Posted on Friday, July 27th, 2012 at 7:55 am
Author: s.e. smith
With Veep, 1600 Penn, Scandal, The Good Wife, and Political Animals, fictionalised versions of sex, politics, power, and Washington are taking over the airwaves this year as the real Washington gears up for a vicious Presidential election. From comedy to drama to soap, the networks and cable stations are all trying to cash in on their share of the political sweepstakes, and evidently audiences are responding. One wonders, and fears, how the ratings will stack up against the Presidential debates.
USA’s Political Animals is a thinly-veiled exploration of the Clintons, in which a slightly different narrative prevails in order to maintain the fiction that it’s not about them. Instead of tolerating her husband Bud’s wandering eye, Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver) divorces him in the wake of an unsuccessful Presidential bid, and then accepts a position as Secretary of State to her former opponent, now-President, Garcetti. She has two sons instead of a daughter, but Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds) is still a gladhanding, relentlessly flirting Southerner with an inflated sense of self. The horn player’s a generation back, but other than that, the Barrish-Hammons make pretty good ringers for the Clintons.
Weaver explains that the show is about political dynasties, and the impact of living in the White House as a family, along with the lust to return to the White House that seems so common in political families once they taste power. She’s also intrigued by the fact that the United States has seen a string of women Secretaries of State, but still can’t elect a woman to the Presidency. Exploring the willingness to allow a woman to negotiate foreign policy and represent the United States to the rest of the world while refusing to elect her to office could yield some interesting discussions, and the show seems like it might be willing to go there. As Political Animals unfolds, viewers see both the role of women in power, and the hard toll a political life can take on a family.
The entire family is constantly under the eyes of the media, which makes even the most intimate of family moments a public affair. Son TJ’s (Sebastian Stan) suicide attempt is a mass-media feeding frenzy, while Douglas (James Wolk) serves as Elaine’s aide, putting himself front and centre in the news. When he adds a wedding that becomes the social event of the season to the mix, all eyes are on him, especially when it looks like things might go wrong. Which they will, this being both politics and television.
What could be an interesting exploration of the struggles families have in high-profile political positions, though, comes off as extremely soapy in execution. While it’s certainly possible that Washington really is as soapy as depicted, Sigourney’s over-the-top stagy lines and dramatic scenes in response to even the most minor of events are almost embarrassing—even she has the good grace to look ashamed of some of the lines she’s being fed. The drama is so outsized that it makes it hard to focus on what’s really going on during each episode, which means missing out on a lot of the more subtle commentary.
At times, the show feels almost cartoonish, down to Hammond attempting to seduce journalists right after negotiating for their release from the hostile government of Iran and the Vice President looking like a weasel with profound indigestion. Larger-than-life characters may work for the stage, but on television, subtlety would be preferable, especially given the miniseries format. USA has an opportunity to create a tight, compelling series that doesn’t suffer from the endless dragging and meandering of many series here, and it’s squandering the chance to do something interesting. They don’t need to pile on the soap to keep viewers drawn, not with so few episodes; it should be easy to hold the attention of the audience with compelling drama.
Even the role of Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), a reporter who started out with scandalmongering and is working her way into Elaine’s inner circle, isn’t nearly as compelling as she could be. Instead of exploring the insider politics of Washington journalism and the roles journalists play in shaping the public perception of the White House, the show’s spent more time showing Berg with her skirts up and her shirt down, even though the character (and the actress) is obviously capable of far more than that.
Sex, power, and control in Washington are fascinating themes to play with, but US television may be overplaying it a bit with the string of series and copycat series dedicated to the subject, especially given how high the bar was set with The West Wing. Almost more disturbing is the thought that at least some voters will probably paying more attention to the fiction than the fact, even though actual political events are only a click of the remote away, and more pressing now than ever in a nation with a collapsing economy, unstable international relationships, and growing restlessness among the lower classes. The serious drama is happening in boardrooms and private offices across the nation, and there are no suds in sight there.
Never has the idea of opiate for the masses seemed quite so transparent; while viewers and voters are distracted with drama, the power brokers in Washington make decisions that will linger for generations.
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