Tag Archives: television review

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. 

The Newsroom Episode 1 Review: Hopefully More as the Story Develops

Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer in "The Newsroom"

Aaron Sorkin is good at a lot of things. He’s good at giving characters names that roll of the tongue with over-alliteration (see: CJ Cregg, Mackenzie MacHale). He’s good at dialogue. He’s good at having characters fight. He’s good at politics. He’s good at writing movies. Occasionally, he’s good at making television.

One of the many things that doomed Sorkin’s 2006 attempt on the small screen, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was the feeling that he was simply trying to remake The West Wing in a different setting. The idea he was trying to force down our throats was that the backstage drama at a Saturday Night Live knock-off could be quite as consequential as the backstage drama in the White House. And quite simply, it wasn’t. The political ramifications of a sketch about the President are just simply small compared to a scene in which the President ordered a tactical assault on a foreign power. And the drama of poor unfortunate celebrities didn’t quite pull the heartstrings the way that the drama of overworked and underpaid geniuses attempting to help the country did. And so feeling like Studio 60 was a cheap knockoff of television gold, audiences fled, and it was soon cancelled.

I actually liked Studio 60 a little more than many other people, and stuck through it to its unnecessary end. Despite all of it’s flaws, there’s no denying that it was charming, and entertaining to watch when it wasn’t lost in a quagmire of its own self-righteousness. And so I was quite excited to discover that after Oscar-winning success at screenwriting, Sorkin was moving back to television in a new HBO show about cable news. I thought, this at least is an appropriate arena for the political and social meanderings Sorkin likes to take. That was step one in improving upon his Studio 60 failure. Step two was quickly established as well when I saw that the cast of characters all logically worked together on a single show, as opposed to randomness of the Chairmen of the Board of a media conglomerate constantly dealing with the cast of a sketch comedy show. I maintained cautious optimism for the show.

And so “We Just Decided To” aired and it felt less like an attempt to put The West Wing into cable news and more like an attempt to redo Studio 60 and fix it this time. The parallels to the pilot of that show are multifold. The episode opens with a BIG CONTROVERSIAL EVENT in the form wizened media icon unloading publicly about the faults of something. This BIG EVENT causes some sort of staffing shift at the SHOW involving bringing in SEASONED VETERANS who are too good for the job but have nowhere else to go. An IDEALISTIC EXECUTIVE brings them to the SHOW in a maverick-esque move against the profit-grubbing executives he/she is forced to work with. The SEASONED VETERANS cause CONFLICTS with the EXISTING STAFF both personal and professional. Two WILL THEY/WON’T THEY COUPLES are identified. Eventually, everyone agrees they can make the SHOW the best it can be, free of COMMERCIALIZED PROBLEMS it had before. The FIRST SHOW with the NEWLY UNITED STAFF is aired. It is a fantasy version of real-life shows in that medium. All rejoice and look towards a BETTER FUTURE TOGETHER. Roll credits.

Which show am I talking about? If you’ve seen Studio 60 you’ll know that’s the basic plot of the first two episodes. And it also the basic plot of the first (extra-long) episode of The Newsroom. It’s not necessarily a bad plot. I’ve just seen it before. And it didn’t lead to good longevity in 2006. And though I liked Studio 60, a rehashed version of it with slightly better characters and a better setting is not what I was looking for when I turned The Newsroom on. Sorkin seems like that student who wrote a bad paper, but keeps trying to revise it to get an A. It’s not the paper that’s the problem, it’s the subject. If you want to make it better, you have to start from scratch.

There is much to be said about the other problems with the show, including Sorkin’s inability to write strong women and the cynicism that is masked as idealism, and it’s been said very eloquently by other reviewers. See Linda Holmes’ excellent review from NPR. My main problem with the show is that it’s problems are all things we’ve seen before from Sorkin. Political grandstanding and idealistic speeches are simply not made in normal discourse. And surprisingly, in his most political undertaking, The West Wing, Sorkin seemingly did not feel the need to have his characters espouse forced patriotic platitudes in nearly every scene. Rather, the dialogue was natural and normal (if a little fast), and the plots, though larger than life, felt natural as well, and were original every time.

Now with only one episode in, it is unfair to fully judge the series as a profanity-riddled Studio 60 remake, as we have to let the show find its sea legs. I’m hopeful it will start to pull in a different direction, because despite his faults, I do have a great tonnage of faith in Aaron Sorkin. He wrote things like this. So perhaps he just has to figure out how The Newsroom really works. After all, the first season of The West Wing did have Mandy in it.