USA's Political Animals strives to be a drama, emerges as laughing hyena
07/12/12 09:07 AM
Premiering: Sunday, July 15th at 9 p.m. (central) on USA
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Ciaran Hinds, Adrian Pasdar, James Wolk, Carla Gugino, Ellen Burstyn, Sebastian Stan, Brittany Ishibashi
Produced by: Greg Berlanti, Laurence Mark
By ED BARK
The Kennedys have been lionized and scandalized in virtually every way imaginable at this point. So why not take the Clintons for a small-screen spin?
USA's new six-part "limited series event," Political Animals, basically re-imagines Bill and Hill in the form of philandering former president Bud Holland (Ciaran Hinds) and his ex-wife, Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver). She's now secretary of state after running unsuccessfully to become the first woman commander-in-chief.
Sunday's 90-minute premiere makes for an unintended hoot, both ridiculous and often ridiculously watchable. There's also some very bad taste in play, as when Bud/Bill tells Elaine/Hill, "I am the most popular Democrat since Kennedy had his brains spattered across the Dallas concrete. Baby, I am the meat in the Big Mac of this party."
Those critics who have been railing against Aaron Sorkin's The News Room for its babble and inconsistencies might now want to turn their fire on Political Animals' depiction of high-level politics. This is a series in which Elaine and the man who bested her to become president (Adrian Pasdar as Paul Garcetti) suggestively shake their booties together at a big outdoor campaign event.
It's also a series in which a Russian diplomat/womanizer named Victor openly grabs Elaine's behind during a press conference. She then reams him out offstage, first in English: "The next time you touch me, I'm gonna rip off your tiny shriveled balls and serve them to you in a cold borscht soup." Then in Russian with subtitles: "I will f*** your shit up."
HBO's Veep, a flat-out comedy, perhaps can get away with this stuff. But Political Animals is very much meant to be a drama. An Iranian hostage-taking and a covered-up attempted suicide by Elaine's gay, coke-addicted son, T.J. (Sebastian Stan), are mixed in with a bulimia subplot involving the Asian fiancee of older son Douglas (James Wolk rebounding from the lead role in Fox's exceedingly short-lived Lone Star).
Then again, there's also time for a super-bosomy soap star named Eva Flores (Lucila Soto) to hop aboard Bud for an orgasmic "Yes, Mr. President!" To say that Political Animals is all over the place is like saying that Christopher Columbus got around. Both are understatements. But is all of this so bad it's good? You can make that case, too.
It all begins with an elongated, clumsy set-up in which actors badly play MSNBC reporters. It's the day of Elaine's exit from the presidential race after her losing battle against Garcetti. "She's been called everything, from a feminist liberal icon to an opportunistic closet conservative," viewers are told.
After bucking up her supporters, Elaine leaves the stage stone-faced before telling Bud, "I hate campaigning. It's an Olympic sport in hypocrisy."
The jowly Irish actor playing Bud might be familiar to some viewers as Julius Caesar from the HBO series Rome. But in this case he looks like a younger Barry Corbin trying to pull off a Mafia don with a Southern twang. Bud and Elaine are still married at this point, but she can't convince him to throw his support to Garcetti in hopes of getting a high-level administration post down the road.
"I don't eat shit. I serve it," he declares during the course of setting a modern-day USA network record for use of the word "shit."
Fed up with his philandering and his 'tude, Elaine demands a divorce before a sassy soul song kicks in with the refrain, "I ain't nobody's baby. Get yourself a new one." Two years later, she's the divorced secretary of state.
Political Animals also deploys the ever capable Ellen Burstyn as family matriarch Margaret, a boozer with a bruising tongue. "You must give one helluva hummer, lady," she tells Washington Globe investigative reporter Susan Berg (the well-traveled Carlo Gugino), who has traded up-close access to Elaine for a promise to keep T.J.'s suicide attempt under wraps. She also sleeps with her editor, and has previously railed against Elaine for enduring a 30-year marriage to an openly aggressive pussy hound on whom she still relies at crunch times.
Weaver, in her first TV series, sports a stern mannish visage that doesn't quite merit the repeated references to her as a still hot babe. Perhaps she's just clenching at some of the clunky lines given to her and others. As when the president carps during their signature scene together, "I go on TV to try to communicate a vision and America collectively turns me off to watch drunk housewives and singing competitions."
Poor baby. Oldest son Douglas, a key advisor to his mom, gets a howler, too. It goes like this, "If the American people really knew how this government ran, there would be one big collective upchuck the size of which FEMA would have to clean up."
Weaver's mostly indomitable Elaine later is called on to tearfully upbraid reporter Susan, who in the world of Political Animals is something of an upstanding crusading journalist compared to her devious amoral colleague, Georgia Gibbons.
"He was the first openly gay child of a president," Elaine says of T.J. while turning on the waterworks. "You will never know the vitriol, the evil he suffered when he came out against his will as a boy in the White House." Followed by the obligatory and climactic -- wait for it -- "NOW GET THE HELL OUT!!!"
Political Animals, does not, however, commit the cardinal sin of being boring. Its big pile of over-the-top twists, turns and excesses can be mmm mmm delish. And Ciaran Hinds eventually reaches the point of being a welcome scene-stealer, whether beckoning his ex- with a "C'mere, Sugah" or eying a lush future conquest before asking an underling, "Who is that gorgeous piece of tail at the bar?"
It's easy to envision the real Bill Clinton thoroughly enjoying this romp while pawing away at a tub of popcorn. Not in Hillary's company, of course. That wouldn't be nearly as much fun -- for either of them.