The opening scenes of Political Animals are downright distracting. The politically adept wife of a popular two-term horndog of a president runs for the office herself, only to lose in the primaries to a rival and get offered the position of secretary of state.
But this is not the story of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and USA Network’s six-part miniseries Political Animals is not another Game Change. Instead, the fictional drama is about a political family that just happens to look a lot like the Clintons but is different enough to feel as though the viewer might be perhaps watching an alternate reality sci-fi show with political and familial intrigue.
Sigourney Weaver (in her first television role as a regular) plays a not-quite-Hillary by the name of Elaine Barrish Hammond. In the remarkably familiar first act of the premiere episode, she relives about 75 percent of Hillary Clinton’s experience in the 2008 primary. Despite the support of her blowhard Southern-fried husband, two-term President Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds, approaching Bill Clinton from somewhere south of Foghorn Leghorn), she loses to charismatic primary challenger Paul Garcetti (played by the always charismatic Adrian Pasdar), who then goes on to win the White House with the Hammonds’ grudging, clenched-teeth support.
There the similarities – as striking as they are – end. Poor Chelsea is nowhere to be seen. The Hammonds have twin adult sons. Somewhat bland do-gooder son Douglas Hammond (James Wolk) serves as Elaine’s chief of staff. Narrative law then requires the other twin to be a total screw-up. T.J. Hammond (Sebastian Stan, continuing to carve out an acting niche as the high-society wild child) is a drug-addicted basket case -- and also the first openly gay son of a president. The family is rounded out by Elaine’s mother, Margaret (Ellen Burstyn), who wanders through the first episode full of easy quips like the fifth Golden Girl.
Also a major difference: After losing the presidency, Elaine then dumps and divorces boorish Bud, leaving him to pursue younger women to his heart’s content.
Stirring up the actual plot is D.C. print journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino, drinking from the Lois Lane well). Susan earned a Pulitzer for exposing Bud’s indiscretions while in office, earning the Hammond family’s ire. As the family prepares to celebrate Doug’s engagement, Susan uses a family secret to muscle her way back into access for a week to pursue a story.
Greg Berlanti (Brothers and Sisters) is the creator of the miniseries and it bears his stamp as much as The Newsroom bears Aaron Sorkin’s. It’s more soapy than political, and by the end of the first episode it’s apparent there are no clear-cut “villains.” Elaine and Susan are set up as adversaries but not necessarily enemies. Brothers and Sisters viewers may see familiarity in the relationship between Sally Field’s and Patricia Wettig’s characters. But both Weaver and Gugino play their strong women with cool resolve in a crisis. The conflicts are blessedly free of some of the shrillness that marked the arguments of the more excitable ladies in Brothers and Sisters. The tone feels closer to The Good Wife, blending together the twin stories of powerful women as both workplace rulers and family protectors without tripping up on the “Can women have it all?” question. They just deal with it. There is a bit too much lampshading of the ownership of the “bitch” insult among the women. It becomes self-congratulatory pretend feminism and isn’t necessary. Showing unrepentantly powerful women is good. The next step is to stop talking about how unrepentantly powerful the women are. Let it stand on its own. There is also a bit of tiresome workplace cattiness at Susan’s newspaper (and typical new media ignorance).
As for the men, Wolk doesn’t have much to do in the first episode but establish Douglas as a competitive good guy idealist oblivious to his nonpolitical fiancée (played by Brittany Ishibashi) feeling stress over joining the powerful bickering family. As T.J., Stan stalks the house in palpable cocaine-fueled frustration, trying to gain his parents’ trust (and financial support).
The weak spot in the family dynamic -- and really the whole premiere -- is the cartoonish Bud Hammond. He’s not an interpretation of Bill Clinton but a parody. Hinds’ performance lacks the underlying mental sharpness that balanced Bill Clinton’s bombast. Part of the problem is certainly the writing. The show plays up the Hammond family’s dislike of Garcetti, but apparently lacked the courage to make the president black to avoid having to address any sort of race-related tension. So instead Bud frequently spits out a tirade of anti-Italian stereotypes and slang when talking about Garcetti behind the scenes, sounding absurdly old-fashioned. At one point he actually calls Garcetti a “dago.” By the time the show tries to give Bud actual layers, it’s too late. It’s hard to believe that he was as popular as the show wants us to believe. It’s hard to believe younger women are drawn to him. It’s hard to believe he ever commanded much respect. As he gets involved in an international crisis Elaine is managing, perhaps they’ll show this other side of the man, but the first episode fails in this regard.
The plot for the first episode is also fairly predictable. It is easy to guess the family’s secret that Susan is using to get access. It’s also easy to predict how and when the secret will be revealed. One secret introduced to the viewer partway through the episode is likely to make eyes roll. Ultimately Political Animals is not much different from the well-worn family drama. It just happens that the workplace component of the show involves political campaigns and international crises instead of office politics.
Political Animals premieres on USA Sunday, June 15 at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. central).
Scott Shackford is an associate editor of 24/7 News at Reason.com.