“They only love us when they’re not busy hating us.”
Former first son TJ Hammond (Sebastian Stan) of USA’s new miniseries, Political Animals, pretty much sums up the trouble with politics in this country in that succinct statement. Or perhaps, more specifically, the politics of personality is really what he’s talking about here. You know what I mean. Our obsession with the personal lives, dramas, and (really now) mistakes of the people who run our government and their families. Perhaps it is the fact that we always have such strong feelings about our public figures that makes their lives so intriguing. Love or hate the fictional politicians of Political Animals, you do want to know more about them.
The conceit of the six episode miniseries, created by Everwood and Jack and Bobby alum, Greg Berlanti, is simple enough. Former First Lady and Governor of Illinois Elaine Barrish Hammond (Sigourney Weaver, in a rare television role), complete with a philandering ex-presidential husband, is now Secretary of State after an unsuccessful primary presidential bid. Sound familiar? It should. Despite the denial by Weaver that the show is specifically about the Clintons, the parallels are simply to many to ignore. And perhaps that is good for the show, to link itself so inextricably to people so firmly rooted in our cultural memory. We all share an intimate knowledge of the background of the characters that we are inclined to watch them in this new setting. And indeed, the Hammonds seem to be more than the Clintons. In a Kennedy-esque way, they are what American royalty would be like. But once you get passed the idea that the show is a dramatization of that famous family, it actually starts to hold its own.
For one thing, a crux on which the show rests is the fact that Barrish actually divorced her husband. The show opens with her concession speech after losing the Democratic primary (with a nod to Secretary Clinton’s famous “glass ceiling” speech), which she immediately follows by demanding a divorce from Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds). Fast forward two years and Secretary Barrish is being interviewed by ambitious reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) who wants to know simply, why? Why that night? Why not right when the affairs started? Was it political? In a moment of pure exposition she notes that Barrish’s popularity has soared since the divorce while Hammond’s has plummeted. If she ran for president that moment she would win in a landslide. Did she decide to divorce her husband at her moment of defeat because she was so desperate to win?
The interview questions aside, the idea that Barrish divorcing her husband made her a more popular figure is something I find fascinating. That it showed her to be a strong and independent woman and that the American public loved that, is an intriguing piece of fiction. I cannot say I believe that if Hilary Clinton were to divorce Bill it would increase her popularity. Rather I feel it would tarnish her, leave her open to attacks from conservatives about the sanctity of marriage, and call into question the political intentions of staying together in the first place. I just don’t think that as a group, the American public likes strong independent women at all. I personally have a great love of strong and independent women. I grew up around them, and hope to one day be able to count myself among them. But I am also hyper-aware of the reactions of others to them. And they are usually negative.
And it is not just in politics. In film and television, we are constantly assaulted with a barrage of weak and attractive female characters that are there to serve men rather than their own interests. They flutter around being supported by their stronger male counterparts and usually have very little consequence to the story other than a romantic one. We call it the Woman Problem. And it is a problem. It’s a problem because we’ve been so ingrained with this stereotype by the media that we accept these pathetic female characters without really questioning them. Think about women in Tim Burton films, the female characters in The Newsroom, or the Queen Bee of women waifs, Bella Swan. We are programmed to believe this is how women behave. And so I am happy to see a show that has taken the Woman Problem and made it a concept rather than a consequence.
That is not to say that the show is completely flattering in its portrayal of a powerful woman. Barrish runs into trouble with attacks from the press, her male diplomatic counterparts’ sexual advances, and the vitriol of the men who surround her in the White House (one staffer asks her, ever so viciously,”why don’t you worry about your son’s engagement party and we’ll worry about the situation in Iran”). But it does, in its own very melodramatic way, face those issues head on.
An interesting aspect of the series that helps to propel this theme is the dynamic between Barrish and her tag-along-reporter, Susan Berg. Berg starts off as the villain, extorting an all access pass to Barrish’s life by dangling the threat of publishing an embarrassing story about her son TJ. Instead, Berg turns into a foil for the weak women in other stories: she is a strong woman who is proud and self-aware of her strength, and who hated Barrish for her weakness at first. A great moment occurs at the end of the first hour of the series when these two women recognize the strength in each other.
The show is very self-aware of its own faults and limitations. It is a nighttime soap, completely over-dramatic, and occasionally, very lightweight. But it embraces these aspects, melding melodrama with message. I’m interested to see where they take the idea of women and the Woman Problem, but I’m also interested to see what happens with President Hammond and his TV star girlfriend, how Barrish will beat the President in their power plays, and if the engagement with Hammond son Douglas and the bulimic Anne will make it. And the show is designed to make me interested in both.
“Political Animals” airs Sundays at 10/9c on USA Network.