First Look: ‘Political Animals’

At its core, USA’s new series Political Animals is simply a tale of two bitches.

The miniseries–there will only be six episodes–takes us sideways into an alternate reality where Hillary Clinton dumped Bill after failing to get the Democratic presidential nomination and then subsequently became “America’s sweetheart.”

I know. It’s quite the parallel universe.

In this reality, Hillary is called Elaine Barrish (once Hammond), and she is played by a fierce Sigourney Weaver. She struts through the halls and down the streets of Washington in her “badass Chanel suits,” playing to men’s egos and then shutting them down. She is a bitch of the highest and classiest order, and the show is eager to remind you of that. It’s hard to count how many times these characters say “bitch” in the first two episodes. Whole conversations revolve around the word.

Political Animals makes it clear that Elaine is only a bitch because she has to be. She is surrounded–both personally and professionally–by men who reek of various weaknesses. Her sons are plagued by addiction and hotheaded entitlement. Her ex-husband Bud (Ciaran Hinds), our stand-in Bill, will screw anything that moves and has no problem with being a liar and a cheater. President Garcetti–for whom Elaine serves as Secretary of State–the Italian equivalent of Obama (Adrian Pasdar), made it into office on flash and empty words but lacks either the experience or the conviction to run the oval office the way he promised to. And don’t get Elaine started on the president’s incompetent staff, starting with the CP and following in a line that goes out the door. Poor Hillary Elaine. It’s a man’s world, and no number of fabulous pantsuits will turn her into one. If only some of these men were smart enough to do their jobs, she could probably be less of a bitch.

The other bitch in this tale is the journalist Susan Berg, played by the talented Carla Gugino. Susan got her start covering Bud’s infidelities in the 90s and even won a Pulitzer for one of her stories on the Political Animals Universe’s Monica Lewinsky. She also spent the 90s accusing Elaine of bringing about the death of feminism for not leaving her husband, a charge that doesn’t sit too well with Elaine. Now, over a decade later, Susan’s career has become disappointing. “No Pulitzer’s since,” Elaine points out with relish when Susan blackmails her into a feature piece using information about a suicide attempt by one of her son’s. Bitches galore. In fact, instead of “Political Animals,” maybe the show should have ripped its title from Susan’s little-read book, entitled “When Bitches Rule.”

There are several strengths to Political Animals that make it worth watching. Since we’re dealing with a miniseries, most of the actors that have signed on are recognizable and talented. While Weaver and Gugino are clearly the stars, their supporting cast definitely raises the caliber of the show, especially Sebastian Stan as Elaine’s coke-snorting son and Ellen Burstyn as her boozy southern mother. The one weakness in the cast lies with Hinds as Bud, unfortunately. It is impossible to buy him as a man elected twice and beloved by the country. He can’t get out a sentence without sounding like he’s working on some chewing tobacco, all the while his jowls quivering. His character might have the philandering down, but he’s missing the other essential qualities of Clinton that gave him a hold on this country.

Stan’s performance as TJ–the cocaine addict and first openly gay child of a president–is compelling to say the least. His character is believable and well-rounded, not a victim or villain. His story line, along with those of the two major bitches, will propel this show forward. It helps that both women, while strong and empowered, are allowed to have weaknesses. They are human and more importantly, they are women. They are not written as men.

Which is not to say that Political Animals doesn’t have its weaknesses. The dialogue goes for Sorkin but often awkwardly falls short in its monologues. A little fat could have been trimmed with the story line revolving around the good son’s Japanese-American fiance, Anne (Brittany Ishibashi), who has not only demanding parents, the most intimidating future mother-in-law ever, a fiance who can’t focus on their wedding for more than two seconds, BUT ALSO bulimia. Is it necessary? Do we care? No. There are more interesting things going on here.

The show is a little soapy, but that’s a good fit for USA. I can’t even watch any of the other shows on that network without rolling my eyes at that ridiculous amount of cheese that goes into them (I’m looking at you Burn Notice). This is definitely a step up for that network. It might even attract some Emmy attention (it’s playing in a safer, smaller category) if the next four episodes go well.

“Never call a bitch a bitch. Us bitches hate that,” both bitches say during the show.

It’s we, ladies. We bitches hate that. But I understand the dramatic effect.

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