Monday, August 27, 2012

Political Animals [television review]

Premiered in July on the USA Network in America and Bravo in Canada
Farewell, Political Animals, we barely knew ye. The USA Network production was billed as a "limited series event" - a fancy term for "miniseries" - and ended too soon last Sunday night, after six episodes totalling a little under five hours (excluding commercials). To call the series a "soaped up West Wing" would do it a disservice, but that description does point you in the right direction of Political Animals' general theme, which focusses on the central character of U.S. Secretary of State Elaine Barrish (played by Sigourney Weaver) and the damaging effects of high profile politics on her family.
Weaver's character isn't exactly a thinly veiled version of Hillary Rodham Clinton - there's no veil in place here. Elaine Barrish is a brazenly rendered Clinton facsimile, with her hard-assed Secretary of State also working for a President she lost to in the Democratic primaries. Like Clinton, she's also a former Governor and First Lady who put a promising law career on hold to have a family and support the political career of her brilliant and highly charismatic husband, a scandal-prone philanderer who hails from the South (ex-president Bud Holt, played by Ciarán Hinds). That she stayed with her cheating hubby for so long has also made Barrish a villain to feminists. Any of this sounding familiar? The writers do offer up at least one notable difference - Barrish finally reaches the end of her rope with Bud's infidelities and ends up divorcing him at the beginning of the series.
The rest of Barrish's family includes Douglas, her son (played by James Wolk), who works as her Chief of Staff, Elaine Burstyn popping in from time to time in a throwaway role as Barrish's boozy mother never reluctant to impart her wise sage advice, and T.J., Douglas' twin brother (played by Sebastian Stan). Even considering Bud's very public embarrassments, T.J. is the black sheep screwup of the family, mostly due to his drug addiction. Rounding out the rest of the characters of note are Carla Gugino as a reporter who makes the unlikely turn from staunch Barrish critic to an intimate ally, Adrian Pasdar as a solidly portrayed Commander in Chief, Dylan Baker as his Vice President, and Brittany Ishibashi as Douglas' fiancée, who is saddled with a minor sub-plot involving bulimia that's a complete head-scratcher as to why it wasn't purged in the editing room.
T.J.'s storylines are by far the show's weakest link, with separate sub-plots about his suicide attempts, involvement in a nightclub, and a gay affair with a prominent politician only serving to dilute Political Animals' overall quality level and weigh it down with a much less interesting soap opera-ish tone. Numerous significant story elements strain credulity - a son working for a mother in such a high position of power seems fairly improbable, as is the alliance between Gugino's and Weaver's characters, although their uneasy pairing makes for a highly engaging dynamic. Other overly-dramatic occurrences, such as some farfetched fisticuffs between a couple of hugely powerful men and a drastic, too-convenient plot twist halfway through the last episode also undermine the show's virtues.
Political Animals may have plenty of flaws and unlikable aspects (including a weird blue lens flare effect they use during flashback sequences that's pretty annoying), but when it's focussed and steering clear of the melodrama, it's quite outstanding. Weaver is magnificent as a woman balancing the demands of a punishingly difficult job with her future career aspirations and the needs of her family, portraying her character with a captivating blend of politically battle tested rigidity and vulnerable maternalism. Gugino is excellent in a meaty role that always keeps you guessing and Hinds is a revelation as the Bill Clinton-like character, delivering a flawless Southern accent (he's actually Irish) and providing some fantastic fireworks with Weaver as their characters' love/hate relationship shows off the series' consistently sharp dialogue. Ratings for the series were apparently softer than expected, but there appears to be an outside possibility that the USA Network would further extend the Barrish family saga. I'm decidedly in the camp of viewers asking for more, please.
I tried to incorporate it somewhere into the above paragraphs and couldn't, but I just had to mention the great name of one of the show's producers - "Speed Weed".
Rating: B

2 comments:

  1. I love Sigourney Weaver and absolutely loved this show. Your "there's no veil in place here" line is spot on. I was amazed at how much they took from Hillary's life. Hoping to see more!

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  2. I think you were a little kind on the show for its plausability issues. Many moments had me rolling my eyes.

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