USA's 'Political Animals' and the way TV helps us see what we can be

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See Jane reach. See Jane reach for power and be denied.

It might not yet be a full-blown theme, but that story line has made for one of TV’s more culturally intriguing narratives of this presidential election year.

“Game Change” and the first season of “VEEP,” both made in Maryland by HBO, offered two very different takes on the topic. The former looked at Sarah Palin through the harsh lens of docudrama as an ill-prepared and over-reaching 2008 GOP candidate for vice president, while the latter took a lighter, satirical look at the way that office itself continually frustrates the ambitions of Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).

And tonight comes “Political Animals” on TV’s top-rated cable channel, USA, with Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish, a Hillary Clinton-esque secretary of state who once ran for president. In fact, tonight’s episode begins on the night she concedes, and her speech is all about glass ceilings, gender and what message “little girls” should or should not take from her failed candidacy.

But as the final credits roll on the opening night of “Political Animals,” viewers are left with the distinct possibility that the series might add a third sentence to this year’s prime-time, female, political narrative: See Jane reach again — after having learned a thing or two about gender, power and the ways women can work together rather than against one another.

That possibility and some of the Clinton-esque fiction-as-fact details of the Barrish character propel the drama and imbue the series with a cultural edge that instantly makes “Political Animals” more than just another escapist TV series.

Such potential resonance is what led The White House Project, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to advance women in business, politics and media, to throw its promotional and political muscle behind the show with panel discussions, a study guide and screenings hosted by members in 30 cities last week.

“We want our alumnae to watch and enjoy. It’s fun; it’s TV,” says Kirsten Henning, vice president of the Washington-based organization. “But we sent out a study guide and asked alumnae to host screenings and discussions, because we also think the series has this rich potential for dialogue about advancing women’s leadership.”

Citing a statement attributed to child-rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman, Henning says, “‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ And that’s fundamentally what we’re trying to do here: Open peoples’ minds to new possibilities.”

If not opening minds, TV does at least allow viewers to safely imagine new possibilities and become emotionally engaged in how the new order plays out on screen. In allowing viewers to “see” this way, television has become a steady force for social change.

The most recent discussion of how fictional TV shows can affect real American life included Vice President Joe Biden giving a shout-out to the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace” as he announced his support of gay marriage on NBC’s “Meet the Press” a few days before President Barack Obama announced his.

“I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far,” Biden told host David Gregory in May. “People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

There was a similar conversation in November 2008 about the role Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of David Palmer, an African-American president on the Fox drama “24,” might have played in voters electing a person of color as the real U.S. president.

Of course, the relationship between media and social change is never that instant or cause-and-effect direct. To understand how TV shaped the attitudes toward gay identity, you have to go back at least to 1985 and the landmark NBC made-for-TV movie “An Early Frost,” the medium’s first dramatic exploration of HIV/AIDS.

Ditto with TV and attitudes toward a person of color as president: Any informed discussion must include the role “The Cosby Show” played in the 1980s depicting a black family that was the very opposite of the dysfunctional kind TV had long favored.

Henning and her colleagues at the White House Project understand that it takes time and multiple depictions for change to happen in the dance between TV and social reality. They did screenings and discussion groups in 2005 when Oscar winner Geena Davis played a female U.S. president in the ABC drama “Commander in Chief.”

As much as I liked that series for its time and place on network TV, “Political Animals” offers a richer and far more nuanced exploration of women and power.

Part of that is the medium. Cable allows for a more frank, multi-dimensional and developed conversations.

Part of it also involves us being seven years older, if not wiser, as a society. We had the chance to elect a highly qualified woman as president in 2008, and we took a pass. But we saw how that played out and the kind of attacks that were used by the right and the left to defeat Hillary Clinton.

But also credit the script and direction of executive producer Greg Berlanti for a smart and savvy production.

While the opening episode suffers at the start from overly broad depictions of Barrish’s philandering ex-husband (Ciaran Hinds), hard-drinking mother (Ellen Burstyn) and drug-addicted gay son (Sebastian Stan), once it focuses on its core struggle for power between Barrish and a hard-charging newspaper reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), the series finds its dramatic feet.

Better yet, it also finds its head. There is genuine wisdom in the conversations and confrontations between these two women. When Berg asks how Barrish keeps going, the reply begins: “Most of life is hell; it’s filled with failure and loss. People disappoint you. Dreams don’t work out. Hearts get broken….”

This is grown-up, you-can-handle-the-truth, cable-TV talk.

And the interplay between Barrish and Berg is further amplified by a rivalry the reporter has with a younger reporter/blogger, Georgia Gibbons (Meghann Fahy), in her newsroom at the fictional Washington Globe — making for a third level of gender, generation and workplace drama.

“When you look at those three productions — ‘Game Change,’ ‘VEEP’ and ‘Political Animals’ — what’s particularly profound about ‘Political Animals,’ from our perspective, is the idea of these different women in different kinds of relationships in the show,” Henning says, pointing to “the generational differences and the way these women’s lives are kind of colliding.”

Here’s how the study guide invites viewers to ponder the core story line’s implications for their lives: “As the show unfolds, more and more similarities appear between [Barrish and Berg]. … At the same time, they are at odds with one another for much of the pilot. Even if women are working toward different goals, can their common experiences as women transcend that? Do you see potential for these two women to have a mentor or sponsor relationship?”

That’s one kind of seeing. But there is a larger realm of seeing and being that the series invites as well. This is the one that we might be looking back at in 2016 in a “Will & Grace” kind of way.

“What intrigues us is the notion that this character has a certain skill set that a woman brings to the table as far as attempting to mend a broken family,” executive producer Laurence Mark says. “And it’s interesting to at least observe, and perhaps it’s true, that the exact same skill set can be used to mend a broken country. And there may be something to, at some point, putting all our bets on a woman.”

david.zurawik@baltsun.com
twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV: 'Political Animals’ premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on USA.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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