Five Things that Work on USA's Political Animals (and Five that Don't)
I know I wasn't the only one who cheered when Sigourney Weaver's Elaine Barrish told a handsy Russian diplomat that she'd "fuck his shit up" on last night's premiere of Political Animals on USA. A star-studded "limited series" event (I think that is TVspeak for miniseries), the show is based not-so-loosely on the Clinton marriage if Hillary had told Bill to get lost after her failed presidential bid. So far, it's being hailed by some as a step forward for strong women on television and derided by others for being sucky. Both sides have a point.
SigourneyWeaverSigourneyWeaverSigourneyWeaver. Big surprise: Sigourney Weaver kills it as the show's protagonist, Secretary of State Elaine Barrish. She's strong but not an asshole, professional without being two-dimensional, and she balances her work and family life without using the phrase "having it all." Also, her political wardrobe is totally believable, unlike some high-ranking television politicos. Here she is in the aforementioned scene with the Russian butt-grabber:
The bizarro politics. Unlike the HBO turd Newsroom which lectures viewers about media politics using the actual recent past, Political Animals takes place in a world that is almost ours, but not quite. Yes, the allegories are thin (the POTUS is Italian in this world, not black! The Hammonds are kinda like the Clintons but not quite!) but by remaining fictional the show manages to comment on the current climate—newspapers and new media included—without rehashing it.
TJ Hammond. Both Hammond sons are interesting characters, but TJ—the first openly gay White House resident—is the standout. Though his "bad boy" persona is a little much (cool leather jacket dude WE GET IT) he's played expertly by the easy-on-the-eyes Sebastian Stan, so it works.
The women. It's basic cable, so the bar is low: The very presence of women wearing clothing and interacting with each other makes this better than your typical drama, ladywise, but the characters are compelling enough so far that I'm hopeful for even more. I like the adult mother-daughter dynamics, and even though Elaine's relationship with frenemy and journalist Susan Berg is a bit much (more on that in a minute) it has potential. I also liked Doug's fianceé Anne Ogami (played by Brittany Ishibashi), who is understandably put off by his political family but is a pretty good sport about it. (I'm a little worried for how the show will handle her bulimia—fingers crossed it doesn't define her entire character.) So far so good.
The family way. At its heart, this is more of a soapy drama than a hard-hitting political show, and the Hammond family makes it work. Elaine's interactions with her ex-husband Bud are tense but cordial, and they come together over their adult children, especially TJ. The two Hammond sons care about each other but also resent one another (a little), and Doug and Anne's engagement dinner felt believably awkward. The smaller scenes—Bud remembering a dress of Elaine's, TJ and his grandma sharing a drink, Doug complaining about working for his mom—make the Hammonds relatable enough to forgive some of the wackier scenes.
If you think this is a bit much you should see the cast gallery.
What Doesn't Work:
Bud Hammond. We're supposed to believe that Bud Hammond (played by Ciarán Hinds) is beloved by his constituents and irresistible to the ladies, but after a few scenes with this Foghorn Leghorn of an ex-President I'm not buying it. Hinds plays Hammond more sleazy than sexy—his cigar-chomping Southerner is just too much.
Susan Berg seems bad at her job. Susan Berg is meant to be a hard-hitting journalist, but in the pilot she handles the Barrish story so unethically it's hard to take her seriously. Why on earth would she barter TJ's suicide attempt into a lifestyle piece about Barrish? And where does she get off crying "it's not news!" when her boss/boyfriend runs with it, when she herself used it as a bargaining chip? To be fair, her coworkers are complete dbags (though I LOLed at that cupcake scene—we bloggers are the worst!), but still.
Grandma Barrish is too hammy. You know what's funny? A grandma who delivers one-liners about sex and booze! Nope, no it isn't. I'm optimistic that Grandma Margaret (played by Ellen Burstyn for crying out loud!) will get to do more in upcoming episodes, but last night she was too much of a punchline—the punchline being HAHA SHE'S OLD—for my taste.
It's whitewashed. Since the Hammonds are clearly based on the Clintons, it makes sense that they're white Southerners. What doesn't make sense is the show's almost complete disregard for race or racism in politics. Beyond Bud's slur-filled comments about the president, who is Italian, no one mentions race at all. TV's diversity problem aside, on a show set in present-day D.C. that just doesn't strike me as realistic.
The feminism is heavy-handed. As much as we love it when someone reclaims the word bitch, some of the "girls rule boys drool" talk among the women on the show was a little much. Berg's book about fourth-wave feminism is called When Bitches Rule, for Pete's sake. And why do the strong, professional women have to be in opposition to the men? That zoo scene where Barrish tells Berg she admires elephants for kicking the males out of the herd? Puh-leeze. It would be more interesting to see men and women interacting in a sexist political system than to eavesdrop on the women talking shit. The elephants were cool though.
Did you watch last night? What did think?
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