July 16, 2012

THE SKED PILOT REVIEW: “Political Animals”


POLITICAL ANIMALS:  Sunday 10PM on USA – Potential DVR Alert


POLITICAL ANIMALS is a lot more Brothers & Sisters than it is The West Wing, which makes sense because it’s the work of Greg Berlanti, who took over as showrunner on B&S when show creator Jon Robin Baitz wasn’t giving ABC the soap opera it wanted.  (Animals is even airing in the old B&S timeslot.)   Berlanti isn’t Aaron Sorkin, and probably (well, maybe) doesn’t want to be; for him, Washington and politics are a mere backdrop to some classy suds.

Like Brothers & Sisters, Political Animals revolves around a family.  The protagonist is Hillary Rodham Clinton Elaine Hammond Barrish (Sigourney Weaver), the ex-wife of former President and legendary Southern horndog Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds).  After leaving Bud, Elaine served in state-wide office (but as a governor, not a senator, dammit!), and subsequently ran for President but, a polarizing figure, she failed to win the nomination, instead becoming the new President’s Secretary of State.  Did I mention she was a governor and not a senator?  Anyway, not-Hillary has 2 sons, her trusted aide Douglas (James Wolk), who’s about to be engaged to Anne Ogami (Brittany Ishibashi), and the more troubled TJ (Sebastian Stan), who’s gay and a (not really) recovering coke addict.  Elaine also has that writer’s dream, a loud-mouthed mother (Ellen Burstyn) who after a drink or two (and she’s always had a drink or two) will say just anything to anyone.  The other major character is Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), a journalist with whom Elaine has had a hostile relationship, but who’s probably going to become her friend.  And in case that cast wasn’t enough, the recurring characters include Adrian Pasdar as the President, Roger Bart as his chief of staff, and Dylan Baker as the Vice-President.

The 90-minute pilot, written and directed by Berlanti, throws around serious issues like innocent American journalists being arrested as spies by the Iranian government, and negotiations over a halt to the Iranian nuclear program, but really Political Animals is more interested in the Russian ambassador copping a feel of Elaine’s butt and whether Bud’s new starlet girlfriend’s boobs have been insured by her network.  On that level, the show is quite engaging, with performers who are more than capable of enhancing dialogue that could be fresher.  Even in its extended pilot length, the show moves briskly, and while there haven’t yet been any major plot surprises (despite one attempt at catching us unaware in the pilot), there’s plenty of opportunity for revelations in the hours that remain.

Political Animals is sort of the anti-Newsroom.  Where Sorkin pretends to care about the personal relationships between his characters so that he can make political and sociological points, Berlanti alludes to Iranian hostages as a pretext for having characters get together for illicit sex.  The latter is certainly less admirable and thought-provoking, but that doesn’t make it unentertaining.  Also, it’s longer than you’d think, and certainly longer than it should be, since Sigourney Weaver got the chance to be at the center of a mainstream project, and for that alone, the show would be welcome.

However you look at it, Political Animals is an unconventional choice for USA.  While it isn’t the HBO-level “event” the network has been trying to sell it as being (it’s more like Lifetime on steroids), USA doesn’t usually deal with either politics or soap, so the show represents a gamble, albeit for a limited 6 week run.  So far, the series justifies the change of pace.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."