“Political Animals,” the new miniseries created by Greg Berlanti and Laurence Mark and premiering this Sunday, July 15 at 10pm on USA, is centered around a character with an undeniable real world parallel. Elaine Barrish, played with scene-devouring verve by Sigourney Weaver, is a one-time First Lady who begins the show married to Southern-born former President Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds), a man whose time in the White House has been tarnished by infidelity scandals. Despite the public humiliation, she’s stayed by his side as she’s made her own presidential run, only to get beat out in the primaries by candidate Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar), who goes on to win the election and offer her a position as Secretary of State.
So to what extent is “Political Animals” Hillary and Bill: The Hard-edged Soap Opera? In New York for a press day, the creators and cast were careful to differentiate what was on screen from the Clintons and to offer other inspirations for the characters. “Look, we got there’d be Hillary comparisons, and we’re not coy about it,” said Berlanti. “You hope that’s part of what brings people to the show and people talk about.”
“I was fascinated by [Hillary Clinton] and [the Clintons’] story — America was, I think,” he continued. “They were the preeminent power couple and it seemed to be that would be an element of it. But once you start writing the characters — Madeleine Albright’s book ‘Madam Secretary,’ even right down to the fact that she didn’t have an ‘e’ at the end of the Madam, that was more informative because it was the first female doing it in that way.”
“Political Animals,” he insisted, “was a blending of different things that I liked about that, similar in some ways to ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ and the Miranda Priestly thing of like, here’s this character but you want to create your own version of it.”
Hinds described his character Bud as a “composite” — “I wasn’t doing an impersonation of anybody. The behavioral patterns of the man would seem to mirror Bill Clinton, but his speech patterns and his use of language mirror Lyndon B. Johnson.”
Weaver said “I know there are obvious superficial similarities with the Clintons, but really, I think Greg Berlanti has been inspired by all the families in the White House, by the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Bushes.” While she found Hillary Clinton to be “awesome” and “unbelievable,” she said that “Elaine is just her own person completely. She has her own challenges and her own way of dealing with things.”
But of course Elaine is Hillary is many of the ways that count, in our associations with her position and the public turmoil she’s faced, in what she represents and as a reflection of public ideas about the private side of a politician. She is also, more significantly, a fantasy of Hillary for anyone who supported her campaign and wanted more fire from her, one that finds the character demanding a divorce from her philandering spouse and openly admitting to her continued ambitions toward the presidency despite her initial loss.
“Political Animals” may have a melodramatic and goofily tawdry view of the world in which it is set, but there is something poignant to its reimagining of its actual inspiration as this outsized, fearsome creature who allows herself the odd cigarette in private, smoking it like she’s just finished with a bout of fisticuffs or energetic lovemaking, and whose complicated relationship with her ex is alternatively filled with rage and affection. When asked what he imagined the Clintons would think of the show, Berlanti said “Gosh, I hope they watch it. I think it’s a love letter to anyone in politics in a way.” While I wouldn’t agree, it’s certainly a love letter to Hillary, model for its main character or not.