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Beltway bellyache

Losing my lunch on "K Street,' translating "The Osbournes'

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"K Street" makes me sick. As in, after watching the second episode of the new HBO political drama, my stomach literally seized up. Blame it on the suspect bean dip I ate before dinner, or the show's brazen blend of reality and fiction. The talky, tense take on the world of political consultants definitely is not for those with weak stomachs, or for anyone who wants their faith in politics to remain untarnished.

The "experimental" series has seen scads of press since its premiere last month -- thanks largely to the pedigree of its producers: George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich). Critics have howled over the reality-blurring roles played by honest-to-goodness politicos Mary Matalin and James Carville, who appear on the show essentially as themselves but interact with a cast of fictional lobbyists in a made-up D.C. consulting firm. So far a gaggle of actual senators and other statesmen have also appeared, as well as Time magazine editor Joe Klein, various CNN suits and Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.

Here's where it gets tricky. Soderbergh and Clooney turn each episode around just days before its airing, which gives each installation of the 10-week series an ever-current "ripped-from-the-headlines" feel. The show's shaky hand-held camera aesthetic and seemingly unscripted, overlapping dialogue add to the illusion that "K Street" captures the real world of Washington palm greasing in action. Which isn't to say the view here isn't accurate. Either way, it's alarming, given the culture of schmoozing and positioning it depicts. The first episode found Carville giving advice to Dean, who smiled with such self-congratulatory smugness that you can't help but gag.

Ironically, "K Street" has proven most alluring (to me at least) when it doesn't directly comment on the political process. Lead lobbyist Tommy (John Slattery) keeps seeing some spectral woman in a red dress, while his co-worker Maggie (Mary McCormack) is apparently stalking an ex-girlfriend.

But those two titillating fictional subplots aren't quite enough to excuse the show's greater sins, its unholy alliance of Congressmen and cameramen that really should make any registered voter grimace. Sure, we all know that D.C. and Hollywood both have little men pulling levers behind the curtain, but do we have to be reminded of it in such a screw-you fashion?

"K Street" airs on HBO Sundays at 10 p.m.

Maybe James Carville and Mary Matalin could learn something from Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne. The new DVD set of "The Osbournes" complete second season shows how a couple play themselves on TV and still -- somehow -- remain respectable.

Though you can't help but wonder how the famously dysfunctional rock 'n' roll family has squeezed an extra three-and-a-half hours from its 15 minutes, the sophomore round of their MTV shockfest still manages more than a few scream-out-loud moments. This season finds Ozzy on tour and undergoing detox, Sharon facing cancer and chemo, Kelly recording her album and Jack being a dickhead whenever possible.

Doubtlessly meant to make college kids giggle, the two-disc set comes with uncensored language tracks just so we can count exactly how many times the f-word gets shouted per episode. It also includes an ever-handy Ozzy translator function, which I found particularly helpful considering how little of his dialogue I actually grasped during the show's original airing.

Even if we know that the leads are in on the joke and mugging like maniacs, there's still something essentially genuine about "The Osbournes." James and Mary should be so lucky.

tray.butler@creativeloafing.com

The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.

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