One thing is for sure, Greg Berlanti really likes Hilary Clinton. His new USA series Political Animals is a barely fictional mash note to the former first lady and current Secretary of State. And no coincidence, but that’s the exact same resume as the lead character in Animals.
Sigourney Weaver plays Madame Secretary Elaine Barrish. Her ex-husband is a philandering yet beloved former president. She narrowly lost her recent presidential primary bid to a charismatic “Italian American” former one-term Senator, and now she spends her time traveling the globe in smart pantsuits representing U.S. interests.
The only real life player missing is Chelsea Clinton, but here Berlanti and his creative team have replaced her with two sons, one gay and troubled, the other politically ambitious, straight, and soon to be wed.
It’s a pretty good setup for a TV drama – in fact it’s very much like Berlanti’s former work on Brothers & Sisters – only by adding serious political intrigue to the intra-family squabbles he’s raised the stakes considerably. And that’s a good thing.
Weaver is, unsurprisingly, great in her first TV series role, and even though her Elaine is clearly supposed to be a fictional version of Hilary, she manages to avoid outright impersonation. But one minor quibble, in the pilot the character comes across as a little too saintly. She’s all about being of service to her country, too tearful and guilt-wracked about the hard road her youngest son had as “the first openly gay child in the White House.” That doesn’t quite match up with the frankly more interesting character that the teasers for the show have hinted at. Did you see the Political Animals clip where Weaver’s character is interviewed about her ambitions? “Eleanor Roosevelt, Cleopatra, Elizabeth the First – now that’s the company I want to keep.”
Yes, more of that please! A dash of grandiose solipsism is something that Weaver the actress could make hay with, but it wasn’t much on display in the pilot. Remember the part Weaver played so memorably in 1988′s Working Girl? I wanted Political Animals‘ Elaine Barrish to be a glorious older version of that woman. Imagine the fun Weaver could have with it. Maybe it will come in later episodes?
As for the rest of the cast, Sebastian Stan is quite good as the gay black sheep of the family. It’s clear from the pilot his status as the openly gay son of a political dynasty is going to be explored in depth, although his substance abuse problems are kind of a drag and play out a little too on the nose. Parents refuse to invest in your hair-brain nightclub business plan? Go get drunk and have a joyless, drug-fueled Grindr booty call!
Still, Stan really sells the desperation and fragility of the character, but here’s hoping Animals doesn’t dwell too long on his chemical dependency issues. Let’s try to put a little fun back into being gay, shall we?
As the older son, James Wolk makes a good impression too, but on the basis of the pilot it’s hard to tell where his storyline is going. You barely meet his picture-perfect Asian American fiancée Anne (played by actress Brittany Ishibashi), but an after-dinner bathroom scene delivers a interesting curveball.
The silvery vision that is Ellen Burstyn plays Elaine’s boozy and cantankerous mother. She didn’t have much to do in the pilot, but Burstyn describes her character as “the family truth-teller.” Down the road you can imagine some great scenes both with Weaver and with Sebastian Stan. Irish actor Ciarán Hinds takes on the Bill Clinton character, Bud Hammond. The characterization might rely a bit too much on the good old boy Southern drawl. Still, his scenes with Weaver are the highlights of the pilot. These two actors have some chemistry.
The show’s weakest link might be Carla Gugino‘s character, Susan Berg. This is no knock on Gugino, it’s just that as written her journalist character — and her whole setup as Elaine Barrish’s main antagonist then potential ally — seems sort of preposterous.
Still, this is only the pilot and there’s lots of room for the limited series to improve over it’s six-episode run. The big question, what is Hilary Clinton going to make of Political Animals? Will it help encourage her to run for Pres. in 2016? Will she even have time to watch?
Political Animals premieres Sunday, July 15th at 10/9c on the USA Network.