[12/11/09 - 11:51 PM]
The Futon's First Look: "House Rules" (CBS)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

Please note: As a courtesy, please do not reproduce these comments to newsgroups, forums or other online places. Links only please.

So you've seen all of the new shows this fall - but what about the ones that didn't make the cut? For the next 30 days we're going to take a "first look" at a collection of 30 pilots that didn't land on the 2009-10 season schedule. Are there any gems that got passed over or are they all deservedly locked in the networks' vaults? Stay tuned.

(written by Michael Seitzman; directed by Daniel Minahan; TRT: 43:03)

What is it? A drama about the freshman class of elected representatives in Washington, D.C.

Who was behind it?: Feature writer Michael Seitzman ("North Country") penned the script which was directed by Daniel Minahan ("True Blood"). Mark Gordon ("Grey's Anatomy") was among the executive producers.

The plot in a nutshell: Democrat Julia Rose ("Dirty Sexy Money's" Zoe McLellan) isn't exactly your typical Congresswoman. A high school teacher from New Jersey, she entered the race to prove a point to her students - anyone can run for office. Said effort became a national headline and, after a scandal sunk her opponent ("Trust Me's" Griffin Dunne), a freshman term in the House of Representatives now awaits. We meet Julia then as she - and the rest of Congress's incoming class - is taken through orientation by Scotty Fisher ("Cupid's" Anna Chulmsky), the Speaker's political aide. Among her piers: Kathy McAdams ("True Blood's" Kristin Bauer), a Republican soccer mom from California; Robin Calhoun ("Heroes's" Tawny Cypress), an Army vet from Virginia who's protesting the war; Cameron Drummer ("Deadwood's" Sean Bridgers), a skittish Georgia Democrat in the middle of a recount; and Alan Levi ("ER's" Eion Bailey), an unapologetic Republican and Wall Street mogul. Their respective stays however may be short-lived as Scotty warns if they don't make a difference fast, they'll likely be left behind when re-election hits in two years. For now though their focus should be on hiring a staff, finding a home and getting to know the lay of the political land.

Julia however is already hard to work for her constituents, namely the immigrant mother of a young boy who is about to be deported because the paperwork wasn't processed on her marriage before her citizen husband abruptly died. Not helping matters: her politically starstruck former student/campaign manager Peter Mars ("Brothers & Sisters's" Denzel Whitaker) has shown up on her doorstep, having dropped out of Harvard in hopes of working for her. And if that wasn't enough, it turns out Julia's one-that-got-away Nate ("October Road's" Warren Christie, disturbingly clean cut) is the Speaker's Chief of Staff - and she's hours away from a formal meet-and-greet with Alice Griffith ("Grey's Anatomy's" Debra Monk), the Speaker herself. Julia of course uses her time to plead the woman's case which the Speaker politely informs she'll look into. She's however more interested in Julia's stance on school vouchers, namely why she doesn't follow the traditional Democratic platform of being against them. The Speaker infers that (gasp!) if she, being a high profile school teacher and all, sides with them on some upcoming legislation, they can probably help out with her current problem - not to mention put her on the fast track for a long and healthy political career.

Meanwhile, Julia's friends, new and old, have their own problems: Robin is being pressured by her father ("Eureka's" Joe Morton), a decorated Army General, to decline an upcoming offer by the Speaker to co-sponsor a bill limiting tours of duty for reservists; Kathy is shocked to discover her son, a freshman at Georgetown, might not want to room with her; Nate struggles to make sure Cameron doesn't blow his chances during the recount; and Alan, despite getting off on the wrong foot, has decided he's hopelessly in love with Julia. Inevitably then Julia, Robin and Kathy decide their best chance to combat their various foibles is to live together in an spacious Brownstone. As for Julia's dilemma, she decides to play ball with the Speaker only to discover that (wait, another gasp!) she's unwilling to touch any immigration issue during the current session.

Undeterred, Julia - with Alan's help - takes a meeting with the notoriously anti-immigration Howard Granger ("Reaper's" Ray Wise), the House's Minority Leader, and offers her own proposal: help her out and not only will it soften the Republicans' image but also stick it to the Speaker for seeming anti-family. Furthermore Julia approaches the underappreciated Scotty about becoming her Chief of Staff. Not surprisingly her various ploys work, not to mention have the added bonus of wisening up the Speaker and Nate about her political acumen. More importantly it solidifies Alan and Nate as the chief rivals - both politically and romantically - for Julia's affections.

What works: To its credit, "Rules" paints Republicans and Democrats in equal shades of gray. But while it has its theoretical political street cred - Alex Castellanos, Campbell Brown and Joe Scarborough all turn up in cameos - it definitely...

What doesn't: ...doesn't resemble how the government actually works. First and foremost, the show gives the impression that Washington essentially consists of a half-dozen or so people, three of which conveniently are in a love triangle. It's Congress as if it were junior high: Alan and Nate, the cool kids of their respective cliques, fall over each other to lay their figurative coats down on the puddles in front of Julia. (Alan and Julia even "meet cute": she disparages him for being rude to a flight attendant in the opening sequence, only to - gasp, I know right? - have each discover later on they're both Congressmen. Note to all TV characters: be nice to people you meet in the first act, because they'll "surprisingly" turn out to be your boss, pier or lover in the following one.)

Making them look even more silly is that Julia walks blindly into political trap after political trap and has the gall to be offended that Washington works on a quid pro quo basis. It's like Julia is on her seventh grade trip to Washington rather than her first year in Congress. Throw in her plucky, I'm-just-lucky-to-be-here attitude and it's almost inexplicable that she's at the epicenter of such a political firestorm. As for her sisters in arms, Robin's quandary is by far the most compelling (she and her father had a falling out when she continued her anti-war efforts after her brother was killed in action) while the married-but-estranged Kathy's is unnecessarily silly (she breaks down in tears after sleeping with a lobbyist). All in all, it's really hard to take any of the above too seriously. I don't necessarily need my political dramas to be moving testimonies about public service...

The bottom line: ...but they do need to at least feel like they exist in reality.

  [december 2009]  


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