Episode 1: Pilot
The Series Premiere
By: Carlos Uribe
Political Animals is a six-episode miniseries that follows Elaine Branch, former first lady and current Secretary of State, and her family. I will be covering every episode.
Stop me if you've heard this before: a former first lady of a cheating President runs to be the Democratic Presidential nominee, loses, is appointed Secretary of State, and is one of the few bright spots in a failed administration. Oh, what's this? That's pretty much Hillary Clinton? Political Animals feels at times as if the producer had actually intended to do a biography on the Secretary of State, but couldn't get the rights to her life. Hillary Clinton's career trajectory is in near balance with that of the main character. There's one key difference. That difference being that Clinton didn't divorce her husband the night she lost the primary. That's because Bud Hammond is more of a Nixon or a Johnson than a Bill Clinton. He might have been President at the same time as Clinton, but he doesn't feel like President Clinton. Political Animals is a drama that looks into the scandalous lives of this former first family. It manages to reveal the weaknesses of almost every member in the family and it's soapiness can be quite enjoyable.
The plot of the first episode juggles between the work and personal life of Elaine Barrish, the main character. Elaine has to not only deal with a diplomatic crisis, but she also has to give an interview to a reporter that she detests. She has to deal with a family that is barely holding together. One of her sons has just gotten engaged, the other son is gay and a drug addict with a history of suicide attempts, and her mother has no filter. She also has to deal with an ex-husband that she still loves, and vice-versa, but can't stand because their relationship has also always been very political. The couple's similarities with the Clintons becomes more apparent when Elaine asks her former husband to help take care of an Iranian crisis, eerily similar to the one that Bill Clinton helped solve in North Korea. The plot of the episode manages to be entertaining throughout, but it could have been a better episode if it had focused more on the family life. This would have allowed the episode to develop the main characters and their relationships further.
The good news is that the main character of Elaine is wonderfully played by Sigourney Weaver. She manages to sell every line, even though not every line was written that well. The character is likeable enough and the episode manages to introduce her very efficiently. When she confides to the Secret Service agent that she's going to run for President, the episode had made it perfectly clear why she arrived to that conclusion. Elaine is the best established character on the show, partly due to writing but mostly due to Weaver's excellent performance. Her ex-husband, Bud, reminds me more of President Johnson than Clinton, but he's written well-enough. He's clearly someone who loves politics and who is desperate to remain relevant and to have some power. While he's played a bit over-the-top, this was clearly on purpose and it worked within the show.
The sons had some mixed development. Thomas, the gay drug addict, is developed much better than his brother, Douglas. Douglas isn't really given much of a personality and I don't think a single flaw was established for his character. The next episode is going to have to make him into more of a fleshed out character rather than the two-dimensional being that he right now. His fiance, Anne, is slightly more interesting than him and has bulimia. The mother, Margaret, is the most entertaining of all the characters as she's the only one who is ever really honest. The final main character is Susan, who seems to be an antagonist of Elaine but is slowly becoming a friend.
This is ultimately a solid debut for the mini-series, but there are some issues. If the series wants to emulate the Clinton story, that is fine but it needs to write better dialogue for the characters. It needs to better hone in on Douglas, while at the same time developing the relationship between Douglas and his fiance. The good news is that Political Animals, while not the best written show on the planet, at least has some ambition-which means that it's willing to improve on what it already is. Let's just hope it actually does improve.
(Cheers has been delayed until tomorrow.)