Is “Political Animals” just too Hillary?
USA’s political soap opera stars the terrific Sigourney Weaver as a Secretary of State with a philandering ex (ex-husband, ex-president).
The Sunday debut earned mediocre ratings despite campaign-style publicity and decent reviews. That’s a shame. The six-part miniseries deserves a vote of confidence.
Created by Greg Berlanti (“Brothers and Sisters,” “Dawson’s Creek”) and producer Laurence Mark (“Julie & Julia”), it’s often silly, always melodramatic and saddled with one performance that ranks among the hammiest on TV.
“Political Animals” is also a hoot, the television equivalent of a beach read. Breezy, maybe, but never stupid.
Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, the Madame Secretary who, like her real-life inspiration, once ran for the same Oval Office that her womanizing husband inhabited.
She’s a feminist icon with a frosty image, and savvier than any man in her orbit. That includes husband Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds, the above-mentioned ham).
Her kindred spirit is younger journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), who won a Pulitzer Prize covering Bud’s infidelities. Elaine and Susan, despite their antagonism, seem to be bonding over their man problems.
Perhaps HBO’s two similarly-themed summer series -- the tonier, more pretentious “The Newsroom” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s deadpan “Veep” -- curbed viewer appetite for cocktails mixing politics and media.
Or maybe potential viewers were put off by the too-familiar Clinton premise. Been there, seen that for two decades. As Elaine tells Bud, “Please don’t give me that crap about how the people would love me if they just knew me. It’s been 20 years, OK? They know me.”
Those Billary parallels are too on-point for credible dialogue and too roman-a-clef to make a case for originality. To its credit, “Political Animals” wasted little time veering from that hook, starting with Elaine’s divorce from Bud.
And troubled Barrish scion Thomas “T.J.” (Sebastian Stan), openly gay, cocaine snorting and occasionally suicidal, will continue his descent in this week’s episode, troubling his high profile family in ways never imagined by a certain Chelsea.
Nor does Douglas, the other Barrish son, played by James Wolk, resemble any actual First Child we’ve known. He’s Mom’s chief of staff, upright, loyal, a bit hot-headed and engaged to a perfect, lovely young woman who discreetly disappears to vomits those fancy dinners.
Even at its soapiest, “Political Animals” is well-played, if not always well-penned. Wolk and Stan are appealing actors, holding their own with the excellent Weaver.
Gugino still has time to prove herself. The dynamic between the pol and the journalist is the centerpiece of the series, and should be (but isn’t) as fair a fight as the Glenn Close/Rose Byrne rivalry on “Damages.”
Still, Gugino at least seems to inhabit the same universe as her costars. Hinds, as the Bill stand-in, plays Bud like a cross between J.R. Ewing and Foghorn Leghorn. His appeal to Elaine and the American voter is unfathomable.
The writing doesn’t help. Says Bud: “I am the most popular Democrat since Kennedy had his brains splattered across the Dallas concrete.” No one could sell a phony, ugly line like that.
Well, maybe Ellen Burstyn could. As Elaine’s protective mother Margaret (think Barbara Bush with an ever-present margarita), Burstyn has her share of groaners (her crude, sexual put-down of the reporter wouldn’t be out of place on “Two and a Half Men”). But Burstyn’s acid delivery is hard to resist.
“Political Animals” clearly loves its women (casting the great Vanessa Redgrave in the July 29 episode, unavailable for review, is inspired).
Like any good soap, the heroines of “Political Animals” are true survivors. No veering from the Clintons there.
“Political Animals” airs Sunday on USA at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Good * Mediocre (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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