The most damaged of all is Elaine, whose soaring public popularity in the wake of dumping her husband hasn’t assuaged her bitterness at the humiliation or her rage at those who helped bring it about. “What is it like,” she icily wonders to the reporter Susan, “launching your career by stepping on the throat of somebody else’s marriage?” Her job, in which she’s ruthlessly manipulated by the president who defeated her, is scarce comfort.
Like two previous shows based heavily around politics produced by Berlanti — a short-lived re-imagining of Kennedy childhoods called Jack & Bobby and the tony soap opera Brothers & Sisters — Political Animals can be slightly murky when it comes to invoking issues and ideologies. (The whys and wherefores of an Iranian hostage crisis that erupts during the first episode are particularly confusing.)
But when it comes to the microlevel of politics, the misdirection and machinations politicians employ to satisfy their own ambitions and thwart those of others, Political Animals is peerless. Weaver’s portrayal of Elaine, her youthful idealism so pockmarked by cynical compromises and personal betrayals that it’s barely recognizable, is a gasping tour de force. Gugino is every bit her equal as Susan, whose moral certainties are wavering as badly as her career.
The biggest challenge facing Political Animals may be its branding. The USA Network, known mainly for light comedy and lightweight drama, is an unexpected source for such a powerhouse program. But there was also a time when FX was a dismal showcase for reruns of 1970s cop dramas rather than the edginess of Sons of Anarchy or American Horror Story. And AMC was once a channel you tuned in for old movies rather than Mad Men or The Walking Dead. Basic cable is growing up.