POLITICAL ANIMALS: Sunday 10PM on USA
A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and the production of episodes for the regular season: a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads. The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting, and even story. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.’
Previously… on POLITICAL ANIMALS: The Hammond family–they’re not the Clintons, shut up!–features Bud (Ciaran Hinds), a politically brilliant, compulsively womanizing Southern ex-president, and his ex-wife Elaine (Sigourney Weaver), who ran for President herself after his term was over, lost, and became Secretary of State. So no Clintons there, uh uh. Unlike their real-life models, the Hammonds have twin sons: the responsible Douglas (James Wolk), who serves as his mother’s Chief of Staff, and his gay coke-addicted brother TJ (Sebastian Stan), who wants to open a club. Elaine also has a boozy ex-showgirl mother, Margaret (Ellen Burstyn). In the Hammonds’ orbit is current President Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar), his VP (Dylan Baker) and Chief of Staff (Roger Bart), as well as Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), a reporter who was loathed by Elaine for revealing Bud’s infidelities while he was in office, but who’s becoming sort of a pal. During the course of the pilot, 3 innocent Americans were arrested in Iran and falsely charged with being spies, and Elaine had the idea of sending Bud to negotiate for their freedom. (Any similarity between ex-President Clinton’s mission to negotiate on behalf of hostages? Purely coincidental.) Oh, and during the course of the episode, Elaine slept with Bud for the first time since their divorce, and she decided to run for President again, challenging her own boss to deprive him of what would be his 2d term.
Episode 2: The main action in the second episode, written by series creator Greg Berlanti and Consulting Producer Molly Newman, and directed by Bethany Rooney, was still concerned with the Iranian mission. Elaine had to convince the President to send Bud, and then deal with his weaselly Veep leaking the news; when a spooked Oman, the original location for the talks, bailed, she had to flirt with the Turkish ambassador (interrupting him at–what else?–a Turkish bath) to convince him to let the talks take place there. Once in Turkey (where for his own whimsical reasons Bud brought Susan to the negotiations as a “special envoy” to the President), Bud masterfully talked the dying Iranian leader into letting the hostages go. We also got flashbacks to the show’s version of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as Elaine found out then-President Bud was having an affair with one of her aides. Back in the present, TJ considered stealing the money for his prospective club from grandma, but returned the check, and Douglas gave him the money instead. Douglas, meanwhile, was much less than thrilled to find out about Mom’s presidential campaign plans (particularly since he’d guessed that it meant Elaine still wasn’t over Bud, despite all that he’d done to the family), and in the episode’s closing moments he leaked the news to Susan in hopes of blowing the plan up.
Political Animals is moderately fun to watch, but it suffers from being neither fish nor fowl. The show certainly has nothing serious to say about contemporary politics (Aaron Sorkin would weep if he ever watched it), but so far, at least, it’s so tied in to its current-affairs roots that it doesn’t really have a soapy life of its own. In this it’s unlike The Good Wife, which took off from the NY gubernatorial sex scandal, but instantly established its own dramatic identity. There are other problems as well. Ciaran Hinds, a fine actor when he’s on his own (British) territory, was the wrong choice to play fake-Clinton, and since Elaine’s inability to shake her attraction to Bud is one of the foundations of the show, that makes for a crucial weakness–we simply don’t believe that Sigourney Weaver, of all people, would risk destroying herself for this hammy Grand Old Opry refugee. Neither of the show’s two sons are particularly compelling characters either. Since the story has no center, the enjoyable parts are the thin pieces at the edges: Weaver when she gets to be smart instead of deluded, Dylan Baker being mean and shifty, Ellen Burstyn doing her old trouper thing, and whenever Carla Gugino is around.
Animals wants to be earnest and cynical and knowing and soapy all at once, but the material simply isn’t strong enough to handle all that. Nor does it seem likely to get the kind of time that would be needed to figure out the balance: the premiere last week was shockingly low-rated for such a high-profile project, and while there were excuses for that–it’s in the toughest timeslot on TV for cable drama, it’s very different in genre from everything else on USA, and the network, for whatever reason, couldn’t find any better lead-in for the show than reruns of NCIS and SVU–it’s still an expensive series that’s too silly to get much prestige or Emmy recognition (except possibly for Weaver), and also isn’t drawing an audience. HBO can afford bets like this; USA probably can’t, and unless the ratings picked up tonight, the show is likely to leave office when its 6-episode term expires.
ORIGINAL VOTE: Potential DVR Alert
EPISODE 2: If Nothing Else Is On…