First Impressions – Political Animals: Pilot


Wow, USA is having a really good summer season this year compared to last year.  I’ve been a little behind on my American TV but I’ve noticed that a lot of my DVR is dominated by USA shows at the moment.  This show is a limited engagement miniseries and lead by an all-star cast.

Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver) loses the Democratic primary election and then divorces her womanizing, cheating husband, Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds), who was a very popular President in 90’s despite his scandals.

Two years later, she is currently serving as the Secretary of State to the current President, Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar), and juggling her work life with her personal life.  In the midst of everything, Elaine develops an unlikely friendship with Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), a reporter who finds her way back into the political news circle after threatening to do an exposé on Elaine and her family.

I didn’t watch Game Change on HBO because I felt that they left out some of the most exciting parts of the book.  You’d think Palin was the most interesting part coming out of that tumultuous election year but actually she was covered so thoroughly by the news that the book didn’t add much more to what we already knew.  Truthfully, I found the Edwards scandal to be intriguing.  The way the media paints Elizabeth isn’t the whole story and the way some of the insiders described her changed my view of John.  In some ways, Political Animals’ fictional version delivers some of what Game Change didn’t.

It’s hard not to make comparisons of Weaver’s character to Hillary Clinton.  She is a presidential candidate who lost in the primaries, then becomes the Secretary of State to the person she lost to and her husband is a big-time womanizer.  Unlike Hillary, Elaine opts to divorce her husband.  Barrish seems to be made up of a mix of infamous characters across the politi-scape and her world is this soapy version of the powerful woman in politics.

Which brings me to a beautiful scene played out by Weaver and Gugino.  Susan is allowed to tail Elaine in order to understand what her day to day life is like.  In the beginning, they’re coolly detached from one another because of how they perceived one another.  However they realize that they have more in common than they originally thought.  Susan had written a book about feminism titled, When Bitches Rule, as a way to reclaim the word.  Elaine jokingly responds, ‘It may have impacted your sales.  After all, never call a bitch a bitch.  Us bitches hate that.’

It’s interesting how society views a powerful career woman.  You have to appear as if you have it all.  The personal and work life all have to be in perfect unison to the outside viewer.  Both of these two characters are striving for that in spite of the reality of their situations.  Women are so good at pretending to other women that they have it all under control and yet are often surprised when they find out that the other person is in exactly the same situation. It’s easy to criticize someone that you’re jealous of.

Though Elaine has divorced her husband, he is always within the vicinity of her world.  They have professional understanding of one another even though their marriage didn’t work out.  Though, they may veer past professionalism at times.

Unfortunately, Bud’s southern drawl, womanizing ways and the need to always have his say in long, drawn out speeches makes him more of a caricature rather than a well-rounded character.  Though Bill Clinton was tabloid fodder during Hillary’s campaign and during his various scandals, I just don’t see much of Bill in Bud Hammond.  Sure, on paper it sounds the same but that’s where the similarities end.

To add to Elaine’s drama, she has grown twin sons.  Douglas Hammond (James Wolk) is Elaine’s Chief of Staff and about to get married while T.J. (Sebastian Stan) is gay, came out while his father was in office and is currently dealing with a drug problem.  In them, you’ve got the good son, bad son dynamic.  It’s effective but we’ve all seen this before.

Douglas often helps his parents clean up T.J.’s messes but he doesn’t seem to be aware of the problem right under his nose.  His fiancée, Anne (Brittany Ishibashi), is bulimic and caving under the pressures of being in a political family.  I’m less interested in the bulimia and more interested in the fact that Anne is a 2nd generation, Asian American who doesn’t speak dual languages.  She identifies herself as an American but feels that other people expect her and her parents to know Japanese because of their heritage.  I understand where she’s coming from.  She’s neither here nor there.  Unfortunately, the 6 episode miniseries is nowhere near enough time to explore this aspect of her character.

To an already impressive cast, there’s an equally impressive list of supporting cast.  There’s Adrian Pasdar as President Paul Garcetti.  He’s not really the Obama equivalent though he’s a bit a boy scout.  It’s still early to tell how his character is going to play out.  Dylan Baker is the two-faced, Vice President Fred Collier.  Roger Bart plays the smarmy Barry Harris, who was once Elaine’s campaign manager before becoming President Garcetti’s Chief of Staff.

Ellen Burstyn is Elaine’s boozy mother, Margaret, but you could take her straight out of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  Dan Futterman is the newspaper’s editor and Susan’s boyfriend, Alex Davies.

As for the storyline, it’s a bit soapy for my taste.  It’s not like this stuff can’t happen in the real world but to have it all happen to our main character is a bit much.  The show does pull from the headlines as Elaine must deal with three American journalists who have been taken hostage in Iran under the suspicion that they are spies.  She suggests that her ex-husband go abroad to negotiate their release.

At the same time, she deals with the fallout after a story about T.J. trying to commit suicide goes public and she and Douglas worry about him spiraling back into drugs.

I like that the show tries to tackle all these political stories whether it’s about the personal life or the public life but it feels as if they’re cramming too much in a very short span of time.  Therefore, it comes off as being mawkish rather than a statement on our current state of politics.  However, for what the show is they do make it look entertaining.



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