'Sterling': Bland politics as usual
Fri Jan 10, 8:27 AM ET
A powerful California Democrat is forced to resign from a closely divided Senate, leaving his party's control in doubt. The state's Democratic governor has to pick a replacement and turns to the son of a beloved fellow Democrat and former governor.
There's only one problem: No one asks Sonny Boy whether he's a Democrat, too, and it turns out he isn't. That puts the balance of power of the Senate in the hands of William Sterling Jr. He's played by Josh Brolin, who looks as surprised as you may be that no one bothered to ask about his party affiliation. Of course, Sterling also seems to think the answer shouldn't matter, which makes him not just a political neophyte, but a nitwit.
Granted, Mister Sterling isn't the first show to ask you to swallow an impossible premise whole.
Unfortunately, the premise is a reflection of the show's overall attitude, which goes along the lines of ''Everyone in Washington is stupid and venal except thee and me.'' On that front, Sterling is an equal opportunity offender: Republicans are an evil tide that only Mr. Sterling can stem, and Democrats are ineffectual hypocrites out to dump Sterling from his post.
Given all that, the show should be unwatchable. That it isn't is a tribute to our own fondness for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-type stories and to a skilled cast. In addition to Brolin, who is properly heroic as Sterling, the show boasts a wonderfully prickly James Whitmore as his old political pro father and the flat-out wonderful Audra McDonald as Sterling's dedicated chief of staff.
The premiere centers on Sterling's first day in the Senate, where he's introduced to the cardinal rules of Washington by a powerful pol: ''You never offer an amendment to my bills, you always vote for my bills, and you never, ever surprise me. Never.''
It should be no surprise that Sterling instantly surprises him. Like too much in Mister Sterling, it tells you where you're headed too clearly and too early.
In a real-time gimmick, the second episode picks up where the first one ends, at a news conference where Sterling has been sandbagged by a commonly asked question. The answer he gives makes for a principled stand. But in the real world, he would be hammered by every TV and radio talk-show host until he screamed in submission.
You remember the real world, don't you? It's that place to which we all must maintain some ties. Even Mr. Sterling.