USA network says the miniseries Political Animals (debuts July 15), about a First Lady who dumps her philandering husband, then becomes Secretary of State for the man who beat her in a run for President, is not about Hillary Clinton. I believe them. Political Animals, an inconsistent, sometimes ludicrous, but also juicily fun political soap, is about something that ultimately makes for better TV: the idea of Hillary Clinton.
Think of Animals as the TV equivalent of Texts from Hillary. The Internet meme from this past spring used a photo (from TIME magazine) of Clinton sitting on a military plane, wearing sunglasses and staring sternly at a Blackberry, paired them with other celebrity photos and captioned them LOLCats-style. (Obama: “Hey Hil, Whatchu doing?” Clinton: “Running the world.”) It gave us an outsized icon of Hillary as international badass, telling it straight, getting ‘er done, no time for b.s. or wimps.
Texts struck a chord because it combined Hillary’s outward image (confidence, assertiveness) with an imagined glimpse inside her secret mind: Texts’ Hillary said what people wanted her to say, or maybe, what they wanted Hillary to want to say. And ever since the two-for-one special of the 1992 campaign, what people have wanted to see in Hillary has always been at least as important as what she actually is, a fact that, Political Animals tells us early, is also very true of Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver). We meet her the night of her Presidential concession speech, as an MSNBC anchor narrates, “She’s been called everything from a feminist liberal icon to an opportunistic closet conservative.”
The setup continues to track recent history, as laid out in Elaine’s interview with hungry reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino). (The opening 10 minutes or so are almost pure exposition, as journalists and the principals use a lot of words to say, “Yeah, so basically, these are the Clintons.”) Her husband, Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds), cheated on her while in the Oval Office in the ’90s—check! She stayed with him, despite public criticism—check! She went on to elected office herself (here, governor of Illinois)—check! She accepted the State offer from her opponent, President Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar), after saying she did not want it—check! “When the President asks you to serve,” she says, speaking carefully, “you serve.” And in the Cabinet, her approval ratings shot up—check!
But Animals takes this base of reality and lays on some heavy makeup. For starters, after her campaign Elaine divorced the brash, bloviating Bud, a Southern-fried backslapper whom Irish thespian Hinds plays as equal parts Bill Clinton, LBJ and Foghorn Leghorn. Bud sees Garcetti as an contemptible greenhorn (check?) and insults him using every basic-cable swear and Italian slur in an evidently well-thumbed book. Restless and itchy—both politically and libidinally—he refuses to lie low and “eat shit” to make peace for Elaine’s sake. “Baby,” he declares, “Ah am the meat in the Big Mac of this party.”
Bud still has a complex personal and political relationship with Elaine. They’re the “animals” of the title—he’s the grumbling, aging lion, while the less theatrical Elaine prefers elephants (though a Democrat), because “they’re a matriarchal society, and when the males reach mating age, the females kick them the hell out of the herd.” But because a neutered ex-Horndog-in-Chief is less fun, the series also gives Bud a Jessica Rabbit-y Latin actress girlfriend, who we soon find straddling him in bed, screaming “Meester President!”
In lieu of Chelsea, Bud and Elaine have two sons: aimless TJ (Sebastian Stan), who came out as gay while a teen in the White House and now fights drug addiction, and dutiful Doug (Josh Wolk), who works as Elaine’s right hand. Elaine gets a wisecracking mother (Ellen Burstyn), with an undiplomatic remark always on her lips and a whiskey-based cocktail surgically attached to her hand. On top of the family drama, there are workplace entanglements for Susan, who is of course sleeping with her editor (Dan Futterman). (Nearly everyone in Animals, pol or reporter, is having a lot of sex; I leave it to my D.C. readers to assess the realism.)
The main thrust of the six-week miniseries (I’ve seen two episodes) is the growing rivalry between Elaine and the President. As a recent New York Times magazine profile of Hillary notes, the anticipated civil war between Hillary and Obama never materialized, but Animals rewrites it on the juiciest possible terms, as the White House’s cynical handling of a crisis with Iran revives the campaign’s bad blood. Elaine says Garcetti is becoming the kind of rudderless establishment pol that he won election by tarring her as (see the ’08 primary debates). “Some day, sir,” she says, “it would be nice to be working for the man who beat me.”
The details are just close enough to real life to read Animals as a disillusioned take on the Obama Administration, and just exaggerated enough to read it as just a story. Setting the show at the State Department also solves the dilemma of many past political TV shows like Veep and Commander in Chief: how to do believable politics with real stakes without getting mired in domestic hot-button issues. (The West Wing, conversely, jumped into those, yet dealt with foreign policy in part by inventing nations like “Qumar” and “Equatorial Kundu.”)
Just so, Bud and Elaine’s dynamic is altered enough—always erring on the side of soapier drama—but it still offers you-are-there gratification. People may wonder forever about the private dynamic between Bill and Hillary during Monicagate, but when President Bud confesses to Elaine in a 1997 flashback, words are yelled and a vase, satisfyingly, is thrown. (It was, we learn, a gift from Mao to Nixon. Animals may be a melodrama, but it’s a detail-oriented one.)
The show is well-cast top to bottom. Weaver in particular is excellent in revealing her character’s passions and emotions privately while showing, publicly, the work involved in keeping a stone face (since any vulnerability in a female diplomat can be read as weakness). And when she lets loose behind closed doors, it’s formidable: “I am sick to death of the bullshit,” she fulminates to Doug, “and the egos and–of the men. I am sick of the men. Just once I would like to accomplish something in this city with having to spend all my energy navigating the short-sighted, selfish, self-involved and oh-so-fragile male egos that suck up all the oxygen in this town.”
Wolk (Lone Star), meanwhile, is nuanced as the loyal son with a mind of his own, who quietly carries the strain of holding his fractious family together. Pasdar’s Garcetti comes off cold but sympathetic: winning the election, he says, is like being “a dog who caught a bus.” And as cartoonish as Hinds’ Bud can be, he’s also delightful; like a born politician, Hinds has the ability to make you enjoy his lusty enjoyment of his work (and of his lusts).
Animals has plenty of personal-political storylines to explore if it returns for a longer run. But its wide scope is also its problem: its many stories, and its characters, don’t all seem to exist on the same plane of realism. Elaine is an earnest study of a long-suffering, quick-thinking woman leader, a power nerd who loves service but not politics. But many of the characters around her are out of a farce: the Russian ambassador who looks like a CGI videogame villain and grabs her ass behind a podium; the conniving blogger (the bloggers are always the bad ones!) at the newspaper; the sniveling, self-aggrandizing vice president (Dylan Baker). The excellent Burstyn conveys a sense of sadness behind Margaret’s barrel-aged snark, but there’s a fine line between her and a “funny grandma” character from a sitcom.
Where the show’s seriousness and its soap best mesh, and the miniseries’ potential feels strongest, is in any scene involving Elaine and Bud. Creator Greg Berlanti has blended melodrama and politics before (Brothers and Sisters, Jack and Bobby), and in Political Animals, he seems to argue that political romance and romantic politics are all part of the same human experience. People, Bud tells Elaine in a fraught moment, always assumed their relationship was about politics: “Sure. But it was also about love. It was always about both for us, baby, that’s our story. We were born to fight for this country together.”
He’s saying it because he wants something, of course, and Elaine is smart enough to know that, human enough to be hurt by it—and still uncynical enough to see that he might nonetheless be right. Political Animals believes that a good TV show, like a good politician, can make you look past its flaws and believe in its contradictions if it inhabits them lustily enough. In its better moments the show does that. And in Elaine Barrish, it may have hit on the kind of ideal TV President an audience wants to see: one who’s stood in the Oval Office, listened to a lot of lines from a lot of men, and imagined it as a room of her own.