Review: ‘Political Animals’ is a biting family drama

James Wolk as Doug Hammond and Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish in the mini-series "Political Animals."
(David Giesbrecht / USA Network)

“Political Animals,"which begins Sunday on USA Network, is a “limited-series television event” — what on my planet we call “a miniseries” — an unusually ambitious production from the home of “Monk,” “Psych” and “Royal Pains.” Sigourney Weaver, who is still a movie star, plays a woman who is supposed to make you think of Hillary Rodham Clinton and will, if you have not been encased in carbonite these past two decades.

With “The Newsroom"and “Veep"having recently preceded it onto the air, it’s tempting to take this new series as social commentary or political satire, but it is neither. Created by Greg Berlanti (“Everwood”), it is superficially a political drama, in which political things happen — a new Iranian hostage crisis dominates the first hours — but only to define our characters’ characters and their power relationships.

Not even deep down, this is a family drama, more"Dallas"than “The West Wing,” a high-class, relatively naturalistic, behind-closed-doors soap opera that plays in fairly obvious yet also fairly affecting ways with the space between public face and private pain and is made highly watchable by an excellent cast that finds the human among the hokum.

Berlanti has splashed in this pool before: His 2004 semi-political fantasy, “Jack and Bobby,” about two brothers, one of whom grows up to be president; his 2010"No Ordinary Family,"investigating the domestic life of superheroes; “Brothers & Sisters,” on which he was an executive producer. It’s as if every show he’s been involved with has been blended into this one.


Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, a former first lady and failed presidential candidate who becomes secretary of state for her victorious opponent (Adrian Pasdar, moving up from the senator he played in"Heroes” — though he can’t fly, so maybe that’s a step down). Ciarán Hinds, strapping on a Southern accent as wide as the Sun Belt, is Bud Hammond, the philandering ex-president and Elaine’s ex-husband — in what may count as alternative-reality wish fulfillment for some Hillary supporters — having been asked for a divorce on the night his wife conceded the primary race.

Hinds’ Bud has some of the Clinton charm but none of his chops — however much Bill Clinton insulted the dignity of his office, he also carries around a head full of facts and figures and has the ability to arrange them into meaningful sentences and intelligent arguments. Cursing, drinking, dating a bombshell Latina TV star, Hinds seems at first not to be playing Clinton but merely his id, unmoored from his superego. He’s a buffoon, and it makes him a little hard to buy as president. Then again, we have had actual presidents it was hard to buy as president.

Elaine’s other important relationship here, and it’s also an adversarial one — temporarily, one suspects — is with Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), an ambitious reporter who made her name exposing Bud’s infidelities and has improbably leveraged some damaging information about her younger son T.J. (Sebastian Stan), who is gay and troubled (though not about being gay), into a week of unfettered access to the secretary of state. Susan is fending off attacks of her own, from the changing, younger, blogging face of digital journalism, which she deems “not news.”

Susan wants to crack Elaine’s veneer, to get her to admit that her accommodations to men (old husband, new president-boss) were a violation of her feminist principles and an insult to women everywhere and possibly to justify herself to herself against Elaine’s accusation that she launched her career “by stepping on the throat of someone else’s marriage.” Indeed, one favor “Political Animals” does the Clintons is to remind us that, though many have declared it a war and picked a side, their marriage is complicated and even productive in ways that no one outside it will ever actually understand. (See also:"The Good Wife.”)

The fictional America of “Political Animals” may have found candidate Barrish “cold and calculating,” and neither Weaver nor Berlanti is out to make her perfect. (No. 1 son Doug, played by James Wolk, is Elaine’s chief of staff.) But for the viewer she is also unmistakably Sigourney Weaver, whom we regard with sympathy and awe.

At 63, she remains one of the world’s beautiful women, and — like Ellen Burstyn, who plays her impolitic mother — looks all the better for swimming with and not against the tide of time. (She started with a lot of advantages, admittedly.) But she is also, we can’t help but remember, Ripley, cat-lover, alien-killer. We feel her guarded sweetness, and we feel her power.



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