Ostensibly designed to push USA closer to FX-bordering-on-HBO territory, “Political Animals” is an odd duck. The attention-getting premise yields a limited series barely a step removed from Bill and Hillary Clinton — with Sigourney Weaver as a former first lady turned secretary of state — although it’s really a mash-up of past first families, and initially more preoccupied with what transpires between the sheets than within the halls of power. As such, the super-sized opener contains promise, but primarily feels like someone’s idea of an edgy concept — not so much wild as the hollow product of a skilled taxidermist.
Written and directed by Greg Berlanti (and tonally more similar to “Brothers & Sisters” than his other TV works), the opening moments race through introducing Elaine Barrish (Weaver) as she’s conceding the presidential primary race, before taking a job in the new administration.
The flights of fancy, however, go beyond the Clintons: Elaine divorcing her philandering husband, Bud (Ciaran Hinds, expanding his resume from “Rome’s” Caesar to a horny North Carolina good ol’ boy), which wins her huge public sympathy; and the couple’s two sons: Douglas (“Lone Star’s” James Wolk), his mom’s right hand; and T.J. (Sebastian Stan), the first openly gay son of a sitting president, whose various issues include a drug habit.
The pilot also incorporates a Maureen Dowd-like newspaper columnist, Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), who has lambasted the couple, and uses dirt on T.J. to gain access to Elaine. If journalists trade in favors all the time, Susan’s leverage comes perilously close to blackmail — so much so that she’s a poor choice to sermonize about journalistic ethics, which doesn’t stop the character from doing just that.
Clearly, Berlanti’s conceit was to take lots of political stories with which we’re all familiar — philandering husband, suffering political wife, troubled kids of the rich and famous — and use them as a high-profile jumping-off point. Yet while Aaron Sorkin brings a similar approach to “The Newsroom,” where that show becomes a surrogate for the writer’s ideal worldview, “Political Animals” employs hostage crises involving Iran as little more than a showy backdrop for salacious family drama.
Of course, we’ve seen variations on “Dallas” meeting “The West Wing” before (the Clinton-inspired “Primary Colors” among them), so the principal appeal here isn’t so much peeking behind the velvet curtain as enjoying the fine cast, with Weaver representing an inspired choice to portray Elaine, someone brimming with integrity, pain and grit all at once.
As for lesser roles, the series is stocked with talented players like Adrian Pasdar (as the president), Dylan Baker and Roger Bart, albeit in limited turns. Ellen Burstyn also co-stars as Elaine’s boozy, outspoken mother, who snaps at Susan, “You must give one hell of a hummer, lady.”
USA has cleverly positioned “Animals” as a prestige bid, stepping up a notch into the creative big leagues occupied by select basic and pay cable competitors. In reality, it’s not quite that ambitious, but the assembled talent and limited six-week run could be enough to woo swing viewers who think watching an US Weekly version of politics passes for current-affairs programming.
“If I read half of what people wrote about me, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning,” Elaine coolly tells Susan. No one associated with “Political Animals” needs to hide under the covers, exactly, but nothing here qualifies as a game-changer, either.