Notebook: USA’s Political Animals

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Previews of the new USA miniseries Political Animals have had loads of fun with the concept of a show riffing on Hillary Clinton. Now that it’s premiered, maybe the focus can shift to where it belongs: on Sigourney Weaver starring in a TV series.

She plays Elaine Barrish, who is indeed the wife of a popular, philandering former president, Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds). And she runs for the office herself, but loses the primary to a popular upstart. Thing is, the night she concedes the primary, she also dumps President Bud.

Elaine does become secretary of state during a tumultuous time in domestic and international affairs and has to balance a demanding job with a celebrity profile, whether she likes it or not.

Part of that problem is the press, namely a Washington newspaper reporter, Susan (Carla Gugino), who has been a thorn in Elaine’s side since her husband’s campaign. Susan broke stories about Bud’s infidelity and wrote columns critical of Elaine for staying with him. As the series starts, she has used some information about one of Elaine’s sons to get a long sought-after interview with Elaine.

The entire time Susan was questioning Elaine I couldn’t help thinking, “Who asks questions like that?” Every one was structured like a sound bite. Unfortunately, the bad writing is not isolated to the obnoxious reporter – a stereotype I’m not wild about – in Political Animals.

A lot of the dialogue is structured as exposition, particularly in a situation room scene after three American journalists are captured by Iranian forces. It’s as if they didn’t presume people who tuned into a show called Political Animals knew much about politics or international affairs.

But it does have its fun and intriguing elements dramatizing the life under the microscope a presidential family has to live with and the relationship between a struggling president and a woman who has been on the front lines of success in the office. As Ellen tells President Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar) she’s waiting for him to be the man who beat her … well … you wonder.

Again, Political Animals makes things even more interesting – this is not a show that believes truth is more interesting than fiction. Elaine’s son T.J. (Sebastian Stan) is the first openly gay child of a president, and his recent attempted suicide plays a pivotal role in the premiere episode. Then, there is the bombshell Elaine drops at the end of the episode.

What makes Weaver great in this role isn’t any wondrous act-off moment. It is a determined strength that makes you forget a lot of the circumstances in this show, implied and contrived, and pay attention to a very human lead character.

It would be nice if Weaver had a bit of a better vehicle to ride onto TV with. The writing and some of the structure of the show leave you wondering what Aaron Sorkin is doing – Oh yeah, he’s producing an acclaimed competing show on HBO. At least we have Sigourney.

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