July 21, 2012

TV: Political Animals (USA, Sun 10)

Once upon a time, we would have called USA's Political Animals a miniseries, but that word has fallen out of favor, so now it's a "limited series event." And if the first episode is any guide, we're in for a delightfully trashy six-week fantasia on Hilary Clinton.

Oh, they're calling her Elaine Barish (played by Sigourney Weaver), but look at the fictional resume -- former First Lady whose husband was wildly popular despite his sex scandals, who now serves as Secretary of State in the administration of the man who defeated her in her own bid for the presidency -- and it's impossible not to see Hilary.

There are a few cosmetic differences. Elaine Barish divorced President Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds) after losing the nomination, and they have two sons instead of a daughter. The good son, Douglas (James Wolk), works as his mother's chief of staff; the troubled son, T.J. (Sebastian Stan), grew up as the first openly gay kid in the White House, and now struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.

The cast also includes Adrian Pasdar as the new president; Ellen Burstyn, hamming it up in style as Elaine's boozy mother; and Carla Gugino as a political reporter who has a long history of being sharply critical of Elaine. (The scenes between Gugino and Weaver are the best parts of the show; TV rarely gives us two ambitious women talking about their careers and the price they pay for them. "Never call a bitch a bitch," Weaver advises. "Us bitches hate that.")

The show's created by Greg Berlanti, who brought you Brothers and Sisters, and there are similar elements of the family soap here. Douglas is engaged to marry a pretty young woman with an eating disorder; Bud's dating a sexy TV star; T.J. wants his parents to invest in his nightclub (because where better for a guy with booze and drug problems to work than in a nightclub?).

And some of that carries over to the political family, as well. We get the sense that the vice president (Dylan Baker) is none too bright; Elaine doesn't get along well with the president's chief of staff (Roger Bart).

But this isn't meant to be a serious look at the workings of the American political system; it's meant to be wildly goofy soap opera, and as such, it's great fun. The cast is uniformly top notch (with the mild caveat that Hinds never does quite get a grip on a consistent Southern accent), and there are enough plot twists at the end of the episode to bring me back for the full six weeks.

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