Political Animals – Thoughts on the Pilot

A former First Lady, who was married to a widely popular but philandering two term president, decides to run for president. She is defeated in the primary, but then goes on to become Secretary of State in her former opponent’s administration.

Sound familiar?

That is the central premise of USA’s new summer program Political Animals, a political soap opera that is loosely based on Bill and Hillary Clinton. They have changed some obvious details – the couple has two sons instead of a daughter, her opponent does not ultimately become the first Black President of the United States – but there is no mistaking the source material. Sigourney Weaver stars as Hillary stand-in Elaine Barrish and Ciaran Hinds is the roguish former President Bud Hammond. In the pilot, Barrish must deal with a hostage situation and her son’s engagement party all while be shadowed by a reporter (Carla Gugino)who made her bones by covering Hammond’s indiscretions while in office and has blackmailed her way into the interview by threatening to release some damaging information about one of Barrish’s sons.

While Political Animals is obviously a show that takes place in the world of politics, the focus appears to be more on the family and the toll that a lifetime of public service has on its members. This is not a taught political thriller, but a soapy family story that just so happens to involve politics. The use of the Clinton story isn’t problematic in and of itself, but it did smack me as a little lazy creatively. There are plenty of stories that could be told without having to rely so heavily on real life people, but I assume that the connection to the Clintons is what they expect will get people to initially tune in.

Weaver is absolutely not doing a Hillary Clinton impersonation and the story is all the better for it. Elaine Barrish becomes a more realized character in Weaver’s capable hands and she is definitely the best thing about this limited series. Weaver elevates the sometimes clunky dialogue that she is given to deliver and has great chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially Gugino. Their inherently combative relationship produces some of the best scenes in the first episode; these two women have a complicated history and are both tough as nails. It is fun to watch two strong women banter back and forth, even if the cards are initially stacked in Weaver’s favor. Actually, the whole show is stacked in Elaine Barrish’s favor – she is written as an extremely competent, intelligent, tough and compassionate woman. She’s almost always the smartest person in room, including when she has scenes with President Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar, Heroes and Dixie Chick husband) and his staff. You suspect that the writers might be Hillary fans. Barrish’s only weakness appears to be her feelings for Hammond. My only criticism is the pilot’s repeated reference to how good looking Barrish is; I feel it minimizes her character to an extent.

Ciaran Hinds’ portrayal of former President Bud Hammond is among the weaker aspects of the show. If the writers are more sympathetic to the former First Lady, they have less affection for the former President. Hammond comes across as a charming good old boy who has a massive ego. Hinds employs a fairly laughable southern accent, perhaps to mask his own Irish native tongue, that is distracting and is poured on just a little too thick. By the end of the pilot, Bud Hammond is the least developed of the characters; he is more a caricature than actualized person, which is disappointing. Bill Clinton may have been a lot of things, but simple was not one of them. He was a complex person and it is too bad that they were unable to mine some of that for the series. Perhaps in later episodes they will explore him in more depth and make Hammond more well-rounded.

As this is the summer and the options for new programming are limited, I don’t mind some of the more soapy aspects of the plots. They manage to squeeze a lot of drama into the pilot – infidelity, eating disorders, drug abuse, blackmail – with mixed results. Some of these stories have potential, while others seem forced and less than believable. Perhaps the most potentially interesting character to me is A.J., the troubled son of Barrish and Hammond, who was outed as a teenager when his father occupied the Oval Office. I think they could tell some compelling stories about his life and the issues that he faces. He didn’t choose to be famous, but was born into a political family and has suffered from the experience. I fear, however, that his story will not be told with the required subtly and nuance that I would prefer. Subtly and nuance are not characteristics that you associate with soapy dramas.

The pilot of Political Animals was fine, but I wasn’t blown away by it. If this was on during the fall, I don’t know that I would stick with it. It helps that this is basically a mini-series and there are only 6 episodes. I saw enough potential that I’ll stick with the show for its run, but I probably will let the episodes pile up on my DVR as there is just too much competition for my attention on Sunday nights. I don’t envy the show for going up against Breaking Bad (which was predictably awesome in its return). I would have preferred a little more substance and creativity from Political Animals, but I’m probably in the minority. Worth a look for Weaver’s performance alone, but I don’t think this show is a candidate for re-election.

Political Animals airs Sunday nights at 10 pm ET on USA and re-airs multiple times throughout the week.

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