Ambition and integrity: ‘Political Animals’ proves why its deserving of your attention (and a second season)
Since USA started promoting it earlier this summer, ‘Political Animals’ was described as a limited television event. In layman’s terms: it’s a miniseries with a clear beginning and ending and lasting only a short amount of time. And while the critical darling, which managed to pull in 2.3 million viewers this past Sunday for what the network advertised as its season finale, has not been picked up for any further episodes, I think USA would be insane not to extend the show beyond this initial run.
It’s not unheard of for a miniseries to be extended and transformed into a continuing television series. The most obvious of cases being the UK’s ‘Downton Abbey,’ which started out as a seven-part miniseries and is now heading in to its third season, and SyFy’s ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ which premiered as a four-part miniseries, ran for four seasons and ended up as one of the most praised dramas of the last decade.
From the beginning, ‘Political Animals’ was praised by critics, and though it wasn’t a ratings hit by any means, the story and the characters were engaging enough to pull in a healthy number of viewers and make them fully invested in the Hammond family drama and the political aspirations and idealism of Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver).
Surviving the post-West Wing world backlash
Producing an interesting and well planned out political drama is difficult. Not since ‘The West Wing’ has a political drama been as enticing as the story of the Hammonds. And for a long time no one even tried for fear that they’d never measure up.
Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece set the bar pretty high in terms of storytelling and acting. But Greg Berlanti, the creator of ‘Political Animals’ - as well as several other beloved series like ‘Everwood’ and ‘Jack and Bobby’ - figured out the perfect balance of politics and personal and the result is nothing short of exciting.
On paper, however, the show certainly doesn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary. There is a philandering husband, a boozy grandmother, twin sons who are either side of the spectrum – one a gay man with a drug problem and the other, the chief of staff for his mother – and a fiancee with an eating disorder. None of these characters stand out as groundbreaking, but the storytelling and the acting (among the show’s main cast are powerhouse actors Sigourney Weaver, Ellen Burstyn and Ciarán Hinds) raise the show to the next level.
But to say this show is simply a political drama is misleading. While Sorkin’s masterpiece had a clear liberal agenda and romanticized politics so much so that hundreds of children who grew up watching the drama went in to the field with idealistic (and unrealistic) goals, ‘Political Animals’ is rooted more soundly in reality.
And I’m not just saying that because of the far-less idealistic storylines. I’m saying it because the show is obviously loosely based on the life of Secretary of State and former First Lady, Hilary Rodham Clinton.
Real life inspiration
The Elaine Barrish character was married to a former president (Ciarán Hinds as Bud Hammond) from a southern state (in this case, North Carolina) who had difficulty keeping it in his pants. She later went on to be the governor of Illinois (to Clinton’s New York senator) and eventually ran for president herself, but lost in the primary to a younger man (Adrian Pasdar). She declined his offer to become his vice president and instead became Secretary of State.
But from there the similarities end. Barrish eventually divorces her husband because even though she still loves him, she realizes he’s not going to change and he’s never going to really support her in the way she needs and demands. And, of course, Clinton had only one daughter where Barrish had twin boys.
But even though the paths of the two women eventually diverge, both are deeply respected women of honor who fight for what they think is right. But to say that ‘Political Animals’ is strictly about the Hammond family and Elaine’s political aspirations is wrong. This show is as much about the fourth estate as much as it is about the government and the people who control it.
Susan Berg is a reporter played by Carla Gugino who works for the fictional Washington Globe. She won a Pulitzer in her 20s for uncovering Bud Hammond’s many affairs and has spent the last several years tearing Elaine Barrish down in her columns believing that she’s an accomplice to Bud’s indiscretions because she stood by him and had initially refused to leave him.
But over the course of the six episodes, Susan begins to know and understand Elaine in a way that makes her want to stop tearing her down for her own journalistic aspirations – sort of. She begins to see why Elaine has made the decisions and chosen the path that she has. They become confidants who don’t trust each other enough not to lie and deceive each other for their own personal gain, but who can meet as equal and necessary evils who need each other to survive. And the finale set it up perfectly for this unnatural alliance to continue.
While I do think the finale was a little contrived: the President’s plane going down and the weasel VP taking over seemed a little too easy, I think it would be a shame if Berlanti and USA didn’t continue the series. With the president missing (and totally dead, let’s be honest), it has cleared the way for Elaine to actually run for president (something more exciting than just talking about it), as his proposal to have her run as his VP instead of opposing him for the nomination, was made null and void with his death. There’s a lot more story to be told and I’m willing to bet we’ll see it next summer.