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The 'Political Animals' Running Washington, D.C.

In <em>Political Animals, </em>Sigourney Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, the current secretary of state and a former first lady.
USA Networks
In Political Animals, Sigourney Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, the current secretary of state and a former first lady.

If you only knew about America from watching TV, the last few months might lead you to think that women here wield enormous political power. First you had Game Change, the story of Sarah Palin's attempt to become vice president. Then you had Veep, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus's character has accomplished just that. Now comes Political Animals, a new USA network series about a strong female secretary of state who I suspect even a Martian would realize is based on Hillary Clinton.

Sigourney Weaver stars as Elaine Barrish, a smart, controversial ex-First Lady. After losing her party's nomination to a charismatic upstart, Paul Garcetti — played by creepy-handsome Adrian Pasdar — Elaine surprises the world by doing two things. She accepts President Garcetti's offer to become Secretary of State, and she divorces her husband, ex-president Bud Hammond, a narcissistic southerner with zipper-troubles played by the Irish actor Ciarán Hinds with more braying Belfast ham than winning North Carolina charm.

Judging from the vigorous, if overblown pilot, Political Animals is about how Elaine juggles her tricky relationships with two different presidents — her boss, whom she finds annoyingly slippery, and her ex, whom she can't quite resist — and how she deals with her two very different sons: Douglas Hammond, played by James Wolk, is the smooth, dutiful one who fits easily into the Beltway ecosystem. In contrast, T.J., played by Sebastian Stan is gay, does drugs, and can't bear the political life. More tellingly, perhaps, Elaine also finds herself developing ties to a D.C. reporter, Susan Berg – that's Carla Gugino – who's written nastily about her in the past.

Political Animals was created by Greg Berlanti, a specialist in family melodrama who clearly cares more about the animal side of Washington — its weaseling and dogged compulsion — than about its actual politics. This is too bad. I've recently been reading The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert Caro's riveting biography of Lyndon Johnson, a book that makes Berlanti's show feel not just thin but naïve. Caro knows how the political life engages the whole person. He gives us the dirty, low-minded stuff — and LBJ was certainly carnal in every sense — but also the serious daily work of, say, passing Civil Rights legislation and the moral arguments for doing so.

By comparison, Political Animals is, well, a political animal. Berlanti knows that film and TV studios don't want to risk alienating their audience by getting into the nuts and bolts of government process, much less by talking ideology. The Newsroom may wave its liberal politics like an Adlai Stevenson banner, but most political movies and shows pointedly do not. Veep, for instance, is cynical not ideological, while Game Change focused on everything about Palin except what she actually believes or why she connects to millions. Even the news coverage of this year's election has spent less time on Obama's and Romney's ideas than on the tiniest tactical details of their campaigns.

Now, it can't be denied that basing a show so clearly on Hillary and Bill betrays a certain failure of imagination. But this, too, is the American way. Our best political novels tend to be based on real people -- just think of All the King's Men — and few political pairings could be more tempting than the messy Clintons. They turned the White House into a reality show, which Berlanti has now turned into a fictionalized potboiler. Only time will tell whether that's an upgrade.

At the moment, it looks like one for Hillary Clinton, whose reputation has never been higher. She's finally escaped her husband's shadow. If he became the flawed hero of Primary Colors, she's now the center of a mash note of a TV series, one that gives her surrogate most of the good lines. At one point, Elaine is talking to President Garcetti who it's clear has been a bit of a wuss. Before she leaves the Oval Office, she says calmly but crushingly, "Someday, sir, it would be nice to be working for the man who beat me."

I don't believe Secretary of State Clinton has ever said anything remotely like that to President Obama, but it's interesting, don't you think, that in this election year, a new TV show implies that she'd be entitled to do so.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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