Synopsis: As Samuels climbs in the polls, rumors about her past begin to hurt the campaign.
Local references: WISC-TV, Oscar Mayer, Public Enemies, farmers' markets, Middleton, Dotty Dumpling's Dowry.
Local landmarks: Lake Monona and the city skyline, the Monona Terrace skyway, the Capitol, Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Alliant Energy Center.
Locals seen onscreen: Madison-based playwright and actor Sam White; a high school classroom full of extras; a couple of non-speaking roles.
Memorable character: Deirdre Samuels, the candidate for U.S. Senate. Though the show focuses on the intertwined professional and personal lives of her campaign staff, it's Samuels' own not-yet-explored background and unapologetic personality that generate drama as she moves into second in the polls: "Most of the state doesn't know who I am, the rest think I'm that lesbian from Madison."
Review: Battleground sinks its docu-dramedy roots into the soils of both story and Madison milieu in its second episode. While the pilot offered basic character introductions amid a war room setting, this slice of the primary campaign starts spinning a web of personal connections and conflicts among its young staffers. At the same time, campaign manager Chris "Tak" Davis (Jay Hayden) and his play-it-cool political instincts start bumping up against the candidate Deirdre Samuels (Meighan Gerachis) and her husband George Mosley (Madison-based actor Sam White).
With Samuels rising in the polls following the successful debate in the first episode, a new online attack ad released by the campaign of incumbent Senator Jack Makers provides the next challenge for Tak and his team. Complete with a foreboding soundtrack and images fading to black-and-white, the spot starts by asking, "State Senator Samuels hasn't come out..." and repeats the phrase "hasn't come out" again and again. "That's their platform?" quips Tak, "Don't vote for Samuels, she's a lesbian?"
The whisper campaign about Samuels escalates when, speaking before a class of high school kids, one asks her "Who is Claire Villareal?" Following a prompt by the candidate, her media head Kara "KJ" Jamison (Teri Reeves) shuts down the event, and the rest of the staffers go into damage control mode. Tak fields a call from WISC-TV, portrayed here as an unfriendly media outlet. Then he confers with Ali Laurents (Alison Haislip), the campaign's social media wizard, who uses a little trickery on Facebook to uncover that the question was planted by the Makers campaign. In a meeting with Samuels and her husband, Tak and KJ learn that Villareal worked as an assistant to the candidate a decade ago at Oscar Mayer, one of the multiple Madison references offered throughout the script.
Meanwhile, in the hothouse environment of the campaign headquarters, a pair of love triangles are taking shape. The first is between campaign newbie Ben Werner (Ben Samuel), winsome volunteer Lindsey Cutter (Lindsey Payne), and Jordan T. Mosley (Jordan T. Maxwell), the clumsy and pompous stepson of Samuels. He drops a droll and appropriately self-referential local nod while hitting on Cutter, boasting about his gig on a recent Hollywood production in Wisconsin. "Yeah, I did some featured extra work on Public Enemies," utters Jordan. "You see that flick? Yeah, I was up at the counter when Johnny [Depp] started yelling at everybody." He even has a screenshot of the scene.
Love triangle number two commences when the married Tak starts flirting more openly with KJ, who is otherwise busy trysting and dating speechwriter Cole Graner (Jack De Sena). This one is only at an incipient stage, but looks likely to build as the season progresses.
Hints of what is to come are provided via the documentary format, which cuts to sit-down interviews with the characters at a future date after the election. Where they're speaking, what they're wearing, and who they're with help sketch out the long-term story arcs that are just starting to emerge. The format also provides an opportunity to break the fourth wall while remaining in character, with Tak butting heads with the documentarian J.D. (played by none other than Battleground creator and show runner J.D. Walsh) over a demand to cut footage of a little office row.
Electoral politics, or at least a sitcom version of them, are presented and mocked throughout. After the attack ad, a codeword usage, the question-by-proxy, social media sleuthing and some undercover ticket acquisition, the episode culminates with another trick, this one involving scheduling. And there's even a Wisconsin nod here, with mention of Samuels' campaign promise to bring 200,000 jobs to the state, a reference to actual Gov. Scott Walker's slightly larger pledge along the same lines.
It's all delivered with a lighthearted charm, but of course, no campaign goes as planned.
Battleground, the first original scripted series from Hulu, was shot in Madison by Hollywood filmmaker and former Madisonian JD Walsh. New episodes premiere on Tuesdays through May 8. The dramedy follows young staffers running a Wisconsin politician's underdog campaign for U.S. Senate.
Did you watch the episode? Spot more Madison references or people? Share your thoughts in the comments.