Reality Show Features Real Congressman, Staff

The Hill premiers tonight on the Sundance Channel. It's a reality show that features Congressman Robert Wexler and his staff. You may remember Congressman Wexler from an appearance on the Colbert Report where, tongue in cheek, he expressed a fondness for cocaine and prostitutes. Why is this congressman doing edgy TV?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Florida's 19th Congressional District is represented by a man who's taking some interesting risks to be in the public eye. NPR's Neda Ulaby has details.

NEDA ULABY: Congressman Robert Wexler is running an uncontested race in his Florida district. And recently on Comedy Central's Colbert Report, he subjected himself to a daunting satirical challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, THE COLBERT REPORT)

STEPHEN COLBERT: (In television clip) Let's have some fun. Let's say a few things that would really lose the election for you if you were contested. But remember, you're not contested. There's no way you can lose.

ROBERT WEXLER: (In television clip) Right.

COLBERT: (In television clip) I enjoy cocaine because...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Wexler, after some prodding, said he enjoyed cocaine because it's fun. Then, Colbert pushed him some more.

I: (In television clip) I enjoy the company of prostitutes for the following reasons...

Rep. Wexler: Oh, because it's a fun thing to do!

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: (In television clip) Okay. Much like cocaine.

WEXLER: (In television clip) Much like cocaine! If you combine the two together, it's probably even more fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Here is the congressman last week, reflecting on that appearance.

WEXLER: Everyone tells you when you on that what you need to do is just play along. You're the straight man, he's the funny guy. And that's what I did.

ULABY: For a few days, Wexler's willingness to play along grabbed media attention. Some coverage even suggested the congressman was not joking.

Tonight, the Sundance Channel debuts a new show called The Hill, as in Capitol Hill. It takes viewers into the real-life congressional office of one Robert Wexler, proving once again that he's game for new forms of self-promotion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, THE HILL)

I: (In television clip) You can ask it this way. I won't vote for a bill that either cuts benefits, changes the formula, or...

WEXLER: Most politicians, most of my friends in the Congress said Wexler, you're crazy for allowing a taping process in your office for two years.

ULABY: But Wexler says he wants to show off this side of the political process and the talent and idealism of his staff, the show's real focus.

The Hill was directed by a former congressional aide. Ivy Meeropol says she's introducing viewers to the people who represent them.

IVY MEEROPOL: This is a really important time for the Democrats coming up. We have, they have - I said we. Uh-oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Meeropol's sympathies are not exactly secret. She worked for Wexler's Democratic predecessor for six years. Meeropol considered others, but chose Congressman Wexler partly because of her in, but also she says for the way he positioned himself.

MEEROPOL: What I found in Wexler, though, is someone who is willing to not only fight the Republican leadership, but also go up against his own party which, you know, just made for great television.

ULABY: It also didn't hurt that Wexler's staff is about as telegenic and snappy as the cast of the fictional West Wing.

MEEROPOL: Very funny people, very open. I mean, they wear their emotions on their faces. They care so much. I mean, you watch Haley Soifer(ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, THE HILL)

HALEY SOIFER: (In television clip) Being in foreign policy, I like for someone like Robert - who's extremely into the foreign policy - makes me one of the luckiest people, I think, on the Hill.

ULABY: Because these driven young aides all belong to team Wexler, the result is a politically slanted show says Lee Siegel, a senior editor at The New Republic.

LEE SIEGEL: This certainly is a huge campaign commercial for Wexler. And that background music just really got to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, THE HILL)

WEXLER: (In television clip) It should have been self-evident on Monday that now is the time to use our enormous strength for the benefit of our own people.

ULABY: Such Hollywood icing of the political process is for Siegel, he says, a red flag. For her part, director Ivy Meeropol, says politics is emotional.

MEEROPOL: I bring that emotion to the table when we're talking with the editors how to structure it, and then the music. And, you know, that's storytelling.

ULABY: And because the characters are real and unformulaic, they charmed even Lee Siegel.

SIEGEL: That's what I love about his chief of staff. This guy Eric Johnson, you see him angry, you see him petty, you see him principled, you see him trying to get the senator to stick to his guns. I can't think of an American political novel of the past several decades that has characters as fully fleshed out as these young legislative aides in The Hill.

ULABY: Siegel says he can easily see any of these staffers as potential Hollywood stars. And he wonders if that's where politics is going. He says now that celebrities are becoming politicians, its increasingly incumbent on politicians to become celebrities as well.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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