A summer trip to Washington
Here’s a lathery miniseries drama that gets off on toying with you. The setup of “Political Animals” looks a lot like it’s modeled after the life and times of Hillary Clinton. Sigourney Weaver plays Secretary of State Elaine Barrish, who ran for president but lost the nomination. Elaine is also a former first lady, whose ex-husband, former two-term president Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds), is a Southern good old boy with a strong liking for the ladies. Elaine and Bud get divorced, but still: It’s got to be Bill and Hill, right?
USA’s “Political Animals,” a six-parter that premieres on Sunday at 10 p.m., diverges from the Clintons in a thousand different ways – Elaine and Bud have adult twin sons, for example, one of whom is openly gay. And yet the similarities make this flawed but addictive miniseries a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise. Executive producer Greg Berlanti (“Everwood”) plays with our desire to eavesdrop on the Clintons, dangling tidbits of truth in our eyes, then pulling them away and leaving us with pure fiction. In a way, he has created juicy fan fiction based on the American political story, borrowing characters for his own purposes and situations.
Berlanti is also the creator of “Dirty Sexy Money,” the dishy 2007-09 soap opera about a New York family with too many secrets and too much money and fame. “Political Animals” has the same whipped-up tone – it’s “Dirty Sexy Power,” using international crises instead of financial crises to fuel the action. While the former first family churns with a combustible mixture of rivalry, loyalty, and very bad behavior, the secretary of state is dealing with the news that journalists have been detained in Iran and are being threatened with execution. Again, Berlanti engages in his ripped-from-the-headlines game, altering the 2009 case of three hikers accused of spying by Iranian border guards.
Elaine is a moral rock, coming into her own politically once she has left Bud; if the character is meant to be a sideways statement about Hillary Clinton, it’s a positive one, at least based on the 90-minute premiere. Elaine has a cool demeanor but she’s maternal toward her boys – Doug (James Wolk), who works for her, and TJ (Sebastian Stan), who has a serious substance-abuse problem. She is also eminently patient with her mother, Margaret (Ellen Burstyn), a one-time Vegas showgirl who drinks too much and blathers inappropriately in public. Elaine doesn’t like politics – campaigning, she says, is “an Olympic sport in hypocrisy” – but she nonetheless uses her moral compass to navigate the waters. Meanwhile, the male politicians around her are self-serving and vulgar: not just the president, Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar), but a Russian diplomat who pinches her butt.
Weaver manages to lend an air of class to all the miniseries’ predictable dysfunction. She has a restrained style, both temperamentally and facially, that works well on TV. And there is plenty of predictable dysfunction, not least of all Bud’s dalliances with young hotties both before and after the divorce. He’s an egotist who spouts lines such as “I am the meat in the Big Mac of this party!” And TJ’s spiral downward has been done on every melodrama from “Dynasty” to “90210.” Being gay isn’t the problem for him, which is nice; his is not the overdone story of a public figure hiding in the closet. Since he was out while in the White House, TJ is an icon for the gay community. But his drug issues are painfully stock, as are the financial snags related to them, and his self-destructive tendencies place him in the middle of yet another too-familiar gay plot arc.
The portrait of D.C. in “Political Animals” extends to Carla Gugino as journalist Susan Berg, who writes for a newspaper called the Washington Globe. Susan won a Pulitzer Prize for her takedowns of Bud while he was in office; now she’s on the trail of Elaine, hoping to do an in-depth profile. The two women clash, but they share a lot in common. For reasons that are quickly obvious, Susan is fixated on finding out why an intelligent woman like Elaine put up with a philanderer. When “Political Animals” visits Susan’s Globe world, the characters are straight from the manual of journalistic types, including the ambitious newbie reporter who uses her beauty to get a story and the editor who lies in bed reading a biography of famous literary editor Maxwell Perkins.
But soaps are almost by definition built on types, right? What distinguishes the good ones are colorful performances, scandalous twists, and the age-old reminder that money and power can’t buy love – all of which “Political Animals” has. In the middle of our real-life presidential campaign, here is an entertaining summer escape. Text from Hillary: I call the barcalounger.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org