‘Political Animals’ Pilot Recap: “They Only Love Us When They’re Not Busy Hating Us”

The so-called “Limited Series Event” (how that’s different than a miniseries, I’m not certain) ‘Political Animals’ is quite ambitious by the USA Network’s standards. The show features a few actual movie stars with name recognition who might demand decent salaries, and its subject matter is a little more serious than the light and breezy fare that the network usually serves up. Especially for a summer series, this could be a pretty big gamble that USA has decided to take. Now that the first episode aired this past Sunday, did that gamble pay off?

For the most part, the show has a lot of potential. I wouldn’t say that it’s an unqualified success, but it deserves some measure of attention.

Sigourney Weaver stars as Elaine Barrish Hammond, former First Lady to the most popular Democrat President since JFK. After a failed Presidential run of her own, Elaine accepts a posting as Secretary of State in the new President’s administration. Hmmm, whom could this character possibly be modeled after? The parallels to real life are so subtly drawn, right?

So, yeah, she’s Hillary. The show makes no bones about that. She even has a fondness for heinous pant-suits, in case you didn’t already make the connection. Her husband Bud (or ex-husband; in contrast to the real Hillary, Elaine demands a divorce) is a larger-than-life personality and a notorious womanizer.

The ‘Pilot’ episode takes place over the course of a week during which Elaine has to host an engagement party for one of her sons, which turns into the social event of the season. In the midst of her planning, a reporter (Carla Gugino) who had written fairly nasty things about her in the past essentially blackmails her way into tagging along with Elaine for the entire week, ostensibly to cover the party. Elaine suspects that she has ulterior motives, and makes no secret of her dislike for the woman. All of this is interrupted by a hostage crisis in Iran, which forces the Secretary of State to leverage some back-channel diplomacy to save the lives of three journalists who have been falsely arrested as a power play by political leaders in the country.

The series is produced by Greg Berlanti, and like his previous shows (‘Everwood’, ‘Brothers and Sisters’) is a little too soapy for my taste. I don’t have much interest in the engagement storyline (the fiancée has bulimia, whoop-de-doo) or another storyline involving Elaine’s other son, a drug addict who’d attempted suicide a few months earlier. Some relationship woes between the reporter Susan and her editor boyfriend feel like filler.

On the other hand, Weaver is just fantastic in the role. She has a ton of great dialogue, the best of which is her advice to Susan, “Don’t call a bitch a bitch. Us bitches hate that,” delivered in a way that only Sigourney Weaver could sell. In fact, when Susan tries to repurpose the line for her own needs, she fails miserably at it. Also hugely entertaining is Ellen Burstyn as Elaine’s boozy mother, who has no compunctions about speaking her mind. These two seems to operate on a level way above the rest of the cast, who are fine but easily overshadowed. The weakest link is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds (he was Julius Caesar in ‘Rome’, among other things), who plays Bud far too broadly and lays on a crappy accent.

When it sticks to the back-door dealings that go on in Washington, the show manages some pretty interesting and engaging drama. Truth be told, even the soapy stuff isn’t so bad. The series is scheduled to run for six episodes. I think I’m on board to see it through.

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