Politics can be sleazy, but might just be out-sleazed by ‘Political Animals,’ the melodrama a clef that unimaginatively, nastily leeches off the Clintons. Even the great Sigourney Weaver, in the don’t-call-her-Hillary role, can’t save this tacky, leaden miniseries, whose clumsy allusions to reality amount to a series of groaners.
We first see Weaver’s character, Elaine Barrish, as a presidential candidate and former First Lady, married to the philandering, cigar-smoking, charismatic Southerner who was — not to put too fine a point on it – the 42nd President of the United States. He is not called Bill Clinton; he is called Bud Hammond. In this role, Ciaran Hinds just gives up and goes all-hammy all the time. (For a non-hammy version see John Travolta in Mike Nichols’ hugely underrated ‘Primary Colors.’)
Elaine, whom newscasters identify as “a feminist icon,” went on from the White House to become, not Senator from New York but Governor of Indiana, so no confusion there. She loses the presidential primary and becomes a buyer at Bloomingdales. No, of course not, she becomes the Secretary of State.
Could this be the set-up for a smart drama about ambition, compromise, and marriages of political convenience? Maybe for somebody, but not here. Instead Greg Berlanti (‘Everwood,’ ‘Brothers and Sisters’), who created the series and wrote and directed the pilot, creates stories and characters so clunky yet lurid that the Hammonds make the Ewings of ‘Dallas’ look like Eugene O’Neill characters.
After losing the primary, Elaine actually divorces Bud, but instead of examining this – finally! – difference from reality, the series simply uses it as a way to launch the next phase of Elaine’s troubles. One son, the conventional kid, is her Chief of Staff. The other son, the openly-gay kid, has a drug problem and made a suicide attempt, which the Hammonds hushed up, but which allows a reporter who has written nasty things about Elaine to blackmail her way into an interview. The reporter, played by Carla Gugino, is sleeping with her editor because – well, I guess because that’s what reporters do in bad miniseries.
Weaver tries to bring some dignity to this, but it’s hard when she’s standing on a mountain of cliches. Elaine smokes cigarettes when the news cameras aren’t watching, which is a tired symbol of toughness – what is she, some 1940’s dame? — and which says exactly nothing about the hypocrisy of politics or the media or image-making. And although Elaine has the audacity and honesty to call herself a bitch, she ends up spouting bad lines like, “I’m going to run for president again and this time I’m going to win.”
What a wasted opportunity, because even a Hillary clone has to be a fascinating set of contradictions. Watch Weaver as Elaine, forced to dance awkwardly on stage at a campaign rally; she captures all the stiffness and determination of someone for whom the campaign part of politics never came naturally.
Pilfering from political headlines doesn’t have to be awful. ‘The Good Wife,’ one of the best shows on television, was inspired by the Eliot Spitzer scandal, but was never a slave to the comparison. And there’s plenty of room for engaging political soap operas. In Shonda Rhimes’ ‘Scandal,’ with Kerry Washington as a D.C. master of damage control, the heroine has an affair with a Clintonesque philandering president, but the series quickly veers off into its own tangled plots.
‘Political Animals’ seems cheap and easy and unreal even when it’s dealing with Americans held hostage abroad. Groan if you can guess which ex-president is sent to bring the hostages back. And guess whether that ex-president brings a Hollywood bimbo to his son’s engagement party. Even Sigourney Weaver’s greatest fans may not want to witness her trying to rise above this muck.
‘Political Animals’ begins its six-episode run on USA on Sunday.