By Jo Piazza / current.com / @jopiazza
Make no mistake, “Political Animals” is about politics the way “Dallas” is about a city in Texas. Political life simply provides a convenient backdrop for sex, scandal, lies and, frankly, even more sex.
That doesn’t mean the new USA limited series isn’t an enjoyable romp. The trope of creating a bizarro version of real-life politics based loosely on the career of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will likely serve to recruit viewers, but they’ll stay for the more “Dallas”-like aspects of the show.
The series centers on former first lady Elaine Barrish, played by Sigourney Weaver, who ran for president, but lost in the Democratic primary because of her unlikability and her cold demeanor (one journalist explains that the voters simply didn’t want to sleep with her).
Unlike the real Secretary of State, Barrish divorces her philandering husband before taking her position in the new administration of young, handsome hope-and-change candidate Paul Garcetti. Her move into the Cabinet serves to make Barrish more palatable to the American public, so much so that we expect to see a meme of “Texts from Elaine Barrish” pop up halfway through the program.
None of the animals on the show are given any sort of sugar coating. Carla Gugino’s Pulitzer Prize”winning journalist for the fictional broadsheet The Washington Globe uses her knowledge that the Secretary of State’s gay son tried to kill himself as leverage to land a high-profile, exclusive interview with Barrish.
Barrish herself is able to obtain a high-level meeting with foreign dignitaries because a Russian diplomat thinks she has “balls” and a “great ass.” The sitting president, played by “Heroes” star Adrian Pasdar, laments beating Barrish to serve a disinterested American public.
“I go on TV to communicate a vision and America collectively turns me off to watch drunk housewives and singing competitions,” he says.
Lines like these may seem trite, but they delight because of the possibility they could be uttered by very real politicians currently occupying the hallowed halls of Washington.
This is a show about women, and Gugino’s and Weaver’s characters both have a woman problem. They’re both fourth-wave feminists and self-described bitches who are consistently disappointed by the men in their lives. Weaver delivers a somewhat forced soliloquy at the end of the pilot episode explaining her admiration for elephants, despite being a card-carrying member of the donkey party. Elephants, she explains, are a matriarchal society. “When the males reach their mating age, the females kick them the hell out of the herd,” she says.
The audience is never allowed to forget that Weaver and Gugino are ladies in a man’s world. Their clothing is constantly criticized by their colleagues and their families, and both are made to feel sexually inferior to a younger and thinner version of themselves – Weaver to her ex-husband’s spicy Latina television star girlfriend and Gugino to the office gossip blogger who is partial to wearing mini dresses to work.
“She is the journalistic equivalent of a weather girl,” Gugino says.
The battle between the blogger and the “real journo” feels a little 2008. But the fact that the blog ends up scooping the print version of the paper on Gugino’s story about Barrish’s son is spot on, and Gugino constantly serves to remind the audience that traditional journalism is going the way of the dodo.
The third strong woman rounding out the series is Barrish’s over-the-top mother, played by Ellen Burstyn. Much like the writers of “Downton Abbey” reserve the best dialogue for the family matriarch, Maggie Smith’s dowager countess, the writers of “Political Animals” give the sassiest zingers toBurstyn.
Watch Ellen Burstyn talk on “The War Room” about “Political Animals” and Mitt Romney.
“If I had a rack like hers, I might still be getting laid,” Burstyn says about her former son-in-law’s new girlfriend. She tells Gugino, “They never let me talk on the record anyway. I’m either too drunk or too honest.”
Everyone on this show gets a little drunk, and everyone is screwing everyone else, both figuratively and literally. Barrish is still sleeping with her sweet-talking Southern ex-husband, who is toying with her to try to get back in the political game. Gugino is sleeping with her editor, who is also sleeping with the hyper-sexed gossip blogger (who in reality would never sleep with the nerdy bespectacled editor). Barrish’s formerly suicidal son is sleeping with just about anyone he can meet via anonymous gay dating sites. It’s a lot of sex. Even for cable.
“Political Animals” doesn’t have the gravitas of “The West Wing,” but it doesn’t need it. The show is a guilty pleasure that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is why it will do well going up against the Aaron Sorkin HBO drama “Newsroom” in the same time slot on Sunday evenings. It has none of the self-importance of the competition. You will tune into “Political Animals” precisely because it isn’t taking itself too seriously.
(Photo from USA Networks)