UPDATE: 7/22/12 I wrote the analysis below having only watched the first episode of Battleground. I don’t usually approach these posts as recommendations for or against watching a show. Having now completed the first season, I say “Watch it. Watch it now.” This is one of those shows that the pilot does not do justice to until you can appreciate it as part of the larger picture.
For example, some of the stuff that makes you scratch your head in the pilot (like just when are these interviews supposed to have been recorded, and what the hell is Cole wearing?) are ambiguous on purpose. The final episode has me dying for season 2.
If you happened upon the pilot episode of Battleground, you might think you were watching a documentary. For a few minutes at least, Battleground defies the obvious comparisons to Parks and Recreation or The Office. As mockumentaries go, this one opens on a more serious note. There is a film-like look about it. Amber waves of grain and small hometown businesses flavor the opening credits. It’s a bit like the tour of Scranton that opens The Office, but without the underlying sense of sarcasm. Then… we meet Jordan T. Mosley, the show’s Dwight Schrute. But I’ll come back to him.
This Hulu original series finds us in Madison, Wisconsin on the night of the Democratic primary, in the campaign headquarters of one State Senator Deirdre Samuels (Meighan Gerachis). We’re left hanging in suspense just as a talking head on TV is about to announce the results.
We’re then transported to a one-on-one interview, perhaps during the campaign, perhaps just after. A young geeky guy, Ben (Ben Samuel), gives an interview, direct to the camera, delivering the somber message about working in politics: “The speeches will be forgotten… The only thing remembered: Didja win?” Ben is hardly recognizable when we meet him four weeks earlier, arriving at headquarters fresh-faced and bespectacled like a Midwestern Harry Potter.
The characters in this cast of unknowns are introduced with the help of subtitles stating each one’s name and title. It’s an easy-way-out device but it works to comic effect with Jordan (Jordan T. Maxwell. They didn’t get too creative with these characters’ names, did they?). As he introduces himself to Ben as Campaign Senior Advisor, we read that he is actually the Copy Room Supervisor. He’s the stepson of the candidate and takes himself way too seriously. His ego/stupidity combination is exhausting. He smarmily convinces the impressionable Ben to stand in his parking space as he drives off in his PT Cruiser on some errand.
The guy Ben is really looking for is Tak Davis (Jay Hayden), manager of the campaign. He’s cute in an intense buttoned-up kind of way and quickly likeable. Ben hands him a note from his sister, and whatever it says convinces Tak to take Ben on. That, and Ben’s letter of recommendation, which is adorable and sets off a running gag for the rest of the episode. (“It’s from a Renaissance Faire up in Oshkosh.”)
Rounding out the ensemble are the pretty KJ (Terry Reeves), Head of Media Strategy, who we first see buying coffee, Cole (Jack de Sena), Speechwriter, who we find scribbling on a legal pad and smoking (Why does the writer always smoke?), Ali (Allison Haislip) and Lindsey (Lindsey Payne Seriously, with the names.).
The crisis du jour is that the campaign desperately needs to get Dierdre the chance to debate the front-runner and incumbent, Jack Maker, tonight. The stakes are as high as they could be — without this opportunity the Samuels campaign can’t afford to keep going another week. Maker doesn’t want to bother with the debate, so Tak and the team must find a way to coerce him into showing up.
Tak is the character who shines. He shows us twice in this episode how smart, shrewd, and cool-headed he can be; first, by appearing to punish Ben while actually punishing Jordan; then, but getting Maker to appear at the debate. Alas, it looks like he won’t be so successful in love. It’s hinted that he’ll be on the losing corner of a love triangle among himself, KJ, and Cole.
Ben is no dummy either, as he shows in the most humble of ways — fixing the office thermostat. The world of this show, this battleground, is one where brains prevail. At least, that’s what we hope. Ben’s statement in the beginning, and Tak’s underdog track record remind us that winning is all that matters. We don’t know from the pilot whether Samuels wins. That’s our reason to keep watching — that and the inevitable romances that blossom or falter among a group of people forced together by circumstance.
If you haven’t discovered this show yet, I recommend checking it out. You’ll see why it got turned down by the networks and landed on Hulu — and I mean that in a good way.