Tag Archives: political animals

Do the Right Thing

Political Animals Episode 5 Recap and Review

As the political miniseries moves from character to character, doling out telling flashbacks, I wonder why there’s “mini” in the series. With only one episode to go, I wonder how the story will resolve itself, which it has to to qualify Sigourney Weaver for Best Actress in a Mini Series for next years Emmy’s. But let’s dive in to this week’s episode, in which we learn what makes Susan tick, how crazy Bud really is, Garcetti isn’t really such a bad guy, and that Anne is still boring.

The episode was titled “16 Hours” but it should really have been called “All About Susan.” our intrepid reporter was the focus of the flashbacks this episode, which strangely was devoid of all things Georgia. We see her emerge as a budding columnist and make her mark by tearing Elaine down. Ripping her apart in a column her editor calls more “judgmental” than editorial. To this criticism, Susan accuses him of being sexist. She goes over his head and suddenly her column is published and she has a new swanky office. This is the part that bugged me. Susan steps on Elaine’s ashes to climb her way up the corporate ladder, all the while accuses her boss of being sexist. She doesn’t really know where she stands, and neither does the show. What does feminism mean here? Is what Susan did strength or was it cheating? Are women supposed to help each other or claw each other’s eyes out? I of course have my own opinions and I’m sure you have yours, but I’m not entirely sure what the show thinks. Sometimes I think all the gains that the character of Elaine makes in terms of the portrayal of women on television, Susan gives away. I’m hoping something great will happen next episode.

The more exciting news was Doug and Susan sleeping together, something you could have called a mile away since that first clandestine meeting. He also drunkenly admits to the other thing we all knew before: that he doesn’t really love Anne enough to marry her and that they’re just a puppet couple. He can’t leave her for Susan but I wish he could. Anne is boring and Susan needs to date a nicer guy. Sigh.

In the meantime, TJ is unconscious in the hospital after an overdose which Elaine covers up by leaking the Chinese nuclear sub story to Susan. The rescue mission is underway but China is so dead set on keeping the sub out of American hands that they threaten to release their nuke onto California if a rescue is attempted. When Vice President Asshole votes to kill the Chinese, Garcetti makes the first good call of the series and steps out as a not-so-bad-guy after all. Of course no bomb is deployed and all is saved, especially Garcetti’s political future. Elaine herself says he’ll be unbeatable. It was noble of her to sacrifice her own political aspirations for the lives of a hundred men, but it’s clear that she’s needed in the federal government, as Garcetti wouldn’t  have lifted a finger without  her. I wish Elaine would have had more to do this episode besides talk about the sub and talk about TJ. It was Bud who got the real action, taking swing at the Vice President for blackmailing Congressman Gay way back when. It was a hilarious scene, one that got me thinking, what would the secret service do in that situation? President, VP, and former President in a fist fight? I wonder if something like that has ever happened…

And of course, we can’t forget Margaret and Anne, busy searching the house for drugs to flush so that TJ can come home and rehabilitate. When they find some good old fashioned Mary Jane, they decide to smoke it instead of flushing it. Cue the high revelations, all of the good ones coming from Margaret of course. The pot brings on a case of the munchies and of course, causes Anne to hit the bathroom to puke her guts out. Only Grandma knows all, and confronts her. It’s a great speech for Ellen Burstyn and she handles the scene well while Brittany Ishibashi sort of stands there like the doll she is. She is such an unnecessary character and even her own personal storyline is boring. They’re spending so much time with TJ and addiction they don’t really have time for another mental health problem in the short six episodes. My only hope is that we leave the series with Doug and Anne resolutely broken up. We’ll just have to wait until next week to see.

Let’s Take the Politics Out of This

Political Animals Episode 4, “Lost Boys,” Review and Recap

In this week’s fourth installment of the USA miniseries, our animals become a lot less political, and a lot more personal. Plot-wise, we actually didn’t cover a lot of ground. Elaine finally told Garcetti she was running against him, TJ backslid (again), and Bud gave up womanizing. Character-wise, this episode was all about TJ and, surprisingly, Georgia. She became an actual character this week, not just a device so that Susan could feel what it was like to get cheated on. Let’s dive in.

We open with Doug, Susan’s new pet monkey, recapping the last few weeks of Hammond family life, for Susan and for the viewer. Garcetti has sent Elaine all around the world to keep her from campaigning, TJ got a “sober partner” to keep him, well, sober, and Bud got a Hollywood publicist and did a tearful interview expressing his love for Elaine. Again, plot wise, not that earth shattering for a show with only two episodes left.

Elaine’s big hurrah was a security crisis in the form of a Chinese submarine sinking off the coast of California and disagreeing with Garcetti about how to deal with it, again. Eventually, after Vice President A**hole confronts her about it, Elaine tells Garcetti that she is running against him. She visits him late at night while he’s with his son to tell him that she’s running and she’s going to resign after he saves the Chinese men. I actually thought it was really interesting to show Garcetti with his son. This episode reminded us that that the Hamonds aren’t the only family in politics, and what they do can have ramifications against more than just their political rivals. But this was as political as the show got this week.

On the journalism front Georgia interviews Anne about her interior design business. Fascinating stuff. Until Georgia slips in a question about Elaine’s campaign and Anne confirms without meaning to. Anne has now moved up from the most useless character to the stupidest! I didn’t think anyone could out-dumb our pretty brunette blogger but, by Georgia, Anne did it! And here we see Georgia have some depth for the first time. Susan told her to take herself seriously, and she did. After Doug turns to Susan for help and Susan confronts Georgia, we see Georgia hold her ground and demand a shared byline with Susan on her story. When Susan says no and tells Doug this, he reveals something about Susan to herself: she wants Elaine to succeed. Not just professionally, but personally. This has been clear from the first episode, that Susan’s initial hatred of Elaine came out of jealousy and idolization. And now Susan knows it to. She bites the bullet and takes on Georgia as a partner.

But the real focus of the episode was TJ. Last week’s Doug flashbacks were replaced with TJ flashbacks, to right around the time he tried to kill himself. It’s the happiest time of his life. He’s sober, and he’s in love, with a closeted Republican congressman who is attempting to pass a bad bill. The Democrats find out about the affair and want to blackmail the Congressman into dropping his bill. When Elaine confronts TJ and tells him what the Dems are going to do, he says something I think about politics all the time: “we’re supposed to be better than them!” But Elaine is a realist, and knows they’re going to do it no matter what. TJ tries to convince Congressman Gay that the blackmail is a good thing, because he can finally come out. Unfortunately, Congressman Gay isn’t having it, he wants his career and his family and his power, and not really TJ anymore. He calls him a “national punchline” and dumps him. And now we know why TJ tried to kill himself. And we see him try it.

Back in the present, Bud is with his publicist, clothes off, talking shop. She informs him that he can’t go to TJ’s club opening, because he would appear sleazy. It’s not lost on Bud, or us, that he is sleazy, but hey, politics is all about how everything looks. When he tells TJ he won’t come, it turns into a family fight. Bud refuses to admit that he won’t go for himself, and blames TJ’s bad decisions. Elaine gets involved and soon the whole family’s arguing. TJ leaves for his club opening alone (well with his sober buddy).  For some reason said 24-hour sober buddy leaves him alone long enough for him to get free cocaine from one of his partners and then to snort it. When he finds TJ high, instead of taking him home, he lets TJ to convince him to get high and then allows TJ to OD. This guy should probably think of a different career path. The episode ends with Bud, having dumped his publicist both personally and professionally, rushing to the club and finding TJ passed out on the floor.

I suppose this does count as motion in the TJ storyline. We at least learn why he is the way he is, even if he’s not changing at all. I admit that it is probably incredibly hard for people like him to change, but change is what stories are about, and he is in a story. We’ll see what happens next week, and find out whether the OD (I assume it’s an OD, he took a bunch of drugs and then passed out) was intentional or not. And possibly we’ll get a little more politics in this political show? Nah. Sex, drugs, and intrigue are way better.

The B*tch is Back

Political Animals Episode 3 Review and Recap

Holy political tactics, Batman! The characters on Political Animals are sure upping the stakes and what they are willing to do to get things done. In the third episode of the miniseries, aptly title “The Woman Problem,” the show tackles a problem head on that they’ve only subtly dealt with up until this point. Why would people vote for a woman? Why don’t people vote for a woman? Did Elaine lose two years ago because she is a woman? What does it mean to be a woman in really any profession? I don’t know if they really answered these questions fully, but they certainly took a big whack at them.

The episode centered on last episode’s big reveal, that Elaine would challenge the sitting president in the primary. But where last time the show focused on the familial ramifications of that decision, this time we get to look at the political side of Political Animals. Somehow, the rumor that Elaine is going to make this primary bid has reached President Garcetti, and his response is to attempt to get liberal Supreme Court Justice Diane Nash (Vanessa Redgrave, a delight as usual) to step down so he can appoint Elaine. Shrewd move Garcetti! But the most interesting aspect of this was Redgrave’s character, supposedly a openly gay US Supreme Court Justice. I love the optimism of this show. Elaine is loved for her independence and her divorce, and a gay woman is on the Supreme Court. I want to live in that world. It’s also a great move of the writers, who give their characters plenty of time to hash out the woman problem, but give us the woman solution I talked about in my review of episode 1 with the facts of life in their fictional world. It’s an impressive strategy.

However, this episode is really all about Doug. As Camp Barrish gets the wheels in motion for a run, he’s still not thrilled about the whole idea, and says so. But he still agrees to go away with his father and TJ on a Potemkin fishing trip to visit a pollster and find out Elaine’s odds. In the episode we get two campaign flashbacks that help explain the dynamic between Bud and Doug and between Doug and Elaine. We also learn that Doug isn’t quite as straight edge as one might have surmised. There are also two pointless Anne cameos. She is the flattest of flat characters and we’ve had no word on her bulimia since episode one. I wonder if she’s there only to create family events that Bud and Elaine have to attend at the same time. Doug’s development in this episode had nothing to do with her. It was really about him forgiving his father, and realizing that he’s not entirely a villain. Their reconciliation at the end of the episode was great, and made me for the first time not hate old hammy Hammond.

In other news the TJ-can’t-stay-sober-but-he-wants-to-run-a-nightclub drama continues. I’m getting a little tired of this storyline if only because nothing ever changes (but I did just notice over the weekend that Sebastian Stan played Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The First Avenger, talk about mind-blown).

Over in the land of journalists, everything is changing. Susan is hot on the trail of the story that Doug gave her last episode. She’s even lying to her cheating ex-boyfriend/editor about it, to keep it a true exclusive. When the Garcetti Supreme Court plan gets leaked to the paper, Susan turns tactical, telling Elaine about Garcetti’s plan so she can outmaneuver him and Susan’s story can be saved. When you think about the actual ramifications of this, Susan is potentially changing the outcome of a presidential election so she can get a good story. That’s kind of a big deal. But she didn’t bat an eye. In a side-story, homewrecker Georgia is sad because her new boyfriend shot down her serious news story. When Susan finds her crying in her office, she delivers my favorite line of the episode: “Don’t shit where you eat and then cry about it.” She’s back in form, over the hurt we saw last episode. We learn this in full when Doug meets her again to beg her not to publish the story about his mother, because he’s changed his mind. She agrees, and he breathes a sigh of relief…until she reveals that when she publishes after the announcement she’s going to use everything she already has, and everything she’s going to blackmail Doug into giving her.

Conniving? Maybe. But it is a total microcosm of what the pollster said was Elaine’s problem in the debates of her first run: when she held back she seemed meek and womanly, but when she attacked, she seemed like a vicious bitch. The Woman Problem, in a nutshell. If Susan had taken a dive on a career-making story so that Doug could feel better, she would have seemed like an emotion-driven woman. Her tactics may seem harsh and yes, “bitchy,” but they were the right thing to do from Susan’s perspective. Glad to see that things are finally heating up.

Everybody Gets a Second Chance

Political Animals Episode 2 Review and Recap (Warning: spoilers ahead). 

Watching this week’s second installment in USA’s political miniseries, entitled “Second Time Around,” I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly, by how the series has started to grow and distance itself from its Clintonian source material, and achieve a thematically resounding second episode, and secondly, by what would possess anyone in any universe, real or fictional, to vote for Ciaran Hinds’ pork belly buffet of a President Bud Hammonds.

But seriously, who is this guy? I was so excited for this episode in all aspects except him. We learned a bit more about Elaine, got to see her at her most vulnerable in flashbacks to Bud’s affairs in the White House. Ellen Burstyn’s Margaret got to shine and move past the alcohol swilling cliches her character was weighed down with in the first episode. TJ’s story was fleshed out more. And it would have been so good, if not for a drawling ex-President bringing a pretty journalist to a “top-secret” meeting with the President of Iran because he wanted her to like him. But more on that later.

This episode focused with Elaine making her first true power play versus President Garcetti, in forcing him to send Bud to Iran to deal with the hostage crisis. This all of course led up to Elaine’s confession to her son, and later to Bud, that she was planning on making a primary challenge to Garcetti in the next election. Doug, both her son and chief aide, obviously thinks its crazy. His confrontation of Elaine is a perfect microcosm of the point the entire series is trying to make. First he talks about the political ramifications, dividing the Democratic party, losing, etc. Then he moves to the personal. She barely survived the 18 hours days of the last campaign, with the stress and the medication it required. Then he goes for the sucker punch, the familial. What could possibly possess her to put her family through that again?

When Doug pries out of Elaine that she slept with Bud again, the argument between them is truly heartbreaking. They’re not the first family anymore. They’re just a mother and son, with the son desperately trying to prevent the mother from being hurt again by his cheating father. It’s not a political motivation, it’s one of love. It was a humanizing moment for Doug, who has been exhibiting automaton-like qualities up until this point. I was glad to see the human side of him.

The episode was about the second time around, and not just for Elaine. The full effects of the story about his suicide have finally reached TJ, who dashes shoeless out of the window of a random lover’s apartment in his first appearance in the episode. I was excited to see his character expanding as well, as he displayed behavior that made him more than just an addict and a poor little rich boy. In a scene with Ellen Burstyn’s extremely entertaining Grandma Margaret, the duo resolves to perform at Doug’s party. After he steals a check from her she turns the tables on him, dropping her loving Grandma act to straight talk with a kid in trouble. “I know your story, and I know how it ends.” Ouch. Quite a sentiment to hear from your grandmother. (Also, three cheers for Ellen Burstyn, who was great even when the role was cliched. Note to the writers: More Grandma Margaret please!) Later in the episode he shows up at Doug’s apartment looking for a second chance. He gets it, with the condition that he gets treatment. We’ll see what he does with it.

Bud also got a second chance, in his case to make a difference in the world. His whole trip to Turkey was the most annoying part of the episode, what with his blatant come-on to Susan and then his incredibly unprofessional and unrealistic negotiation with the President of Iran. I suppose it would be hard to make realistic storylines for an unrealistic character, but still, they could try.

The best moment of the episode was at the end when Doug took a step that reversed the family’s relationship with the media. He leaked to Susan that Elaine was planning on running again. He wanted her to publish it to stop his mother from getting anywhere on her plan, to save his engagement and his younger brother. This is an interesting flip on the conceit of the first episode, where the media used the family for its benefit, instead we see members of the family using the media to change their own lives and work their relatives. Somehow it evens the scales between the family and the media, which is an interesting dynamic. We’ll see where it takes us in episode three.

Political Animals Episode 1 Review: The Woman Solution

Secretary of State Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver) and reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) are strong women who help the soapy “Political Animals” shine.

“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.