TV review: Political Animals

From the July 12, 2012 edition

When it comes to scripted series, USA is best known for its lighthearted drama (“Psych,” “Royal Pains”) or mild action-adventure (“Burn Notice,” “White Collar”). The cable network has built a popular brand around these simplistic, yet entertaining offerings.

Some (myself included) expected USA’s latest project, “Political Animals,” to be a more in-depth, powerful drama. “Political Animals” doesn’t attempt anything that grand in the pilot, but it also lacks the easygoing charm of USA’s other series.

“Political Animals” stars Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish Hammond, a fictionalized version of Hillary Clinton who loses a tough presidential primary and accepts the secretary of state position in the new administration. While that sounds familiar, the story diverges from real life.

Elaine divorces her philandering, charismatic former president husband Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds) immediately after losing the primary. They have two sons, all-American wonder boy Douglas (James Wolk) and unstable homosexual T.J. (Sebastian Stan), instead of a daughter. Oh, and the president isn’t a Barack Obama or George W. parallel — he’s a conniving jerk named Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar).

The crux of the pilot revolves around journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) blackmailing Elaine with T.J.’s secret scandal — annoyingly referenced about a dozen times as “last December.”

The various plots in the family/political drama are soapy and predictable at best, and at worst perfunctory and trite. The dialogue is only occasionally well written and stimulating. Of the cast members, only Weaver, Gugino and Elaine’s boozy mom Margaret (Ellen Burstyn) make the script seem better than it really is.

“Political Animals” is billed as a “limited series event,” which means it’s a mini-series — unless it gets big ratings and USA orders more episodes. I like to think of it as the McRib of TV shows; it’s supposedly available for a “limited time only,” yet most likely available every year. Much like eating a McRib, watching “Political Animals” will make you feel faintly satisfied, but guilty more than anything.