Summer television is for the most part a time for light escapism, a concept that USA has embraced to enormous success with the likes of “Burn Notice,” “White Collar,” “Royal Pains,” et al. But success can give you license to deviate from your formula from time to time, and Sunday night at 10, USA debuts the very un-USA miniseries “Political Animals,” a heavier, more mature six-part story about the intersection of politics, family and the media in Washington, D.C.
“Political Animals” will be airing in the same timeslot as “The Newsroom,” and though the two series have different goals – just as USA and HBO have very different business models and programming strategies – both look at famous people and events from recent American history and suggests, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, how things could have been done better.
But where “The Newsroom” inserts its characters into real stories and uses real names, “Political Animals” is a thinly-disguised version of history, and that veil – along with a less angry tone overall – makes all the difference. “The Newsroom” is a lecture telling you what we all should have done two years ago; “Political Animals” is a conversation asking some “What if?” questions without pretending its answers are definitive.
“Political Animals” was created by Greg Berlanti, who’s had practice mixing social issues and soap opera on previous series like “Everwood” and “Brothers & Sisters.” Here, he offers a parallel universe version of the Bill and Hillary Clinton story, in which he suggests some ways that our Secretary of State might be able to jumpstart her presidential ambitions if she so desires.
Sigourney Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, who in the ’90s was First Lady to the wildly popular, philandering President Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds). “Political Animals” opens up years later, with Elaine conceding the Democratic presidential nomination to unlikely upstart candidate Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar), then jumps ahead several years to show her working as Garcetti’s Secretary of State.
Where fiction diverges from reality comes in between, when Elaine decides she’s had enough of Bud’s womanizing and asks him for a divorce – and in the process, becomes far more beloved than she ever was during her long Stand By Your Man phase.
Would this have been the case for Hillary Clinton? It’s hard to say, given the intense passion she generates in both her fans and her detractors, but “Political Animals” at least suggests an interesting possibility, while also suggesting that one move wouldn’t solve all the problems in her life.
Weaver’s not doing a Hillary impression(*), and Berlanti has tweaked enough other aspects of their lives – instead of a daughter, Elaine and Bud have two adult sons, good boy Douglas (James Wolk) and troubled T.J. (Sebastian Stan), who came out of the closet while he was a teenager living in the White House – that “Political Animals” is able to function as a drama even if you don’t care about the Clinton parallels.
(*) Nor is Ciaran Hinds exactly aping Bill in the way that, say, John Travolta did in “Primary Colors,” but the Belfast-born Hinds does slather on the Southern charm to try to conceal his native accent, with mixed success.
The miniseries’ plot revolves around a hostage crisis in Iran, which occurs in the same week the family is throwing Douglas an engagement party while being shadowed by Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), a newspaper reporter who won a Pulitzer for covering Bud’s sexual indiscretions in the Oval Office before falling on hard times like the rest of her industry.(**) Much of the first installment is a duet between these two tough women who share a complicated history, don’t like each other much but need something the other has to offer, and it’s a pleasure to watch these two actresses work as Elaine and Susan try to delicately but firmly get the better of each other.
(**) Like “The Newsroom,” “Political Animals” also despairs about the current state of the news media – and is also suspicious of the Internet, as Susan’s chief rival is an attractive young blogger who gets compared to Eve Harrington. Susan is dating her editor Alex (Dan Futterman), who’s found himself cutting certain ethical corners he wouldn’t have in the past, because he fears that “50 years from now, people are going to talk about newspapers the way we talk about rotary phones or disco.”
Weaver is excellent opposite everyone in this top-notch cast, which also includes Ellen Burstyn as Elaine’s blunt, liquid mother Margaret, Dylan Baker as the Vice President and Roger Bart as the Garcetti administration’s Chief of Staff, but Gugino – and the awkward dynamic between the two characters – seems to bring out the best in her. There’s a scene late in the first episode where Elaine lays out her life philosophy for Susan – a monologue that opens with “Most of life is Hell” and gets darker from there – and in Weaver’s electric performance, you can see her simultaneously trying to impress, frighten and connect with the reporter.
Because “Political Animals” is still being assembled, I’ve only seen that first two installments so far. The second one is more interested in family squabbles and other soap operatics than the first one is, and it’s possible that this is the direction Berlanti wants to take things in for the rest of the run. But with a cast this good, and with so many potentially juicy conflicts already in play, I’m going to take a more optimistic point of view than Elaine Barrish might.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org