As Secretary of State and former First Lady Elaine Barrish Hammond in USA’s new drama Political Animals, the magnificent Sigourney Weaver gives a performance that deserves to be called heroic — not just because the character is noble and decent, but because Weaver carries the show like Atlas in pumps. Yet her dedication isn’t enough to save a likable but mostly mediocre program.
In the first ten minutes of Sunday night’s extended pilot, Elaine, an alternate-universe Hillary Clinton, tells her philandering ex-president hubby, Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds), that she wants a divorce on the same night that she loses a presidential nomination, and it’s bracing. When she strides out of the building in a flowing tan overcoat — giant American flag looming on a wall behind her, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ “Nobody’s Baby” blasting on the soundtrack — she’s iconic. Minutes later, after the show has flashed forward to show Elaine serving as her onetime opponent’s secretary of State, she endures a Russian ambassador secretly groping her during a diplomatic appearance in Moscow, then gets the pig backstage and snarls “I will fuck your shit up!” in subtitled Russian. Fantastic!
But then, pffftt! The show’s nerve and creativity fail it, and Political Animals turns into a domestically oriented, C+ version of The West Wing. Some critics who have weighed in have applauded the show for what they say is a refreshing depiction of strong, smart women, but it has trouble envisioning these same women in situations that aren’t mainly ruled by (a) the men in their lives and (b) men’s perceptions of their femininity, or lack thereof. Gender-politics-wise, Political Animals — by Everwood creator Greg Berlanti — is scarcely more advanced than The Newsroom and only a few steps up from Shonda Rhimes’s disappointing Scandal, a show that presented us with one of the few truly new heroines in TV history — a driven, powerful black woman specializing in crisis management — then drained her of agency, to the point where she was little more than a depressed once-and-future girlfriend of a Clinton-esque president.
Elaine’s in a tough spot. She’s the secretary of State for the rival who defeated her, a younger male president (Adrian Pasdar) whose much-remarked-on Italianness is an awkward ethnic stand-in for Barack Obama’s blackness. (Bud calls him “president goombah shitface.”) She’s dealing with an Iranian hostage crisis at the same time that her eldest son and chief-of-staff, Douglas (James Wolk), is preparing to get married and her husband is tomcatting around with a Latina TV star whose pneumatic breasts, according to People, are insured. Boasting basic-cable sex and profanity, and firing off theatrical monologues that sound like Aaron Sorkin minus the screwball snap, Political Animals wants us to take it seriously as a tale of love and sex colliding with politics and work. But it’s not impassioned enough to be inspiring or clever enough to amuse or trashy enough to thrill. It trivializes politics into gossip, à la Maureen Dowd’s New York Times columns (which becomes a more literal parallel as the show goes on); Veep does the same thing, but at least it’s funny. And Political Animals seesaws between respecting its strong female characters and selling them out until they become man-vexed soap-opera women in power suits.
Elaine’s preoccupied with Douglas’s wedding and her other son TJ’s personal travails, and her hammy, rascally husband keeps waltzing in, stealing her attention and sometimes her thunder while angling for her heart. (If Bud were more rakishly charming I might have been able to tolerate his spotlight-hogging, but both the character and Hinds’s performance are misjudged; his generic “Southern” accent makes him sound like Albert Finney eating pie, and his jowly face, slicked-back hair, and Foghorn Leghorn locutions are more post-presidential Lyndon Johnson than Bill Clinton — by which I mean anti-sexy.) Elaine’s mom Margaret (Ellen Burstyn), a boozy socialite and former Vegas showgirl, grouses about lost youthful beauty and not getting laid anymore. Elaine’s counterpart in the fourth estate, Washington Globe reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino, excellent as always), is pushing her way into the former First Family’s orbit so that she can write about them from the inside, even though they loathe her for the snarky Dowd-ian columns she wrote back in the nineties; meanwhile, Susan is sleeping with her editor (Dan Futterman) while fretting that he’s about to cheat on her with a blogger, a pretty young thing who is introduced tantalizing Susan’s guy with a freshly baked cupcake.
Susan is as much a Maureen Dowd manqué as Elaine and Bud are stand-ins for Bill and Hillary. Susan won a Pulitzer in the nineties for writing about Bud’s philandering and Elaine’s stand-by-your-man defensive crouch. She’s despised by most of the former First Family, especially Elaine, who’s still pissed that Berg wrote that she “epitomized the death of feminism” for sticking with her cheating husband. Elaine’s mom says Susan is “just a rotten little thing [who] makes her living saying really smart, really nasty things about people,” and it’s true. She’s also a woman with rotten personal and professional judgment that deserves harsher scrutiny than Political Animals is willing to give. She gets a front-page-caliber scoop about Elaine’s son TJ (Sebastian Stan) — a near catastrophe related to his addiction problems — then deliberately fails to tell her editor about it and uses it as a bargaining chip to hang out with the Barish-Hammonds during the week of Douglas’s engagement. Then she retroactively defends her decision to her boss/lover on the grounds that TJ is a private citizen rather than a public figure.
Can you imagine a reporter for any media outlet, even a high-school paper, learning about a near tragedy involving, say, Chelsea Clinton or Jenna Bush, privately deciding that it wasn’t “really” news, trading it for what amounted to a lifestyle story, and keeping it all to herself until her editor/lover dragged it out of her? The Newsroom’s characters have made questionable judgment calls — including anchor Will McAvoy’s decision to privately help an undocumented immigrant whose personal struggle Will deemed too soft for a hard news program — but nothing as mind-bendingly dumb and professionally irresponsible as what Susan does. And yet we aren’t supposed to think that Susan is a bad journalist. We’re supposed see her as a person who’s good at heart, and deserving of Elaine’s trust and maybe mentorship.
It’s understandable that a miniseries about a Hillary Clinton–styled secretary of State would show its heroine and other women dealing with domestic pressures in the workplace and competing for opportunities and men. And the women’s discussions of parental and romantic attachments, male piggishness, the “fragile male ego” and the tactical reclamation of the word bitch are lively and well-acted, despite weak dialogue and stilted monologues. (A comic peak arrives in the second episode, when a naked Iranian diplomat casually flirts with a fully clothed Elaine in a sauna. “Would you pull this crap on a U.S. secretary of State if I were a man?” she asks. “Of course not,” he deadpans. “I’m not attracted to men.”) There are some beguiling character moments: Elaine’s reluctant verbal dance with Susan, who realizes she hasn’t got the former First Lady pegged after all; Margaret’s easy rapport with her grandson TJ, a skilled pianist; TJ bringing his mom a certain dress to wear during an important dinner because he wants her to look great and feel strong. (TJ’s status as America’s only openly gay First Son deserves a show of its own; Sebastian Stan’s performance is deeply affecting.)
But too much of Political Animals feels like good-enough-for-government-work drama, and I can’t help believing it would have been more compelling, maybe genuinely subversive, if it had replaced some of the scenes that attack the show’s main themes head-on with pick-axes, and substituted ones that showed the female characters simply doing their jobs, commanding more than reluctant respect from men. Even when the women of Political Animals are putatively talking about work, a lot of the time they’re really discussing the men in their lives — their husbands and children, and the emotional hold they have over them. I don’t doubt that Hillary Clinton has had many impassioned arguments about double-standards in Washington and suffered mightily thanks to her husband’s infidelity, but I also suspect that she’s too busy negotiating treaties and defusing crises to obsess on that stuff. She’s a professional who happens to be a woman. Political Animals flips that sentence, to its detriment.