USA Network’s new six-part mini-series stars Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish, the current Secretary of State and former First Lady and Governor, who is dealing with the fallout of her recent divorce and failed Presidential bid, trying to keep her family together (and out of tabloids), and a pain-in-the-ass journalist (Carla Gugino) who has spent her career trying to undermine Elaine but might just become a valuable ally.
The Pilot begins with Elaine’s primary concession speech and private diatribe to her husband (Ciarán Hinds) about her hatred of campaigning and running for office that leads to the pair’s divorce and her new role two years later as Secretary of State for the current President of the United States (Adrian Pasdar). We pick up on a typical day which involves fending off Susan Berg (Gugino), a reporter who blackmailed her into a one-week exclusive interview, attending her son’s (James Wolk) engagement party, and dealing with three American journalists arrested in Tehran and charged as spies for the U.S. Government.
Based loosely off of Hillary Clinton, Elaine is a tough as nails who is too liberal for Republicans and far too conservative for the Democratic Party. Weaver is fine in the role, though the writing leaves much to be desired in the one-note characters surrounding her such as her philandering ex-husband (Hinds) and his slutty girlfriend of the moment (Lucila Solá), her sassy drunk mother (Ellen Burstyn), her outwardly perfect but deeply troubled daughter-in-law-to-be (Brittany Ishibashi) and fiercely loyal but equally self-destructive sons (James Wolk, Sebastian Stan).
Gugino faces her own hardships in the newsroom with an equally untrustworthy and bland editor/boyfriend (Dan Futterman) and a perky young blogger (Meghann Fahy) who she considers the death of journalism. Sadly, both Weaver and Gugino’s best moments occur in the all-too-infrequent number of scenes they appear in together.
In the end the Pilot of Political Animals feels an awful lot like that, a Pilot episode. At times the writing is saved by two strong and charismatic female leads, but it’s also dragged down by soap opera elements and subplots that mostly get in the way of the parts of the story that work well. Given enough time and the right focus, Political Animals might turn into something, but with the amount of time and energy spent on soap opera rather than politics, governing or journalism I’d say there’s an equal chance we’re only in store for more of the same.