Clintonesque drama stars Sigourney Weaver

Ciaran Hinds (left) and Sigourney Weaver star in "Political Animals."
Ciaran Hinds (left) and Sigourney Weaver star in "Political Animals."
Posted: July 13, 2012

POLITICAL ANIMALS. 10 p.m. Sunday, USA.

EPISODES. 10:30 p.m. Sunday, Showtime.

SAY WHAT you like about Hillary Clinton, but she probably didn't set out to lead a made-for-TV life.

In fact, from hair to husband, the first lady-turned-politician-turned-stateswoman has largely resisted the choices that Hollywood would have made for her.

Married (still) to Bill Clinton, she's neither "The Starter Wife" nor "The Good Wife." He famously cheated. She famously stayed. The 36-year Clinton marriage, endlessly dissected, remains as mysterious as anyone's, but it's not the kind of mystery television knows what to do with.

So don't look for answers in "Political Animals," the six-part "limited series" that premieres Sunday on USA Network, in which Sigourney Weaver stars as Elaine Barrish, a former first lady who, after failing to win the presidency, divorces her philandering husband, former President Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds), then joins her opponent's administration as secretary of state.

Filmed in Philadelphia but set in Washington — most of the scenes in Sunday's episode take place inside, including one shot in an Oval Office that's reportedly from the set of "The West Wing" – "Political Animals" does represent a homecoming for Adrian Pasdar, who plays the current president. Pasdar not only grew up here, but the Marple Newtown grad played Nathan Petrelli, who at one point occupied the White House in "Heroes."

All those interiors, though, gave the only episode I've seen a faintly claustrophobic feel, particularly for USA, whose brand of "blue sky" programming includes shows like "Royal Pains" and "Burn Notice."

Current (or even recent) affairs aren't the network's brand, either, but this is more soap opera than satire, an intermittently entertaining but not exactly subtle look at the private and public lives of one extremely colorful family. Not all the color is courtesy of the Clintons, by the way. Chelsea, that so-far most exemplary of political offspring, is replaced here by twin brothers. One, played by James Wolk ("Lone Star"), works as his mother's chief of staff and is newly engaged to the "perfect" woman. The other, played by Sebastian Stan ("Gossip Girl"), is a gay drug addict.

In case you're wondering how you'll tell them apart.

Ellen Burstyn plays Elaine's drunken floozy of a mother and Carla Gugino the Maureen Dowd-ish journalist who blackmails the secretary of state's office in exchange for face time with the woman who supposedly had her banned from the White House — even the Easter egg roll! — after she wrote about the president's affairs.

Creator Greg Berlanti ("Everwood," "Brothers & Sisters") has dipped into politics before. Rob Lowe played a senator running for president in "Brothers & Sisters" and an earlier Berlanti series, the wistful "Jack & Bobby," was about the adolescence of two brothers (no, not those brothers), one of whom was destined to become president. But unlike "The West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, whose HBO drama "The Newsroom" is, for better or worse, issues-driven, Berlanti's not enough of a wonk to put his characters through that kind of heavy lifting.

Instead, "Political Animals" seems fixated on the relationship between Elaine and her randy ex — who's taken up with a TV actress of very little brain since his wife threw him out — and yet seems to have even less to say about that connection than the Clintons themselves have publicly. Hinds ("Rome") is a fine actor, badly miscast as a vulgar good old boy, Weaver an equally fine one whose performance here is more finely calibrated and, honestly, delightful.

I'd love to have seen the show she seems to be working in.

Those interested in a more nuanced look at the impact of infidelity on a marriage might find it in a surprising place Sunday: Showtime's "Episodes." That's the Hollywood-set comedy from Bala's David Crane ("Friends") and his partner Jeffrey Klarik ("Mad About You") in which Matt LeBlanc plays Matt Le-Blanc, cast in a show written by a long-married couple, Sean and Beverly (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig).

In the second season, which began July 1, Sean and Beverly are working together but living apart in the wake of her one-night stand with Matt. There's nothing understated about "Episodes," one of the rare Showtime "comedies" to fit that description, but it has more heart than I first credited it with, and the season-long arc involving Sean and Beverly is both funny and touching, taking one marriage, at least, more seriously than you'd expect from a show with a running joke about the size of the star's penis.

Contact Ellen Gray at 215-854-5950 or graye@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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