Picture a slightly icy First Lady who becomes Secretary of State after her philandering husband ends his second term as America’s wildly popular Commander in Chief.
OK, now stop picturing Hilary Clinton, because I’m not talking about her; I’m talking about fictional Elaine Barrish Hammond, played by Sigourney Weaver on the six-episode, limited-run drama Political Animals, premiering in Canada this Sunday on Bravo.
Don’t for a second think this is some kind of thinly veiled docudrama about the Clintons, however, because after those basic similarities the story veers off in ways that are both crazy unexpected and entirely predictable.
When we first see Elaine, she’s delivering her concession speech after losing her presidential bid to charismatic Senator Paul Garcetti (Heroes’ Adrian Pasdar), who has quashed her dream of being America’s first female president.
Fast-forward a few months, and she has divorced her cheating husband (Ciarán Hinds), is serving as Garcetti’s Secretary of State and is now, ironically enough, far more popular with voters than the new president.
Meanwhile, newly divorced ex-president Bud Hammond — who left office with an 84-per-cent approval rating — has become a pathetic laughingstock who’s ridiculed for dating a vacuous young TV actress (“she’s on that show where the doctors bang each other”) who’s best known for the million-dollar insurance policy the network holds on her volleyball-sized breasts.
As the world’s top diplomat, Elaine has the kind of job that requires her to fly to Iran at a moment’s notice to negotiate the release of American hostages, yet her personal life is even more trying — one of her twin sons (Sebastian Stan) is a gay drug addict with at least one failed suicide attempt under his belt, while the other (James Wolk) is her Chief of Staff and key adviser, but don’t assume mother and son always see eye to eye. To cap things off, Elaine’s mother (Oscar-winner Ellen Bustyn) is a loose-cannon drunk who is a constant embarrassment for being “too drunk or too honest — or, God forbid, both,” prone to tell reporters things like, “The country didn’t elect her because they don’t want to sleep with her.”
Elaine’s popularity may be soaring, but persistent newspaper reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) is hell-bent on making sure it doesn’t last. Having already won a Pulitzer for exposing Bud’s various extramarital affairs during his presidency, Berg has her sights set on taking Elaine down, although her motives seem somewhat murky.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, that’s because there is — and I haven’t even mentioned the ineffectual vice-president (Dylan Baker), the smarmy White House Chief of Staff (Roger Bart) or Berg’s sleazy newspaper-editor boyfriend (Dan Futterman).
Co-created by Greg Berlanti, Political Animals seems to want to blend political intrigue, family drama and Desperate Housewives-style soapiness into one show; although each of these elements has its moment in the sun, they don’t combine all that well, and the result is something of an inconsistent mishmash that goes in several different directions at once.
Still, there are some great soapy lines to savour: “Never call a bitch a bitch,” Barrish quips to Berg. “Us bitches hate that.” When Elaine asks Bud for a divorce, he incredulously blusters, “I’m the meat in this Big Mac!” “Someday, sir,” Elaine tells Garcetti after his presidential win, “it would be nice to be working for the man who beat me.”
What elevates Political Animals is its cast. Weaver delivers a performance suited to far more intelligent material, gifting her character’s self-described “bitch with a capital C” with a simmering subtlety. As her perpetually tipsy mother, Burstyn likewise gives an extraordinary amount of depth to what is essentially a one-note sitcom character.
Hinds, on the other hand, seems to have sized up the tone of the show perfectly, and plays Hammond as a crude-yet-charming blend of Bill Clinton, LBJ and Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard, a man fuelled almost entirely by ambition and lust yet possessing the ability to sweetly smile in your face while preparing to knife you in the back. It’s an-almost ridiculously over-the-the top performance that would descend into self-parody if it weren’t so damned entertaining to watch.
Some will criticize Political Animals for a lack of depth or political insight, or for its two-dimensional characters, juicy overripe dialogue and the fact that the characters seem to be having sex almost constantly. Personally, I tend to look at the show in the same way as a Jackie Collins paperback bought before boarding an airplane — a soapy, slightly sloppy slice of guilty-pleasure TV trash that is far more entertaining than it has the right to be.
POLITICAL ANIMALS premieres Sunday, July 15 on Bravo