USA Network's "Political Animals" Is Stubbornly Bad in All the Wrong Ways
“Political Animals” is a terrible mini-series. It shouldn’t be. It stars Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish, the televisual equivalent of Hilary Clinton. She’s an ambitious ex-wife of a womanizing two-term President from a Southern state. She lost her own bid to be President of the United States and settled for being Secretary of State to the victor, President Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar). She also left her husband (Ciarán Hinds) on the day he left office because he couldn’t stop sleeping around with other woman. While many accuse Barrish of staying with him for political reasons, it turns out, she’s actually magnetically drawn to him. Meanwhile, Barrish aims to mix her political and family life while ruminating over another bid for the presidency.
If that was all there was to “Political Animals” — an examination of a powerful woman torn between her heart and her ambition — perhaps “Political Animals” could be salvaged. Unfortunately, series writer and creator Greg Berlanti (The Green Lantern, “Eli Stone”) is more interested in turning “Political Animals” into a dishy, over-the-top American telenovela. Berlanti throws more shit at the wall in the opening episode of “Political Animals” than Ryan Murphy does in half a season “Glee,” leaving only a pregnancy bombshell for future episodes.
Let’s start with the family: Barrish has one son, the good one who is also an advisor (James Wolk, “Lone Star”), who is about to get married, and Barrish insists on controlling the engagement party and the wedding to the frustration of the bride-to-be. Meanwhile, the bad son, Thomas (Sebastian Stan), is a recovering drug addict who is not recovering. He’s gay (naturally) and engaging in steamy sexy with male prostitutes. He also has a suicide attempt that the world doesn’t know about yet.
That’s where Carla Gugino’s political reporter, Susan Berg, comes in. She knows about the suicide attempt, and uses it as leverage to orchestrate an interview with Barrish. However, that comes undone when Berg tells his editor boyfriend about the suicide attempt and he tells the gossip columnist he’s sleeping with about it. The gossip columnist publishes the details, a contrivance that ultimately, somehow, brings Berg and Barrish together as unlikely allies, bonded over their bad luck with shitty men.
There’s a lot going on in “Political Animals” and none of it is compelling. Berlanti is aiming for something along the lines of recent soap-y hits like “Revenge” and “Scandal,” but he quickly overplays his hand with a terribly written pilot complete with hammy performances and enough platitudes to kill a community college lit professor. It’s all the more disappointing because “Political Animals” airs in the same time slot as “Breaking Bad” and “Newsroom,” two shows rich with interesting themes, complex characters, and well-crafted narratives. “Political Animals,” meanwhile, aims to counter program by insulting a female demographic with badly drawn, exaggerated caricatures and plotlines straight out of Harlequin romances. It’s as though USA Network is saying, “Hey! If you don’t like those smart, densely-packed shows on AMC and HBO, here’s a bowl of shit you can eat instead!” Hell, it’s a show about a female Secretary of State, the most powerful woman in the United States, and yet it still fails to pass the Bechdel test. Berlanti could’ve taken advantage of a strong cast and created the political equivalent of “The Good Wife.” Instead, he’s made the political equivalent of “The Client List,” a shoddy, criminal waste of talent and opportunity.
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