The TV Series:
The USA Network's limited run series Political Animals starred Sigourney Weaver as an assertive ex-first lady turned Secretary of State, working under the employ of a President she once campaigned against. Sounds familiar, eh? Any resemblance to Hillary Clinton is purely coincidental, however - or so we were lead to believe.
Perhaps downplaying the show's real-world inspiration was the best move to take. While Weaver's Elaine Barrish has some Hillary-like traits, Political Animals' premise in general doesn't aim for gritty realism all that much (although it does deliver in that regard). If the viewer approaches it as a slick, frothy family soap with a D.C. backdrop, rather than a true-to-life political drama, it can be quite entertaining.
Political Animals's pilot episode sets up Elaine Barrish as a Washington power player basking in the spotlight, all the while reflecting on how far she's come since being first lady (seen via flashbacks dappled with copious lens flare effects). While Elaine is being shadowed by Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), a tough reporter who stated some damaging things about her in the past, we get a peek into her unique family. Although divorced from flamboyant former president Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds) for his philandering, she still keeps in frequent touch with him for counsel and the sake of their two grown sons, twin brothers who are following different paths. While handsome and straight-laced Douglas (James Wolk), is working as a press liaison for his mother and engaged to lovely, bulimic designer Anne (Brittany Ishibashi), the openly gay T.J. (Sebastian Stan) is attempting to open a nightclub while battling substance abuse. Presiding over the family is Elaine's no-nonsense mother, Margaret (Ellen Burstyn), a former showgirl with an acid tongue. Amidst intense scrutiny, Elaine embarks on her position as Secretary of State under current Commander-in-Chief Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar), a Democrat who was her biggest opponent in the race for the presidency.
Although adjectives like "delectable" are used on the DVD packaging for Political Animals to shill it as some kind of Scandal-esque guilty pleasure, the show itself is actually somewhat low-key - and totally absorbing. Smart dialogue and terrific performances handily makes up for the series' occasional far-fetched plot twists and "strong woman conquering a man's world" contrivances. The scripts have the intelligence and clever dialogue of Aaron Sorkin's stuff, thankfully without the lefty-liberal preaching. Sigourney Weaver is as great as expected, making Elaine into the same strong yet inwardly vulnerable type that the actress has been doing for the past 25-odd years. Nothing new, sure, but she delivers. I especially loved the interplay between Weaver and Carla Gugino as the reporter who becomes Elaine's unlikely ally. There are some excellent dynamics in the family itself as well, with Elaine playing off against her mother (Burstyn, fantastic as always) and her two sons. The only performance that rings false is Ciaran Hinds as the Southern-bred, devil-may-care charmer of an ex-president. Hinds' broad portrayal makes it hard to believe that Bud Hammond and Elaine were ever a couple, and the actor's studied accent annoys - was it based on Foghorn Leghorn? At least the voice gets more subtle as the series moves forward.
If the soapy dynamics and Washington shenanigans in Political Animals seem kind of baroque and specious at best, at least it's solidly entertaining and not overly showy. Actually, the show is surprisingly observant on one front, and that is the portrayal of journalism with the Gugino character. Not only does Gugino's veteran newspaper reporter have to deal with attempting to access Elaine and the Hammonds, she also has disagreements with her boss and lover (Dan Futterman) and a younger reporting co-worker (Meaghann Fahy) who advanced her career by penning a gossipy blog. The sleeping around part may be soaped up, but the portrayal of the newsroom is pretty accurate (based on personal experience) and the show has a few insightful things to say about the changing state of journalism in its present "publish now, verify later" state.
Conceived as a six-part miniseries, Political Animals was likely never intended to get extended into a season-by-season drama series. Although the final episode has some sense of closure, the characters and stories are so interesting that one could easily picture it going on for at least one full season. Warner Home Video's DVD release divides its six installments over two discs:
1-01 ____ 15/Jul/12 ____ Pilot*
1-02 ____ 22/Jul/12 ____ Second Time Around*
1-03 ____ 29/Jul/12 ____ The Woman Problem
1-04 ____ 05/Aug/12 ____ Lost Boys*
1-05 ____ 12/Aug/12 ____ 16 Hours
1-06 ____ 19/Aug/12 ____ Resignation Day
* Unaired scenes included on a separate menu.
Political Animals arrives on disc with a nice, lush looking image. The matted 16x9 widescreen image on this digitally photographed series sports vibrant color, deep and varied dark tones, and highlights that pop. The mastering is decently done, although I noticed there were a few noticeable instances of color banding.
The 5.1 Surround mix is subtly done (I only noticed it a few times, such as when a door knock came from the side speaker) and nicely mixed with pristine sounding dialogue. The use of music is somewhat noisy and obtrusive, especially in the opening credits, but it's not very frequently employed in this dialogue-heavy series. Subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish are also provided.
About five minutes' worth of Unaired Scenes are here for three of the six episodes, accessible from a separate menu. Additionally, a two-page insert lists episodes and plot descriptions, along with a cast photo outlining the actors and characters' names.
Given the mixed reviews it received during its original 2012 broadcast, I was initially leery about reviewing Political Animals on DVD. But you know what? It's good. Sigourney Weaver's rigid nobility as Secretary of State Elaine Barrish can be a bit much, but the cast is great, the writing crackles, and there's enough densely plotted soapy intrigue to make one resent that it had a regretfully short 6-episode run. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.