"Political Animals" starts strong, stalls fast

Sigourney Weaver is the losing presidential contender turned secretary of state: Not based on Hillary Clinton, she insists. DAVID GIESBRECHT?/?USA Network
Sigourney Weaver is the losing presidential contender turned secretary of state: Not based on Hillary Clinton, she insists. DAVID GIESBRECHT?/?USA Network
Posted: July 16, 2012

Political Animals, an ambitious six-part saga on USA, starts so strongly and has so much going for it that it's almost breathtaking how thoroughly it unravels.

The electrifying establishing scene in this limited series from executive producer Greg Berlanti (Everwood, Brothers & Sisters), takes place on the night that Gov. Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver) is conceding the presidential primary to the election's eventual winner (Adrian Pasdar).

She makes a generous and noble speech. Then as soon as the TV lights shut down, so do her smile and her charm. Barrish marches grimly back to a hotel suite, where, closeted with her inner circle, including her husband, the unctuously charming former President Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds), she begins making some cold, calculated decisions about her political future.

Bud begins blustering about how much influence he still wields in the party and the approval ratings he left office with when Barrish asks everyone to leave the room.

She proceeds to lay on Bud a scathing lecture that is part Realpolitik and part woman scorned.

At this point, you may find yourself somewhat in awe of Political Animals' potential. This could be as good an exploration of government at its highest levels as the British mini-series State of Play or the George Clooney film Ides of March.

Then the scene ends. A graphic reads: "Two years later." And it's as if you've changed channels. Same actors, but now they're engaged in an overwrought, at times silly, potboiler.

Barrish is now the internationally respected (and apparently internationally desired) secretary of state. The Russian ambassador lustily grabs her tush while she is at the lectern addressing reporters. And the Turkish ambassador agrees to a secret diplomatic overture only on the condition that she go out to dinner with him.

The philandering Bud, now her ex, has become something of a buffoon in the public's opinion. That fits in well with Hinds' Foghorn Leghorn Dixie jubilee approach to the character.

Barrish also has to deal with the Cain and Abel crises of her grown sons. T.J. (Sebastian Stan, the Mad Hatter on Once Upon a Time) is a self-destructive gay addict. Doug (James Wolk of Lone Star) is mom's chief of staff, days away from his wedding. (Hmm, wonder what he's hiding?)

As Barrish notes, "I must be the highest-ranking codependent in the country."

Oh, that's right. She has a job. Which results in her being in the Oval Office so POTUS can earnestly tell her, "The goal is a nuclear treaty with Iran. This isn't how I wanted to get it. I tried to stop it. I tried to, but I'm going to take it. You go focus on your son's party. There's nothing more you can do here."

As if that's not enough (and believe me, it is), Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), a resourceful reporter for the Washington Globe, is sniffing around Barrish's family again.

Berg is a serious journalist. We know this because she disparages the paper's gossipy blogger and because she has a Pulitzer (for her series on Bud's indiscretions while in the White House).

But she's a pretty odd standard-bearer for journalistic ethics. Berg extorts access to Barrish by threatening to reveal a tragic incident from T.J.'s past.

Put aside the sleaziness of that ploy, you try blackmailing a member of the president's cabinet and see how long you have a newspaper job.

During the shooting of Political Animals, Weaver and the producers repeatedly insisted that the Barrish character was not based on Hillary Clinton. But from the opening seconds, when a fake TV news anchor identifies her as a "feminist liberal icon," the plot and the script draw inescapable parallels.

Weaver is excellent when the material allows her to be. But large swaths of dialogue seem contrived for a writer of Berlanti's credentials.

That leaves the more ostentatious performances to carry the series, namely Hinds as the consummate but carnal politician and Ellen Burstyn as Barrish's saucy mother, a former Vegas chorus girl.

Political Animals is the type of TV story that tries to keep you interested with regular jolts of characters speaking with shocking candor or of loud, lusty sex.

It would have been better served by focusing on the first word in its title, not the second.

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.

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