Yes, Shonda Rhimes has successfully weaved us into her Scandal web and Veep has become an Emmy darling. And yet, in 2012, Political Animals also premiered and promised scandal, sex, and politics. All that, plus Ellen Ripley Sigourney Weaver.
Hilary Clinton Elaine Barrish (Weaver) threw her hat into the presidential election and lost. She was former First Lady to a philandering husband, Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds). She is gearing up for a huge political push to run for president again. She finds an unlikely ally in Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), a journalist whose career was built trying to take her down. She must balance her political career and her eccentric family. Her Chief of Staff son, Douglas Hammond (James Wolk) is planning a huge marriage to his bulimic, perfectionist fiancé Anne Ogami (Brittany Ishibashi). Both her mother, former showgirl Margaret Barrish (Ellen Burstyn), and her openly gay son Thomas "T.J." Hammond (Sebastian Stan) are alcoholics and drug addicts. Plus, she has to get out of her husband’s shadow and maneuver around current president Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar).
What is so great about the series is how it portrays the multi-faceted world of politics. People have multiple agendas and even more faces. It also focuses on the pressure that politics place on the family. It delves a level deeper than Scandal, because this series focuses on the politicians themselves and the unique factors affecting their lives. It also has just as much drama and tension, with various inappropriate couplings, revelations, and political machinations.
The actors are amazing. Weaver is unstoppable and manages to be a persnickety hard-ass but also a vulnerable and loving woman. Burstyn won an Emmy for her role in the series. Wolk (who went on to greater renown as Bob Benson on Mad Men) and Stan are great as twins with two vastly different personalities and drives.
The mini-series was only six episodes and was, sadly, not optioned for a full series. Luckily, it’s available on Netflix in its entirety.
Let's get that inevitable comparison of Sigourney Weaver's powerhouse Secretary of State Elaine Barrish in USA's six-part miniseries Political Animals (which premiered last night) to our own powerhouse Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out of the way. Yes, both ran for President and lost the nomination to a younger, more charming candidate; both were former First Ladies whose President husband had notorious extramarital affairs; both are seen as ambitious ball busters; and both can rock a serious power suit.
Still, despite all these obvious nods to Hil, the comparison does a disservice to both women. For just as many similarities as they have, there are stark differences as well (including Weaver's Barrish not having a daughter, but two sons.) But, the biggest difference is that Clinton's story is nowhere near as dull as the one that plays out in Political Animals.
It's a problem that is through no fault of its leading lady. Weaver's ability to work with any kind of material is nothing new. The stunning 62-year-old Oscar-nominated actress, who has been one of Hollywood's most versatile stars for nearly 30 years, only seems to get better with age. But even in Political Animals, which boasts an impressive cast that could carry its own weight if needed (thanks to the likes of James Wolk, Dylan Baker, and fellow Oscar-nominee Ellen Burstyn), Weaver's powerful presence still can't save the mediocre summer soap opera.
When we first meet Elaine Barrish, it's on the night of her concession speech — having lost her bid to the White House to a young, Italian Democrat named Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar) — with her smiling, supportive family by her side. However, it's not until after giving an invigorating, rousing speech in which she vows to American women that she will see a female President in her lifetime, that we really meet them behind closed doors.
And boy, are they one dysfunctional bunch. There's her pair of sons — the gay, drug-addicted, suicidal T.J. (Sebastian Stan), the put-together, politico-in-the-making Douglas (Wolk), and his demure fiance with an eating disorder, Anne (Brittany Ishibashi). There's her boozy, opinionated lightning rod of a mother-in-law (Burstyn) and her husband, former President Bud Hammon (a cartoonish, cigar-chomping Ciaran Hinds.) They all tend to say exactly what's on their mind, often in pay cable-friendly language. Within the first ten minutes, they utilize their place on USA by saying things like "homos," "s**t show," "douche," and "nutsack." So edgy.
Fast forward two years later, a now-divorced Elaine (she promptly asked her husband for a divorce after her concession speech) is down a philandering spouse (who is now dating a busty, vapid television star), but still has plenty of drama in her life. She's got her Pulitzer-winning nemesis Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) as a thorn in her side again when, years after breaking her husband's affair scandal, she inadvertently lets a story about T.J.'s failed suicide go public. (Her own cheating boyfriend/editor, played by Dan Futterman, gives the story to his blogging, cupcake-baking mistress. Oh great, another stunning victory for Internet Girls everywhere.)
Then there's also an ass-grabbing Russian foreign minister ("I will f**k your s**t up," she warns him in his native language) and a hostage situation in Iran with three American journalists to deal with. Still, Barrish manages to handle it all with ass-kicking grace. (If there ever was such a thing to possess, Weaver most certainly does.) By the time she tells a secret service agent in confidence that she's going to run for President again and win, you don't doubt her for one second.
And thankfully, viewers won't have to wait long to find out if that is the case. While Weaver (who might as well make space on her mantle for an Emmy now) makes the whole surprisingly bland thing watchable, the show (which aims for The West Wing, but hits the Dallas target instead) isn't necessarily worthy of her talents. There's no doubt the show will do well, especially as a summer program, considering it has three winning ingredients: graphic sex scenes, oft ludicrous dialogue ("Never call a bitch a bitch. Us bitches hate that"), and it doesn't take up much of your time (six weeks, to be exact.)
Political Animals doesn't quite know what it wants to be, ping-ponging between compelling, girl-power political drama and silly, ineffective family soap opera, but it gets one thing absolutely right: Sigourney Weaver cannot be tamed.
Political Animals airs on Sundays at 10 PM ET on USA.
[Photo credit: USA Network]
A Flawed Newsroom Rewrites History
Luke (Steven Strait) and Brier (Pell James) first cross paths on a New York City subway before the doors shut on their instant attraction to one another. Of course it is immediately and abundantly clear that they will naturally meet up again before long but where and how? The answers: L.A. and well it's complicated. Each having forgotten about the other Brier a top model in NYC decides she needs a change of scenery and tells her agent (Carrie Fisher clearly in it for the paycheck) she's heading out to L.A. to pursue acting while Luke and his brother Euan (Kip Pardue) decide to move to the West Coast as well. Once there Brier befriends Clea (Ashlee Simpson) and on her first night in town takes Brier to a local dive bar where Luke works as a struggling "musician." Wow that's some coincidence. There is an instant re-connection between Luke and Brier but she refuses to get involved with musicians since her rock-star ex mistreated her. Instead she shifts her focus on generating buzz for Luke. Eventually Luke gets the big recording contract becomes the rock-star jerk he'd swore he'd never become and loses it all. But all is well when Brier decides she can no longer resist Luke's ballads and Metallica-guitarist-circa-'85 hair.
The theme of Undiscovered could apply to its cast. Each of the four leads are on the cusp of being on the cusp and certainly they hope this movie will take them one step closer. For James that might happen. She is a natural on screen and gives a breakthrough performance as the comely Brier. Strait is also a relative newcomer. After turning his debut performance in this summer's Sky High he holds his own in Undiscovered but seems to be relegated to taking his shirt off to make the teenyboppers swoon. Finally there's Simpson who is also making her major-role debut. It's awkward to see her on-screen and yes subconsciously you wait for her to make a noticeable mistake (or butcher a voice-over due to acid reflux). Of course it doesn't happen; she moves along pretty smoothly but is at times subjected to dialogue that seems beyond her especially when she has to words big words such as "banter." And certainly it's not her fault when she describes Luke--a musician best left struggling--as "a cross between Jeff Buckley and Elvis Costello." That's just someone else's words she reciting.
Prolific music-video director Meiert Avis is making his feature film directorial debut with Undiscovered--and his obvious greenness shows. At times the film is more like a music video surrounded by a weak storyline than a cohesive film. His expertise in the rather linear realm of music videos doesn't exactly qualify him for the complexities of a 90-minute film contrived and straightforward as his debut may be. Avis tries to employ every possible clichéd obstacle for the characters to overcome--which reeks of inexperience but could also be the screenwriter's fault. No doubt Avis feels at home with newcomers such as Strait and Simpson who--for all intents and purposes--sing and act but the plethora of singing scenes feel forced. That is forced into the script to showcase the soundtrack when the movie goes undiscovered at the box office.