Today’s addition to the Just How Stupid Do They Think We Are? file comes from everybody associated with USA’s new miniseries Political Animals, who continue to insist that Elaine Barrish, the show’s protagonist, isn’t based on anyone in particular. Let’s see: A former first lady whose husband was a philandering lout from a Southern state, Elaine unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency, then became secretary of state. Yeah, they’re right — probably just some badly written fringe character who was cut from The West Wing as inherently unbelievable.
The wide-eyed insistence that any resemblance between Elaine and Hillary Clinton is strictly coincidental is just about the only thing about Political Animals that isn’t smart. Its sharply etched characters and their smackdown dialogue make this the show of the summer.
Start with Elaine herself (Sigourney Weaver), a politician whose bleak world view and scorn for wooing voters make her spectacularly unsuited for her profession. “It’s an Olympic sport in hypocrisy,” she says of campaigning. “Fat smokers frowning on and on about their [bleepy] medical coverage. Smiling when babies with runny noses are shoved in my face. And most of all I hate lying ... telling people that things are going to get better when they never will.”
Then there’s her estranged husband, Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds, Rome), whose ego (“I am the most popular Democrat since Kennedy had his brains splattered across the Dallas concrete”) is exceeded only by his taste for the kind of blond TV stars whose breasts are insured by their networks.
Bud’s serial affairs were exposed by the ruthless investigative reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino, Chicago Hope), who won a Pulitzer and used it as a springboard for a book about “fourth-generation feminism” titled When Bitches Rule. Susan’s harsh criticism of Elaine for putting up with her husband’s hound-doggery enraged Elaine’s boozy, bawdy mother Margaret (Ellen Burstyn), who labeled the reporter “a bitch with a capital C.” No wonder Margaret is never allowed to talk to journalists: “I’m either too drunk or too honest.”
Despite the familiarity of Elaine and her husband, Political Animals is not a roman a clef that derives most of its entertainment value from trying to guess which characters are going to morph into Monica Lewinsky or Ken Starr. Executive producer Greg Berlanti is less interested in rehashing the Clinton administration than in imagining what living inside a public scandal must do to a family’s private life.
Conspicuously not among the answers he comes up with is “living happily ever after.” One of Elaine’s twin sons, T.J. (Sebastian Stan, Gossip Girl), turned into a gay icon when he came out while living in the White House, but his addictions to drugs and Internet hookups makes him “a ticking bomb,” as his father broodily put it.
The other, Douglas, (James Wolk, Shameless) has achieved political stardom of his own, working as his mother’s briskly effective chief of staff. But he spends so much time on diplomatic shuttles between his warring relatives — “There is a tsunami of [bullbleep] that comes with my family,” he exhaustedly observes — that he doesn’t notice the cracks opening in his relationship with his pretty but troubled fianceé.