Political Animals debuts tonight on USA at 10 p.m.
There are few actresses that can pull off saying, in Russian to a Russian dignitary, “I will fuck your shit up.” Some can say it and mean it, but there are few that truly make you believe it.
Sigourney Weaver is one of the few.
Believing her is the greatest asset that USA’s new limited series Political Animals has, because you also have to believe her when her dialogue veers from the conceivably badass to the outlandishly ridiculous. Everything about Political Animals skirts that line during its entire first episode, much like creator Greg Berlanti’s previous efforts Brothers And Sisters (which went heavy-handed on the drama that makes Political Animals guiltily watchable) and Dirty Sexy Money (which thrived on a cast of eccentrics, the same quality that makes Political Animals hit or miss). The show stays on track, for the most part, during its first episode. It’ll be interesting to see if it can continue its perilous balancing act.
In short, there are many groan-worthy moments in Political Animals, but then Weaver will say something awesome, and it takes the wind out of those aforementioned moments.
It’s impossible to ignore the Hillary Clinton parallels so let’s start there: Elaine Barrish Hammond, a steely former first lady, complete with philandering husband, loses the Democratic primary to a charismatic guy with an ethnic name (Heroes’ Adrian Pasdar). She takes a job as Secretary of State as a consolation prize.
We meet Elaine as she concedes the primary to a room full of fawning supporters. She follows up this draining act by divorcing her husband of 30 years, the beloved former Prez Bud Hammond (Irish character actor Ciarán Hinds). Flash forward two years, and Barrish is being interviewed by equally steely Washington Globe journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), who won a Pulitzer in her twenties reporting on Bud's extramarital activities. Since then, Berg hasn’t been kind to Barrish, calling her an affront to women for staying with her wandering husband for all those years, and then divorcing him for what ostensibly looked like political gain.
But Berg has dirt on Barrish’s youngest son—the gay, drug-addicted TJ (Sebastian Stan)—and slimily negotiates a exclusive piece on Madam Secretary in the week leading up to her elder son Douglas' (Lone Star’s James Wolk) engagement party. Berg has her own issues: She’s dating her editor (Dan Futterman) and despises the paper’s super-hot, young blogger.
Political Animals blatantly set ups parallels between Berg and Barrish: They are both powerful women connected with powerful men, stung by their recent failures. They both bristle at the idea of a “costume change” between day and evening event. The connections are writ large, but so is everything else in Political Animals.
Subtlety is not the show’s strength. Weaver handles her speechifying ably, and she fares better than, say The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy. While Elaine is a true blue Democrat (despite an odd elephant infatuation), her soapbox moments are about loyalty, morality and work ethic rather than political principle. The show never shies away from Elaine’s political views, but she doesn’t shout it while swinging from a column of the Capitol. In essence, she's the type of politician that doesn’t exist outside of TV, but neither was Jed Bartlet, and he was pretty fun to watch too.
The script (by veteran producers Greg Berlanti and Laurence Mark, doesn’t treat Hinds as kindly. Hinds plays Bud so broadly as a southern man of the people that it sometimes feels like he’s aping Foghorn Leghorn as much as he’s doing his his best Slick Willy. “Sigourney, I say, Sigourney!” The same could be said for Stan’s troubled TJ, who plays up his coke-addled former pianist in such a way that his screentime could be labeled “A Very Special Scene.”
The women fare better. Ellen Burstyn as Barrish’s mother, Margaret, is a boozy good time, seemingly only in place so she can say something nasty without spilling her drink. She’s part Downtown Abbey’s Dowager Countess, part The Newsroom’s Charlie Skinner. Even when Margaret isn’t onscreen, she gets the best digs. (“You remember what your mother called her,” an aide reminds Barrish about Berg. “A bitch with a capital C,” Barrish replies. “She undersold it. I should know as a card-carrying member myself.”)
The women of “Political Animals” don’t shy away from the bitch moniker, nor do the practices associated with the term. Gugino is a worthy adversary for Weaver. Their relationship—the staring matches, verbal spats and ultimate similarities—is at the show's heart. At the end of the first episode, they form a shaky truce and, despite the soapier antics, the show’s quality from here on out will be largely determined by how their relationship evolves.
Because these women aren’t just paper-thin ballbusters. They’re allowed to be vulnerable, but they’re also allowed to pick themselves up again. Rarely has feminine power been so celebrated and exposed. Even as Weaver is negotiating a diplomatic crisis between three captured journalists in Iran, the men in the office continually tell her not to worry about it and focus on Doug’s “big party.” It’s moments these when you forgive Barrish for doing things like monologuing about elephants at a feminist society, while meeting clandestinely with Berg at the National Zoo. At least Weaver can handle it.
- The portrayal of journalism in this show is an essay unto itself. The broadcast journalist covering Barrish’s concession is probably the happiest guy in the history of the medium to ever be covering the losing party. As mentioned above, Berg’s archnemesis at her paper is a blogger named Georgia. While Berg has good reason to hate the blog-ess, their initial animosity is more about Berg's disdain for Georgia's medium. The Blog vs. Print dichotomy is so tired and, frankly, doesn’t exist prevalently. Bloggers are young and don't get an ink-smeared byline. Done. Can we all move on now?
- The man who plays the Iranian Ambassador to the U.N. is Marshall Manesh, who also plays perennial cab-driver Ranjit on How I Met Your Mother. Quite the promotion.