The new Sigourney Weaver series is a refreshing change from recent shows that portray women as incompetent or hysterical.
"What is it like launching your career by stepping on the throat of someone else's marriage?" Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver), the former First Lady, now the Secretary of State, asks columnist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), when the two women meet for tea in an early scene of USA Network's Political Animals. Later she adds, "No Pulitzers to speak of since, though." It would be a sharp jab in any circumstances, but the scene's particularly delicious because it's a kind of alternate history. Political Animals has no intention of disguising that Elaine is a stand-in for Hillary Clinton, and Susan represents Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist who made her name covering Bill Clinton's infidelities. Watching them throw barbs at each other—and eventually work toward a collaborative detente—is a satisfying, sudsy thought experiment about the interaction of power and emotion in Washington.
Political Animals is the rare show that genuinely seems to love powerful women, letting them look good and sound smart, and giving their lives complexity and texture without any need to humiliate them to make them more relatable. The pleasure Political Animals takes in letting its actresses go at each other on big issues is particularly remarkable when contrasted with two recently debuted HBO shows that have premiered in recent months: The Newsroom, which turns women into ditzy functionaries for powerful men, and Veep, a brittle office comedy that just happens to be set among a highly dysfunctional Vice Presidential staff.
Political Animals's Elaine is brilliant and competent, and one of the pleasures of the show comes from seeing her as a version of Hillary Clinton who is tougher on her Bill (here called Bud, and played with a thick coat of oil by Ciaran Hinds) than in real life. "I know, given your epic levels of narcissism, that it's impossible for you to fathom this loss has nothing to do with you, but imagine for a moment that it doesn't," Elaine tells the husband she's about to kick to the curb in the pilot episode, after she concedes her run for the presidency. "The country loves you, Bud. They will always love you. It's me they have mixed feelings about."
Greg Berlanti, who created the series, gives Weaver lots of juicy lines with which to zing the powerful, entitled men who make her life more difficult—it's a terrific fantasy of having exactly the right words precisely in the moment that you need them. After Victor, the Russian ambassador, cops a feel while she's giving a speech, Elaine remains composed. But in the hallway afterwards, she confronts him. "Did you enjoy the ass-grab, Victor? Good, because the next time you touch me, I'm going to rip off your tiny shriveled balls and serve them to you in a cold borscht soup," she tells him, before switching into Russian to inform him "I will fuck your shit up. Do you hear me?" She's not just tough, she's hot, too—a friend of her sons asks for a picture of Elaine "in one of those badass Chanel suits," and the Turkish ambassador maneuvers Elaine into accepting a date with him.
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By contrast Selina Meyer, the vice president in Veep, is a disaster: Michael Scott in more expensive shoes and a bigger office. She doesn't clash with powerful men: She's barely in the room with any of them, yearning after a call from the president that never comes, childishly excited when she gets a short chance to stand in for him, getting groped by a prominent dead Senator. The joke is supposed to be Selina and Washington's collective dysfunctionality, but even in Washington, it's hard to believe people this silly would rise this far.