TV Review - Political Animals

I'll make the same criticism about Political Animals as I did about Scandal when it premiered this past spring, although here the offense is perhaps more egregious.

Scandal is more fictionalized whereas Political Animals draws more from real-life. Both are shows that take place in the present United States and both have the American president as a regular character. Being that it's 2012 and Barack Obama is the current commander-in-chief, one would assume the president on these shows would also be black, but they're not.

Tony Goldwyn played the president in Scandal and Adrian Pasdar plays the president here. I like Goldwyn and Pasdar. Pasdar played a politician in his previous show Heroes, so I think he fits the role here very well, but it's a wonder why black men weren't employed at all in what is now two golden opportunities. The producers of Scandal might argue that they didn't want to be that on-the-nose, considering where they took that character. They perhaps didn't want to cast aspersions on the current president, but Greg Berlanti (Everwood and Brothers & Sisters) who created and is the head writer of this show could argue similarly. Yet, Berlanti mines so much from the Obama administration already that his argument over not having a black president wouldn't hold up.

What does hold up is the rest of the cast who are all fantastic. The show is only six episodes and the show might be a mini-series, which means there probably won't be any additional episodes nor a second season, but, without the typical, seven-year commitment that most TV actors are forced to sign, it's most likely easier to lure top-level talent. Oscar-nominated and Emmy-nominated Sigourney Weaver is one such top-level talent.

Weaver plays Elaine Barrish Hammond, the Secretary of State to a Democratic president against whom she ran during the primaries. Elaine is also the wife of a previous Democratic president who got into trouble for having an affair and cheating on Elaine. It's loosely based on Hilary Clinton's story. There are glaring exceptions. Elaine and her husband, nicknamed Bud, have not reconciled as Hilary and Bill Clinton supposedly have. Elaine and Bud are still separated. Elaine, unlike Hilary, doesn't have a daughter. She has two adult sons.

Her eldest son is Douglas, played by James Wolk (Happy Endings and Shameless). Douglas works as part of his mom's staff. He may even be her chief staff member. He seems to be her right hand. He's with her in almost every official situation in and out of the White House. Douglas, however, is engaged to a beautiful, Japanese-American girl named Anne, played by Brittany Ishibashi, who is secretly bullimic and is increasingly frustrated with Douglas' family taking priority and even control of their lives.

Douglas' brother is Thomas or TJ, played by Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The First Avenger and The Covenant). TJ was an aspiring pianist whose life got derailed when he was outed publicly and revealed to be the first gay child in the White House. His life spiraled down with the aid of drugs and alcohol, resulting in a suicide attempt. He's trying to get his life back, but no one in his family, aside from Douglas, really wants to support him in his dream to open a bar/restaurant called "the Dome."

His confidant is his grandmother, played by Ellen Burstyn, who is essentially the comic relief other than Bud, played by CiarĂ¡n Hinds (Munich and The Eclipse). Bud is funny because he is not humble at all. He's good at being a politician and he knows it. He's very charismatic and clever and he knows it. He struts around being very sexual, a womanizer and a skirt-chaser, dropping s-bombs and smoking, and just is very arrogant and full of himself to great comedic effect. Burstyn has a rapier wit and a cynical charm. She has a funny, snappy honesty that perhaps comes from a perpetual state of drunkenness.

Carla Gugino as Susan in "Political Animals"
Meanwhile, Carla Gugino (Entourage and Californication) plays Susan Berg, a reporter for the Washington Globe who wrote about Bud's sex scandal and became sequestered or banned from the White House. Because she knew about TJ's suicide attempt, she was able to strong-arm her way back into Elaine's life. Most in Elaine's company want nothing to do with her, but Elaine has a weird kind of respect for her, even though it might not be warranted.

Berlanti's inclusion of Susan in the show allows him to explore how media does play a huge part in politics as well as expose that newspapers have their own internal politics. Berlanti gets to touch a little what Aaron Sorkin is manhandling in HBO's The Newsroom. Yet, the show is really all about Sigourney Weaver. It seems built for her and she is brilliant in it. Susan calls Elaine, "a cold, calculating political animal," but that's not how we see Weaver play Elaine, not totally. There are things she'll do that feeds into that political animal image. She'll barge into a Turkish bath and basically pimp herself out to an ambassador to get what she wants.

There are also moments that pull her away from that image. As the rest of the series plays out, it's interesting to watch how much an animal she'll be or if she'll be pulled out of it. The first two episodes concern Elaine over a hostage crisis in Iran that parallels the one President Clinton negotiated in North Korea in 2009. I'm not sure Berlanti does a great job of making us care about this hostage crisis. His humor is what shines more than his pathos.

Dylan Baker co-stars as the Vice President Fred Collier and he's great as always. Baker also guess starred on the series The Good Wife, which is similarly about a woman whose politician of a husband gets embroiled in a sex scandal, partly inspired by the Bill Clinton situation but more-so from the Eliot Spitzer case. The Good Wife nails the humor and the pathos perfectly. This show falls just a little bit short. This is unusual for Berlanti, but still a good watch.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-14-DLS.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Sundays at 10PM on USA.


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