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]
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