The new show "Battleground" is being touted as the first original scripted series for Hulu.com, a website better known for putting popular TV shows online.
But for Madison viewers, "Battleground" provides an extra dose of entertainment: The 13-episode "dramedy" series about a youthful band of campaign workers was filmed right here, against a backdrop that includes Capitol Square, well-traveled Madison streets and iconic Madison restaurants.
"I started writing about three years ago and I needed a location to set a political campaign," said JD Walsh, the West High graduate who wrote, directed and co-executive produced "Battleground." For purposes of the script, his hometown seemed a natural fit.
"When you're talking about a restaurant, you can pick Mickies" Dairy Bar, explained Walsh from his current home base in Los Angeles.
"When you're talking about a park, you can say Wingra Park — as opposed to really doing the research. If I picked another state, I'd need to go on Google and find the name of a park. It's much easier to just write ‘Wingra.'"
So when Walsh wanted to write a scene involving a drive-up window, he thought of Michael's Frozen Custard on Monona Drive. For a scene where campaign workers celebrate a debate victory with a round of beers, Electric Earth Cafe came to mind.
"I have to say the surreal experience was to write down those locations and then four months later be actually shooting in those locations," he said. "It was so wonderful to film in locations where you used to eat with your family."
The son of a former UW-Madison professor of special education, Walsh, now 38 and the father of three, grew up in Shorewood Hills and attended Madison public schools.
He got into drama at West High School with teacher Rebecca Jallings and often teamed up with fellow student Marc Webb, a friend since first grade. Webb, director of "The Amazing Spider-Man" and the acclaimed "(500) Days of Summer," is an executive producer of "Battleground."
Walsh left Madison to major in theater at UCLA, then launched an acting career that included film, commercial and TV appearances in series such as "Dharma and Greg," "Two and Half Men" and "The Smart Guy." A few years ago, he turned to writing and directing.
For "Battleground," "we wanted the show to have heart and we wanted it to be dramatic, but we also wanted the characters themselves to be funny with each other, though not in an absurd way," he said. "We wanted the humanity of the show to come out more than anything."
Yet perhaps because of its "politics" label, "Battleground" proved a tough sell to the TV networks. That's where Hulu came in.
Hulu "just wanted it to be great," said Walsh. "All their notes throughout this entire process were how to make it better. They want any show that they produce to be equal to the (network TV) shows that you can watch every day on Hulu, which are the best of the best. So that is the unique challenge that we faced every day: To make it as good as the network shows."
Filmed faux documentary-style a la "The Office," with fast-paced dialogue and quirky characters, the first episode of "Battleground" will be available online Feb. 14, followed by a new segment each Tuesday at www.hulu.com/battleground. Like TV sitcoms, each episode runs 30 minutes, interspersed with commercials.
Walsh, who worked briefly on John Kerry's presidential campaign in Ohio in 2004, wrote "Battleground" long before the recent round of political upheaval in the Wisconsin capital. The series is not about politics per se, he explains, but rather a look at some adrenaline-fueled political junkies behind the scenes. The show's good-looking cast centers on campaign manager Chris "Tak" Davis, the eye in the middle of the campaign storm.
Shooting in Madison took place from October to mid-December and involved "tons" of local talent ages 5 to 70, said Walsh.
"We had 90 parts to cast in Madison. So we pulled from the different theater companies, from the UW, from the West High drama club."
Sets ranged from local homes to Edgewood Elementary School. When he needed a big crowd scene to simulate a political rally, Walsh filmed the throngs heading to a real-life Badger game, with his actors among them.
"The whole show is a love letter to Madison," he said. "The city itself is filmed so beautifully."