Political Animals (USA, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET), created by Greg Berlanti, stars Sigourney Weaver as the secretary of state. Consider yourself warned that Weaver’s character, Madam Secretary Elaine Barrish, is no mere Condi knock-off or Madeleine Albright wannabe. Rather, she is a doozy of a Bizarro World Hillary Clinton. A prologue set two years before the main action introduces Elaine as a former FLOTUS who stood by her cheating man like Tammy Wynette. She has just lost a presidential primary race to a swarthy man with an exotic name. We first meet her as she selects a monochromatic pantsuit to wear while delivering her concession speech.
But the body of the pantsuit is a sleeveless one-piece with wide Hepburn-y legs, and the jacket is flashily cropped, and the belt looks like a patent leather corset. Appraising the pantsuit, perhaps you wonder: In what universe does an American politician doll herself up like Bianca Jagger at Studio 54? The pantsuit is the first indication that the show is intriguingly bonkers, an oddity crying out for an MST3K treatment.
Not long after that pantsuit moment—the sequence where Elaine concedes the race and then immediately tells her husband that she wants a divorce—she hits the trail to champion her party’s nominee, Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar). At a campaign rally, the two dance to the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” Witnessing the choreography, I panted at my TV set, with alarmed incredulity, “Oh, my God—oh, my God—oh, my God—oh, my God”—as the scene got irretrievably ridiculous, with the politicians sharing a grinding booty-bump.
The appeal of Elaine’s foxy Foggy Bottom bottom is a major theme of the series. During a joint press conference, Russia’s foreign minister squeezes her rear at the podium. (Afterward, she promises to inflict violence on his genitals should he try such a stunt again, saying, in subtitled Russian, “I will f— your shit up. Do you hear me?”) Her ex-husband, a lascivious cartoon exhibiting none of his factual counterpart’s frisky intelligence or charismatic empathy, concurs that she has a nice butt.
The ex-husband is named Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds). We first see him at the concession speech, where he plays air guitar on stage and leers bug-eyed at cleavage everywhere. Hinds smothers his Irish burr beneath an unstable gravy of an accent—a growling drawl that ranges freely from LBJ’s Texas to Clinton’s Arkansas to Boss Hogg’s Hazzard County. Bud disparages Garcetti with an encyclopedic array of anti-Eye-talian epithets and meanwhile sets a basic-cable record for wolfish cigar-chomping.
The first installment of Political Animals marks yet another cri de coeur about the burdens weighing on working women who want to have it all. In this episode, Elaine unbungles a hostage-situation in Iran, where the leadership—the raghead Eye-ranian guvmint, as Bud might say—is planning to execute three Americans. In order to iron this one out, Elaine’s going to need to interrupt the Russian foreign minister in the middle of a game of strip poker. And this is very same week she’s throwing an engagement party for her older son! That’s Douglas, who is also her chief of staff, played by James Wolk in a Jim-from-The Office vein. Elaine’s younger son is T.J., who has had some Betty Ford Clinic-level troubles in his young life, played by Sebastian Stan with a Dylan McKay pompadour.
T.J. wants his parents to loan him $100,000 to invest in a nightclub. (Obviously, it’s healthful for a recovering cocaine addict to spend a lot of time in nightclubs, widely renowned for their zero-tolerance policies, as Bianca Jagger will tell you.) You know immediately that T.J. will relapse when you see Elaine and Bud, reunited for a pre-engagement-party dinner, refuse him the money, but you may not be prepared to absorb audio of the parents discussing the boy’s frailties while watching the guy sniff powder in an imperial bathroom. Elaine: “He didn’t choose our life, and he doesn’t have the strength to withstand it. …” Bud: “He’s a tickin’ bomb jes’ like yo daddy was. …” Later, Douglas promises his mom that he’ll track down T.J., who is bingeing on gay sex and hard drugs in a hotel room, right before the 1:30 p.m. fitting for his engagement-party tuxedo.
Elaine has no biological daughters, but she takes a maternal interest in a feisty girl reporter, Susan Berg (Carla Gugino). Elaine admired Susan’s book “about the impending fourth wave of feminism” but tsks-tsks its title, When Bitches Rule. “Never call a bitch a bitch,” Elaine says, over her reading glasses. “Us bitches hate that.” This caliber of writing does not inspire Weaver’s finest work, and Gugino stands by silently as the star churns through two or three of the most regrettable speeches she has ever delivered on camera. At a secret meeting at the National Zoo, she gets gorillas-in-the-misty-eyed about the elephants: “Beautiful creatures, aren’t they? Majestic. Fearsome. But still gentle. They move slower than most animals, but they travel just as far, but that isn’t what I love most about them. …”
The tides of synthetic sleaze, the aerobic rutting, the full-frontal backstabbing, the sight of Ellen Burstyn cranking lushly around as Elaine’s insult comic of a mother—Political Animals is something special in the recent annals of trash. The USA Network is promoting this six-episode deal as both its “most ambitious project to date” and “limited series event,” which seems like a classy way to say that it is totally an Anglo-American telenovela. There are just enough witty lines and interesting choices, such as in the editing of the bulimia scene, to create fleeting sensations that all is not dross. Despite a make-believe perspective on feminism amounting to a lot of Simone de Bushwa, the show doesn’t very often ask to be taken seriously. It just wants to be taken, like a Kennedy-cult magazine package or a Maureen Dowd pop-psych op-ed, as part of a general fantasy about the private drama of public life. It’s a gift-shop souvenir of 2012’s culture of political celebrity, The Realpolitik Housewives of Washington, D.C.