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Maureen Ryan

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'Political Animals' Review: Sigourney Weaver Owns This Delish Washington Soap

Posted: 07/12/2012 2:23 pm

Before I get to my positive review of "Political Animals" (premieres on Sunday, July 15 at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network), which manages to be both mildly subversive and very enjoyable, I'd like to recommend two recent essays by Time TV critic James Poniewozik.

In the pieces (one of which is behind Time's paywall), he makes quite a few compelling observations about the twilight of the anti-hero era in television. Like James, I gladly acknowledge that many of the masterpieces of television's Golden Age revolve around transgressive males, but I'm with him when he says he's ready for that trend to take a back seat for a while.

It's not that there haven't been other kinds of shows in the last decade or so -- dramas and comedies that offered compelling ruminations on community, altruism, optimism and pessimism -- but the archetype of the self-absorbed hetero guy trying to negotiate his masculine role amid society's changing expectations, etc ... Well, we've been there, done that, got the Bada Bing t-shirt. It's been a terrific ride -- and I certainly don't want it to completely end -- but it's about time for some departures from the most influential Golden Age formulas.

The good news is, I think some of the people who write for and commission television are as ready for a change as I am. As I noted in my "Girls" review, part of what made that HBO show such a breath of fresh air is that its characters are nothing like the proprietor of a Deadwood saloon or a certain Albuquerque meth cooker. Carrie Mathison of "Homeland," Mia the trans woman of "Hit and Miss," the more comedically oriented Max on "Happy Endings" and Ron Swanson of "Parks and Recreation": Among their most winning qualities is the fact that they're not like anyone I've seen on TV before.

You've seen "Political Animals'" Elaine Barrish Hammond before, because, let's face it, she's Hillary Clinton in a nicer pantsuit. In this energetic and delicious six-part miniseries, Sigourney Weaver plays Elaine, the ambitious wife of Bud, a hard-living, charming Southern man who was president for two terms. As "Political Animals" opens, she's making her bid for the presidency, and as she continues to travel the corridors of power, she has to contend with Bud's legacy as a womanizer, her complicated feelings about him and her family, and her reputation as a cold, calculating opportunist.

Yep, the Clinton parallels are that obvious, but even if the show sits squarely within USA's wheelhouse -- it's not a cynical takedown by any means -- "Political Animals'" forthrightness about examining the costs and exhilaration of political life is refreshing. It combines the sly wit of the viral hit Texts from Hillary with the old-fashioned pleasures of a night-time soap, and it's anchored by terrific lead performances from Weaver and Carla Gugino, who plays the Hammonds' journalistic nemesis Susan Berg.

One of the main pleasures of "Political Animals" is watching these two women, who don't particularly like each other, square off in long, frisky dialogue scenes that both actresses clearly relish. Without having them descend into the conversational equivalent of hair-pulling catfights (thank God), creators Greg Berlanti and Laurence Mark allow the women to talk very frankly about being perceived as bitches by the public and by colleagues, and muse unsentimentally on what they can and can't do about that.

I certainly can't recall that kind of conversation on the small screen lately. If there's one thing that television has done pretty consistently over the years, it's turned ambitious women into villains, sluts, freaks or other kinds of creatures to be feared. As I said in this week's Talking TV podcast, one of the things I liked best about "Grey's Anatomy," at least in its early seasons, is that it calmly ignored this TV tradition.

"Political Animals" is another show that takes it as a given that women are every bit as consumed by ambition, sexual jealousy, professional gamesmanship, insecurities and energetic optimism as any guy at the top of his field. Here, these elements are lightly examined and turned into the stuff of soapy drama; they're not the fodder for the creation of harridans or Tragic Ladies. Elaine and Susan actually enjoy doing their jobs and playing power games at the highest levels. And given how often the word is bandied about, the first two hours of "Political Animals" make a decent run at reclaiming the word "bitch" and turning it into a compliment.

"Political Animals" is on firm ground whenever it focuses on Elaine, Susan and Bud, a role that Ciarán Hinds occupies a bit stiffly at first but gradually grows into. In the first two episodes, the capable actors James Wolk and Sebastian Stan get a bit less to do as the Hammonds' sons; one has struggled to establish his own career and the other has trod the unglamorous path of the dutiful son who serves his parents' political careers. It's not that the Good Son-Bad Son dynamic feels out of place here, but let's hope there's more to it than that before the show finishes its summer run. As for Ellen Burstyn, who plays Elaine's mildly sloshed ex-showgirl mother, she makes lip-smacking meals of her occasional showcase scenes, but it's Weaver's charisma that clearly dominates this well-made souffle.

Sure, a few lines land with a thud and the Hammonds' world seems a little claustrophobic (we see few aides, meetings, hearings, etc.; the USA show's budget is clearly not in HBO territory), but these are mere quibbles. More seriously, you could argue that the poisonous aspects of the political scene of the '90s are rather neatly (perhaps too neatly) elided, and I'm not the first observer to note that "Political Animals" is something of a fantasia on the Clinton years.

But however one voted back then, "Political Animals" hews fairly closely to the USA tone and smartly employs any number of light-drama conventions, thus it can likely be enjoyed simply as an entertainment (and that's one of many things that sets it apart from "The Newsroom," another aspirational story about power players that is much preachier and emphatically condescending to its female characters).

"Political Animals" is predicated on the idea that those in public life are not entirely cynical and corrupt, but as flawed and conflicted as the rest of us, and it makes the case that the people who run the country are usually damaged and difficult. But then, the most interesting people often are.

Ryan McGee and I discussed the show in this week's Talking TV podcast (along with "Breaking Bad," "Hit and Miss" and "Perception").

"Political Animals" premieres on Sunday, July 15 at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network.



My colleague Crystal Bell interviewed the cast of "Political Animals." Find out what they had to say about the Clinton comparisons and more here.

 

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