When USA first announced that they were starting up a miniseries entitled “Political Animals” with Sigourney Weaver in the lead role, there was one thought that immediately crossed our mind — after years of being snubbed by anything not named “Monk” at the Emmy Awards, the network was finally making a serious play for some hardware. It’s a trend we have also seen some evidence for when it comes to some of their other recent moves, including giving many of their already-established shows a serialized element.
With “Political Animals,” there is no question that the network does finally have a serious contender in the Outstanding Miniseries category, but we also have to run the risk of overpraising what was at times a fairly predictable first episode with a leading lady who was too serious, an ex-husband who was too comical, and supporting characters who need some more time in the limelight.
The story revolves largely around Elaine Hammond, a former First Lady and current Secretary of State who has surged in popularity after divorcing her cheating husband, and some of the trials and tribulations that currently surround her family — including a gay son who attempted to take his own life, a newspaper reporter who trusts the wrong people and exposes the aforementioned son, and a complicated relationship with her ex that makes it clear that there are still feelings there despite all that he has done to her. Yes, the Hilary Clinton comparisons here are inevitable — and even though there are changes (whether it be the sons or the fact that these two characters are divorced), they could have at least tried to shield that this was a fictional re-telling of Hilary’s life. The primary focus of the pilot is how Elaine manages to pull of these crises together while solving a do-or-die situation in the Middle East with kidnapped journalists that is actually revolved in a similar sort of way that Clinton solved one in real life — by calling in some help from her husband.
While “Political Animals” gets off to almost a glacial start, what the pilot has going for it is that it gets better and better with each passing moment, and it almost has a “Lost”-like feel as you start to realize how much deeper and messed up all of these Hammoonds really are underneath the surface. By the end of the hour, we’re admittedly hooked on what is going to be coming our way next, and the acting — particularly that of Weaver in the lead role and Sebastian Stan (“Once Upon a Time”) as her son — is by and large stellar. While the newspaper scenes feel at times like a more contrived version of “The Newsroom,” Dan Futterman also does some fine work here.
Ultimately, what we as TV viewers have to realize is that there is almost no way to portray something as nuanced as politics on TV — which is why both “Political Animals” and its comedic counterpart “Veep,” while great, each have their share of flaws and moments where realism shoots out the window. The good news here is that Weaver and executive producer Greg Berlanti make it pretty clear that this is not so much a story about politics as it is people who just happen to be in politics — and if you can suspend some belief, there is some engaging, debate-worthy TV waiting for you.