by Hulu.
The look: I actually really like the faux documentary-style of the piece. The talking head interviews and shaky, handheld camerawork have been done before, but the stab at visual authenticity works, perhaps because the show is filmed in Madison, Wisconsin, rather than in L.A. It doesn’t look like much else we have seen before. It isn’t the same Californian locations masquerading as Fill-In-The-Blank, USA.
The subject matter: No one can argue that this show isn’t relevant when the country seemed to start the campaign for the 2012 presidential election before the dust had settled on the last one.
The nerd: Ben Samuel plays Ben, the naive volunteer who spends much of the first episode speaking in olde English (he picked it up during his time working at the Renaissance Fair) at the behest of campaign manager, Tak. Despite filling the cookie-cutter cliche of what it is to be a socially-awkward nerd, it is hard not to root for his attempts to fit in and be a part of something great.
The 20-minute format: To be honest, I might not be watching this show if not for the convenient 20-minute format. My preference skews towards lengthier programming, which sometimes leaves me with nothing to watch during those 20-minute holes in my oh-so-busy schedule.
The 20-minute format: You see what I did there? Call me wishy-washy, but as convenient as the 20-minute format is in my life, it does not give enough time to flesh out the storylines. When working with such a format like this that’s been done before, you need that extra time to fight past the emptiness of cliche.
The cast is too beautiful: I know. Everyone in television is unnaturally good-looking, but for some reason, it is very distracting in this show. The cast is beautiful, yes, but they also all appear to be the same age (see picture above). It’s as if it’s the later years of one of those high school dramas where, to keep the show going, the characters all end up at the same college. Except, in this case, they all ended up working for the same campaign.
Never seen working: And, by working, I mean chatting about their personal lives. It’s bad enough I have to see people in real life getting paid to troll Facebook and talk about their weekends, but I would at least ask not to be reminded that it happens by the television world. One of the best scenes of the first few episodes was the montage sequence in the third episode that saw the staffers and the candidates hold a frantic flash drive to raise much needed money by the end of the day. Now, if only they would talk about actual political issues more.
Give us something to root for: I tried. I really did. But the episode in which campaign manager Tak forgets his visiting wife because he is too busy “working” (see above) and still has the nerve to tell her that he is trying is too much for me to handle. Not cool, Tak. Not cool. I think the show is trying to go for a cut-throat, but brilliant young campaign manager who will do anything to get his candidate elected, in which case his failures as a husband would be interesting, but I’m not buying that either. For the show’s concept to work, the viewer needs to be rooting for something, whether its the demise or rise of its characters or campaign. I can’t say I care much either way.
Uneven tone: I will say I am intrigued by the flashback nature of the show, as the viewer gets interviews that reveal where our characters will end up (speechwriter Cole is in jail, Ben and Lindsey appear to be together), but not the how. However, much of the time the “present” of the interviews comes across much darker and more serious than the flashbacks of the campaign. It’s as if the characters think they’re in an Errol Morris documentary when they’re really in a Michael Moore…which, when I actually think about it, may be kind of realistic.
Despite my issues with this show, I am willing to keep watching, if only because I don’t have enough 20-minute shows in my life for the 20-minute gaps in my schedule. And because I am sick of watching actual political coverage.
Don’t take my word for it. Check out the first episode and leave your own opinion in the comments below: