'Political Animals' Review: A Brilliant First Family Drama
Friday, July 13, 2012
USA's motto is "Characters Welcome," and that accurately describes its newest limited series event, Political Animals
(premiering Sunday at 10pm). Sure, it's about politics and is obviously
modeled loosely on Hillary Clinton (a former First Lady who runs for
president, fails and becomes Secretary of State instead). But it's all
the wild, out-of-control characters that make this a show to watch.
The matriarch of this family is Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver), who asks for a divorce from her philandering ex-president husband the night she concedes her presidential run. She has no problem admitting that she's a bitch and is now a beloved figure in American politics. She's a brazen, fearless woman who is finally taking her moment in the spotlight after being sidelined as the dutiful, loyal wife for years.
Her husband, Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds, chewing up the scenery like a cow with grass), is one of the most loved presidents of all-time whose reputation seems to be slightly tarnished after the divorce when he begins dating a hot young Hispanic TV star whose breasts are insured by the studio. He's the kind of guy who seems gregarious in public, but behind closed doors he spews racist epithets about the new Italian-American president (Heroes star Adrian Pasdar).
Elaine and Bud have two sons. Doug (James Wolk) is the good one, serving as Elaine's chief-of-staff. He is fiercely loyal and about to get married in a big, public ceremony. The other son, TJ (Sebastian Stan), is the wild child, an openly gay, self-destructive young man who lives by his own rules.
Rounding out the cast are Elaine's no-nonsense mother (Ellen Burstyn, stealing scenes like an expert criminal) and a young reporter (Carla Gugino) who made her career bashing Elaine Barrish when she was First Lady and who hopes to resurrect her career by riding Elaine's coattails once again.
Each of these characters is heavily and fascinatingly flawed and they are all played brilliantly by the cast. This is definitely an actors' show and you could take any one of these characters and build an entire show around them. Even the minor characters are filled with incredibly talented stars like the vice president (The Good Wife's Dylan Baker) and the president's chief of staff (Revenge's Roger Bart).
The similarities to Hillary Clinton and the political dramas Elaine deals with (a hostage crisis in the Middle East) might lead some to think this is a show for politicos, people who want a reincarnation of The West Wing. But that's wrong.
Political Animals is created by Greg Berlanti, the man behind Everwood and Jack and Bobby who also wrote for Brothers and Sisters. He's a writer who is at his best with intense, character-driven melodrama. If you loved the nonstop angst of Brothers and Sisters with the family yelling and fighting, then making up in every episode, Political Animals will most likely appeal to you. In some ways it feels like Jack and Bobby and Brothers and Sisters were Berlanti's first two rough drafts at getting to this story. The drug-addicted gay TJ even resembled Tom Cavanagh's character from Jack and Bobby (the boys' gay uncle) in some ways.
It's a big, dysfunctional family drama, emphasis on the dysfunction. The fact that this family happens to be a political dynasty is merely a backdrop.
The limited series will sadly end after just six episodes, but based on the pilot, there's more than enough story to warrant an extension (USA has a history of turning miniseries into series, as they did with The 4400 and The Starter Wife). The acting is uniformly excellent (Hinds and Burstyn are the best, though Weaver has an incredibly great scene where she describes her son having to come out of the closet as a teenager in the White House).
Political Animals is a great example of an expertly made primetime soap. It's more Revenge than The West Wing, and that's a very good thing.
(Image courtesy of USA)