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.
And Elaine isn't the only woman Political Animals likes and respects. The show also has Susan, the columnist. The events of the series kick off when Susan leverages a promise not to publish a damaging story about Elaine's son TJ (Sebastian Stan), who was outed while a teenager in the White House and remains vulnerable. In exchange for keeping quiet, Elaine lets Susan shadow her during a weekend when her younger son, Douglas (James Wolk), is celebrating his engagement—and the first time Susan and Bud will have spent together since their divorce. The weekend takes on new significance when Iran detains four American-born journalists working in the country, convicts them in a show trial, and threatens to execute them, leaving Elaine to balance reading the regime's intentions and meeting her family's needs.
Political Animals is concerned with Susan's success and her navigation of her ethics and attempts to build a new relationship with Elaine, who hated Susan's White House coverage. That's not an easy task. "I always thought you were a lesbian," Elaine's mother tells Susan venomously when Susan arrives for her first dinner with the family. "But you sure know how to throw yourself together. Unlike my daughter. But then, she has strength of character. And you're just a rotten little thing who makes a living saying really smart, really nasty things about people." And she's facing competition at work from Georgia, an up-and-coming blogger. Unlike other shows and movies that treat bloggers as if they're mysterious creatures, Political Animals lays out Susan and Georgia's professional differences over which types of content are important, and when it's worth blowing up relationships with sources. The conversations between women can be bruising and mean, but they're not catfights: They come from genuine hurts and serious differences.
The women of Political Animals have interests and ambitions of their own, unlike those on The Newsroom. MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), the ostensibly hypercompetent producer and veteran war correspondent, divides her time between getting hysterical when a colleague thinks her boss and ex-boyfriend cheated on her and giving rudimentary journalism lectures. Maggie (Alison Pill) spends more time vacillating between her current boyfriend and her future one than developing her career.
Political Animals lets its women have weaknesses, too. It just doesn't turn them into shrieking jello when faced with something difficult. The show explores the characters' vulnerabilities most compellingly when it wades into the debate about work-life balance discussed in Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic cover story. While the Clintons only had to contend with the public treatment of Chelsea, Political Animals doubles the size of the Barrish family and ups the complications of their problems. Elaine has to navigate Bud's sexpot actress girlfriend—her body, as Bud's agent points out, is insured so if "She gets hit by a car, or a piano falls on her boobs, she's covered." She also has to deal with TJ's efforts to build a life and career for himself after a stint in rehab, and planning Douglas's engagement party. "We're having 300 people at the zoo because your mother likes elephants!" his fiancee complains. It's a lot, and Political Animals strikes precisely the right balance between illustrating the challenge and letting Elaine struggle with and shine in difficulty.
Veep's got no real interests in such questions. Selina is divorced, and unlike Elaine, doesn't seem to have much of a relationship with her ex-husband. Her daughter is an independent adult whose biggest need is a little time with her mother. And when the show raised the prospect of Selina becoming pregnant by her boyfriend, the show scuttled away from the possibility with a convenient miscarriage.
"Just once, I would like to accomplish something in this city without having to spend all my energy navigating the short-sighted, selfish, self-involved and oh-so-fragile male egoes that suck up all the oxygen in this town," Elaine says at one point, exasperated, by the posturing she's having to wade through. Political Animals feels like the kind of show we could have more often if her fantasy played out in Hollywood instead of Washington.