August 5, 2012
I believe in a Vice President of Programming up there in the sky, a great arbiter of cultural karma, an all-powerful being who, with infinite wisdom, decreed that for every The Newsroom there shall be a Political Animals. Both are interested in the warp and weft of public life, and both breezily revise history in the service of narrative. But the writers of Political Animals actually seem to like women, and have a particular and genuine interest in the way that they are treated in the media. And while The Newsroom wants to give us a civics lesson, Political Animals just wants a fun watch. Fun, it turns out, is the perfect panacea to The Newsroom’s lofty polemics.
If you want to be everything that The Newsroom isn’t, it helps to call the USA Network home. Let AMC and Showtime fight over marginally thicker slivers of HBO’s prestige pie. USA keeps to itself, unconcernedly serving up comfort food like Psych and Suits. Their shows go down easy—nothing too gritty or grim, definitely nothing dour. It’s pleasantly fizzy, and never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously.
Political Animals tells the story of Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver), a Secretary of State serving under the man to whom she’d lost her party’s primary two years ago, the charismatic President Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pastor). She also happens to have been the First Lady to a beloved Washington philanderer, former president Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds). We’ve heard this one before, but Elaine’s story diverges from its source material in a few key places. She has two sons: Douglas (James Wolk), a rising star who works with her at State, and T.J. (Sebastian Stan), his troubled, openly gay twin. And the night she concedes the Democratic nomination, she begins divorce proceedings against her husband.
The pilot follows Elaine as she conducts a series of interviews with the Maureen Dowd figure with whom she’s had a long-standing feud, Susan Berg (Carla Gugino). Susan, who had launched her career by covering the deterioration of the Hammond marriage, further burned her bridges by penning scathing criticisms of Elaine’s alleged betrayal of feminism. But now the writer has leveraged herself into an exclusive with the Secretary of State by threatening to leak a damaging family secret about T.J.
If this sounds more like a soap than a political drama, that’s because it is. All of the Hammonds are improbably hot, with the possible exception of the cartoonishly venal Bud. A hostage crisis with Iran plays out largely in the background of the various family feuds, and is used mostly as a means of provoking confrontation between Elaine and her ex.
Many reviewers have complained about this silliness. Some had come to expect a richly complex portrait of the former First Family, an adaptation of the widely admired Clinton novelization, Primary Colors. Instead they got “primary Crayolas —brightly colored but not for making serious art,” snipes Linda Stasi of the New York Post. It’s true that anyone thirsting for a penetrating, plausible account of the Clinton saga won’t find it here. Political Animals only glances at the ways in which love and political expedience are intertwined for its central couple: the confrontation of this issue ends in an angry, tearful “It’s over, Bud!” But that sort of criticism refuses to consider the show on its own terms, as a melodrama about the effects of ambition on family life. This one just happens to appropriate the Hillary trope : the extraordinary woman who inexplicably “stands by her man”; the female politician who finds herself criticized for the qualities of ambition and toughness which would be praised in her male counterparts. “There’s a tsunami of bullshit that comes with being in my family,” Douglas Hammond explains to his fiancée, Anne. Yes, and don’t we love it.
The series’ brand of feminism is also stunningly simplistic, caught up in a good-natured, uncomplicated, “You go, girl!” spirit. A good part of Elaine and Susan’s empowerment seems derived from the slut-shaming of other women, particularly those who have taken their men—whether it’s an ex’s new TV star girlfriend (who is apparently a Sofia Vergara analog) or a cupcake-baking blogger. Yet every time one of the women delivers some door-slam of a one-liner (“I’m curious, what is it like launching your career by stepping on the throat of someone else’s marriage?”; “[Love is] not supposed to be easy, you asshole!”), you want to cheer. After he cops a feel behind the podium, Elaine threatens to serve the Russian ambassador’s balls to him in borscht. But there are subtler moments, too. At the beginning of the episode, Elaine and Susan are separately pressured by those around them to wear something nice to dinner, though both insist that they’re too busy and have no one to impress. Of course they cave—they must—and when Elaine comments, “You’ve changed,” the two exchange a wry look.
The show’s almost overwhelmingly positive version of Hillary plays into this. Characters wax rhapsodic about her: from true-to-life facts (how she was the first Wellesley student ever elected by her class to deliver a commencement address) to giddy speculation (how she would make a fabulous Supreme Court Justice). More problematic is the show’s insistence on Elaine’s hotness—suffice it to say that her ex-husband and the Russians are not the only ones who remark on it—which manages to eat up precious airtime with vacuous subplots about dates with roguish foreign diplomats. The show does its leading lady the favor of not attributing her power or even her charisma to her looks, but the constant reminders of her “foxiness” grate, on multiple levels.
Yet despite its all but self-professed frivolity, Political Animals can be a surprisingly classy act. One particularly striking scene skewers the liberal media’s tendency towards unearned self-congratulation. In the opening minutes of the episode, a news commentator jovially remarks of T.J., “Everyone kept waiting for his homosexuality to be an issue…but nope, it never was,” as if at once relieved and disappointed by the public’s tolerance. That glib and seemingly trivial soundbyte gets blown upon when Elaine rips into Susan for using her knowledge of T.J.’s problems as blackmail. “You will never know the vitriol, the evil he suffered when he came out against his will as a boy in the White House,” she seethes. Even the moments which border on primetime exploitation, like the reveal of Anne’s bulimia, are executed with genuine sympathy. These elements manage to work not because of sensitive or even particularly intelligent writing, but because of rock-solid acting and direction. Sigourney Weaver’s performance is particularly multilayered, as she tosses off even the most clichéd lines with toughness and just the right amount of zing. Her role—which is to make the Hillary Clinton stand-in not merely likeable and compelling, but believable—isn’t an easy one. In a Hollywood that skews ever younger, the fact that Weaver, at 62, can helm a show with such panache, is remarkable in itself.
While Political Animals is undeniably a USA show in tone, it stands apart from the network’s other programming because it focuses on women. USA has cornered the market on the lighthearted procedural of moderate intelligence, and that means heavy reliance on the human relationship which, to them, has the best banter-to-angst ratio: the heterosexual male friendship. The vast majority of their shows feature some dynamic duo energized by the hustle and flow of their professions. Psych, Burn Notice, Royal Pains, White Collar, and most recently, Suits, all played on some variation of this; Common Law even had a pair of policemen attend marriage counseling. Bromance is the network’s bread and butter.
That it comes out of such a boys’ club makes Political Animals seem that much bolder. As set out by the pilot, the show’s central pairing is not the Hammond marriage so much as the relationship between Elaine and Susan. From cold war to détente, the women circle each other warily, describing one another as “bitch with a capital C” and “a piece of work” with undisguised admiration. After a good hour in which we’ve watched their personal and working lives fall apart in parallel, they meet in the middle of the night to work out a deal. What they forge is not so much a friendship as an alliance, and a temporary one at that, promising plenty of drama later. This is not to say that this vision of gender dynamics is not without its flaws. But for those final ten minutes, two high-powered women come to an understanding, each recognizing herself in the other. The show earnestly attempts a feminist narrative in the USA style: an unlikely pair teams up because of professional necessity, but nevertheless share a deeper connection, even if they don’t say it aloud.
Political Animals is not just an anti-Newsroom, or a counterweight to that show’s self-satisfied chauvinism. It’s also an alternative to the weighty exploration of gender dynamics so often lauded in vehicles like Mad Men: Political Animals is decidedly non-serious. Yet it says something that this kind of show can take for granted that having a woman in charge is awesome. Its starry-eyed idolization of the Hillary Clinton figure is a refreshingly uncynical celebration of women’s empowerment, and the feminist project of women’s professional success. This mix of mainstream entertainment and mainstream feminism may not be to your taste, or even mine. But the fact that feminism can be an ingredient of comfort food feels like a certain kind of progress.
Sophia Nguyen is a junior at Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.