"It's kind of like political porn," says Greg Berlanti of his new show Political Animals. He is not speaking of the Anthony Weiner brand of voyeurism that has become all too common in this overexposed era of Twitter and the 24-hour news machine (though some scenes are pretty racy for cable television).
"It's behind the scenes of the personal side of politics," he clarifies.
The premise is familiar to say the least. Sigourney Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, a former first lady—humiliated by her husband's very public White House philandering—who runs for president, only to lose in the primary and be appointed secretary of state by the man who defeated her. The pilot speeds through this set up, and swiftly departs from the first paragraph of Hillary Clinton's Wikipedia page, starting with the moment Elaine divorces her cheatin', lyin', no good, ex-president of a husband.
"It's our job as storytellers to as quickly possible make the characters very much their own. And it is my job as producer and director to cast someone in the role—and we were fortunate to do it—who remakes it, as an icon in and of herself."
Weaver does just that, portraying the secretary as politically conniving to warmly maternal, unbearably cruel to heartbreakingly vulnerable.
Her counterweight is young-but-experienced Susan Berg, a journalist who uncovered Elaine's husband's affairs and is now hounding the secretary in order to get her own career back on track. Carla Gugino balances the role with just the right mix of cynicism and self-doubt. She is too old to be youthful but to young to be assured; she can challenge a senior Cabinet member but overlooks her editor-slash-boyfriend's infidelity.
Elaine and Susan share "the strength" to clean up the ego-driven messes of their male colleagues and the "loneliness of what it means to be a woman and in that man's world still," as Berlanti puts it. But they are still at war, or at least, in battle.
Carla's desire to further her career is exactly at odds with what Elaine needs to do to protect her family. Their delicate dance of antagonism and camaraderie anchor the show.
Elaine's family fills most of the subplots. The colorful cast borderlines caricature: drug abuse, drinking problems, depression, and eating disorders galore, which at times brings the show dangerously close to melodrama.
Playing Elaine's ex-husband, Ciarán Hinds hides former president Buddy Hammond's cleverness as well as his compassion under a blanket of buffoonery. Their sons—pride of the family Douglas (James Wolk) who is following his parent's political footsteps, and black sheep T.J. (Sebastian Stan) whose homosexuality posed no threat to Elaine's campaign, but who's erratic behavior might sink her career—whine and opine about how hard it is to be America's royal children while reaping all the benefits. Elaine loves her family, it's clear. But neither she nor Buddy are afraid to play political games to manipulate the ones they love.
Berlanti was inspired by the biographies of presidents and their families, as well as Madeleine's Albright's Madam Secretary, "which in terms emotionally, gave flavor to what would be the first women in that particular job," he says.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that three out our last four secretaries of state have been women," he notes. "What does it say that we want to put a female face on American power around the world?"
More parts Brothers and Sisters (which Berlanti wrote and produced) than The West Wing, the show is interested in exploring the personal relationships of people in power rather than the policy and public influence such power wields.
Washington wonks may be frustrated by the lack of policy discussion and the indifference to D.C. detail. But those seeking a compelling family drama will be satisfied with the sharp writing, stellar cast, and masterfully executed narrative.
Of the Clintonian comparisons sure to come, "We invite them, we are happy about them, but we hope people stick around for other various reasons," Berlanti says. And stick around they should.
Political Animals premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on USA.
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