Just so the press release writers will know we’re reading, let’s start with this: The main character in USA’s miniseries Political Animals, Elaine Barrish Hammond, is not based on any one we know. Sure, Sigourney Weaver plays a former first lady whose husband was a philandering POTUS from a Southern State. Sure, Elaine ran unsuccessfully for president herself and then agreed to be Secretary of State.
Any resemblance to a real person, living or dead, is strictly coincidental. After all, the single name on those blue signs is Elaine. And she was a governor. And that dark headed, big-busted young woman flirting with the ex-pres was not his intern. And Elaine divorced her husband.
So, Political Animals is not about Hillary. It is, however, about a sort of Hillary in an alternative reality in which Hillary Rodham Clinton is named Elaine Barrish Hammond and withdrew from her marriage immediately after she withdrew from the presidential race. And the real life story — of the Clintons and other RL presidential families — is what draws us into the story so fast. These folks are familiar and this is our chance to spy on them beyond closed doors and Secret Service agents.
Tone-wise, Political Animals reminds me of Dirty Sexy Money. It’s not campy like Dallas, but it’s also not preachy and self-important like a certain other summer series it airs against. The show is funny at times and heartbreaking at others. But once you start watching Sigourney Weaver in action, you don’t much care what’s happening. She is riveting.
We learn early on that Weaver’s Elaine really hates politics — she says campaigning “makes hypocrisy an Olympic sport.” But she knows how to play the game, even if she occasionally gets blindsided by other players. Elaine is ambitious and hard-nosed in a way I don’t think we’ve seen from a female politician on TV.
In the first episode, Elaine is planning her son (and chief of staff) Doug’s engagement party when she learns that U.S. journalists have been arrested in Iran for being spies. She is furious when she finds out that the president’s office knew about the situation hours before anyone told her because they didn’t want to bother her while she planned the engagement party. “As the nation’s chief diplomat,” she says, glaring at the president’s chief of staff, “I should probably be involved when there’s a hostage crisis.”
(Side note: the too-timely RL story of civilians taken hostage in Egypt ended happily this morning with their release.)
Meanwhile, Elaine has reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino!) shadowing her, an agreement made to cover son T.J.’s suicide attempt. Susan has built her career on writing about the Hammonds (she won a Pulitzer for a book about the president’s affairs), so the two women are not exactly friends.
Their scenes together are the best part of Political Animals so far. Their banter is sharp, smart and frank (if you can listen to what they say instead of just watching Gugino’s mouth). As women at the top of professions they love, they understand each other in a way they are rarely understood.
Of the other characters, only President Bud (played by Ciarian Hinds, aka Aberforth Dumbledore) seems multi-dimensional. I don’t much like him, but that may change once I get used to him. At least he respects and supports his ex-wife, and does seem to be a decent dad in spite of his hound dog behavior.
Douglas (James Wolk) is something of a wimp so far, the good son of the family; we haven’t seen anything from him that proves he would be Elaine’s chief were he not her son. His fiancé Anne (Brittany Ishibashi) has an eating disorder that he hasn’t noticed.
T.J. (Sebastian Stan) is the official gay character, and not much of a role model for the gay boys watching. He was forced out of the closet (I wasn’t real clear on what happened) while his dad was in office and became something of a gay icon. But his way of dealing with the public eye was to become a coke addict; eventually he tried to kill himself (a blogger broke the story at the end of Ep.1). Now he’s added anonymous Internet hookups to his coke habit. Yikes.
In a few weeks, Vanessa Redgrave joins the cast as a lesbian Supreme Court Justice, so perhaps the LBGT scale will be balanced by her brilliance and success. Let’s hope so.
The bottom line is that Political Animals is off to a great start. Some parts don’t quite work (Ellen Burstyn‘s role as Elaine’s mom is the stereotypical sassy old broad, a waste of Burstyn’s talent), but the structure is solid. If the series finds solid footing, it could grow beyond the first, six-episode season. And even if it doesn’t, watching Sigourney is worth every minute.
Did you see Political Animals? What was your favorite line? Are you in for the duration?