In Mister Sterling, Josh Brolin plays the Aaron Buerge of senators: a thick-necked, handsome, big hunk of a bachelor to whom everyone comes a-courtin’. Appointed to serve out the term of a senior senator who’s just died, Brolin’s William Sterling Jr. looks both stunned and well-groomed for the job — like a thoroughbred that’s just been hit between the eyes with a shovel. He gets the nod because he’s the son of a beloved, retired politician, played by James Whitmore with the twinkly wink of a D.C. vet who’d like nothing more than to see his son continue the wheeling and dealing.
But given our present pop culture, the younger Sterling must be ambivalent — politics is a dirty game, right? Plus, he harbors resentment that this is the same career that kept Daddy from paying attention to him when he was a boy. Mr. Sterling, in short, must confront his issues before he can tackle the issues. He’s propelled into the Senate with help from a staff that includes the rumpled William Russ, free after all these years of ”Boy Meets World,” to be agreeably jaded as Sterling’s legislative director, and the wonderful singer-actress Audra McDonald, as Sterling’s chief of staff who ends up with all the worst lines. ”It’s gonna be a wild ride,” she says at the climax of the premiere. When the lug asks her, ”Do we ever really get to govern?” McDonald must reply, ”Yeah, you do, sometimes. And when you do, it makes it all worth it.” Somehow, McDonald pulls these banalities off.
Sterling is the kind of pol who, when told in prepping for a press conference that his staff has some ”talking points” for him, says, ”I don’t need ’em.” The kid just goes out there and tells the truth, y’know? The truth includes the fact that he’s an autodidactic Independent, not the bendable Democrat the governor assumed — a plot point that permits for lots of headshaking hugger-mugger in the first two episodes. (Some head swiveling will be done during the second episode, when porn star Jenna Jameson turns up in a brief scene playing herself; her bikini suggests she may have already won two Golden Globes.)
”Mister Sterling” is as close to a ”West Wing” spin-off as we’ll get until Rob Lowe agrees to do ”Sam Seaborn, Fightin’ Speechwriter.” Its creator is MSNBC news analyst Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., himself both a former politico (beginning as a senior adviser to former N.Y. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan) and a former ”Wing” producer. What O’Donnell learned from ”Wing”-man Aaron Sorkin is, well, everything: the walk-and-talk wonk speak; the policy positions of his hero (anti-death penalty, pro-Roe v. Wade); and, when that hero is in doubt, have him gaze pensively at something large in our nation’s capital — preferably the Washington Monument — until, patriotically inspired, his steely resolve returns. And, of course, Josh Brolin is also the son of James Brolin, who played the robo-Republican whom Martin Sheen’s president so deftly dismantled in their election debate last year.
Everything in this swift, shallow series depends on the viewer accepting Sterling as a plain-speaking maverick; buy that, and you buy the show.