USA had high hopes for “Political Animals,” a six-episode series with a highly promotable concept — about a fictional former First Lady serving as Secretary of State — that wraps up its run on Sunday.
Despite a strong cast — with Sigourney Weaver as the very Hillary Clinton-like politico, and Carla Gugino as a driven columnist who gained prestige by eviscerating her and her philandering husband, a la the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd — the show never quite sparked to life, or spawned the sort of chatter that has surrounded, say, HBO’s “The Newsroom” (for better and mostly worse).
Although intended to obviously cash in on its fictionalized reality — hypothesizing what might have happened had Hillary dumped Bill and struck out on her own — the show also crafted an elaborate soap opera, much of it involving the couple’s two sons, played by James Wolk and Sebastian Stan, who grew up in the White House.
Weaver certainly makes Elaine Barrish a compelling character, and landing her was a genuine coup. Moreover, the show wove in a strong and plausible subplot about a crippled Chinese submarine, giving it some legitimate policy cred.
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Unfortunately, too much of the series (I had only seen the premiere when I wrote my review) hinged on personal relationships and who’s screwing whom, including Gugino’s reporter/columnist, Susan Berg. Although she’s presented as a principled journalist who has sacrificed a personal life for the job, Berg’s behavior — which includes an ill-advised romance with her boss, sleeping with a source and going beyond the usual horsetrading to engage in near-blackmail — ought to have made journalists wince as much as anything in “The Newsroom.” Indeed, those moments make me wonder if some of those who wrote favorably about the show in July, such as a piece in the Atlantic about how much the program “loves powerful women” — still feel as charitably toward it now.
Aside from Weaver’s quiet authority, the series has been cast to the hilt, with Ciaran Hinds, Dylan Baker and Adrian Pasdar in supporting roles. And it gives nothing away to say the Aug. 19 finale certainly leaves the door open to continue the story, should USA choose to do do. (A network rep said no decision has been made.)
Still, in a way “Political Animals” represents a misleading label. While the title offers a pun on the way the Clintons wove politics into every aspect of their lives, series creator Greg Berlanti has turned that into a show that’s essentially “Political Brothers & Sisters.”
By that measure it’s not bad, but nor does the six-episode limited run appear particularly worthy of a second term.