The Pilot (or whatever we’re calling it; the first part of a “limited series blahblah”) of Political Animals is a tough nut to crack. I was looking forward to the premiere, based mainly on it’s cast, all of whom have either been in some things I’ve loved or I love them individually as actors. I was especially looking forward to the dynamic between the female leads, Sigourney Weaver and Carla Gugino. However, while those scenes shined, and Greg Berlanti damn well sure knows how to write quippy lines (there are plenty in the quotes section down below), the surrounding stuff was pretty trope-y, not particularly original, and in some cases slightly problematic. I’m always one to give shows the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Pilots; Pilots and their expositionary obligations are tough.
First though, let’s start with a quick (okay I lied it’s kinda long, but there’s gifs! Gifs make everything better!) run-down of the basic set-up of the show.
The basic set-up is that this is sort of an alternate universe version of the Clinton… situation. Sigourney Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, the former First Lady to President Bud Hammond (played by Ciarán Hinds aka Julius Motherfucking Caesar from Rome). As President, Bud was exposed as a serial philanderer, but since the public viewed Elaine as an ice queen “political animal”, they thought a manwhore President was roguish. Elaine and Bud have twin sons who grew up as teenagers in the White House: golden boy Douglas (played by the adorable James Wolk), who can do no wrong, and troubled Thomas aka T.J. (Sebastian Stan, who is great but has mostly terrible luck with roles), the first openly gay child of a President, who was forced to come out (outed?) as a First Son. Since then he’s been in and out of rehab for a cocaine addiction and all sorts of other self-destructive behavior. Finally, there’s Elaine’s mother Margaret (Ellen Burstyn) who is the typical cynical, booze-pickled loose cannon who’s not allowed to talk to the press.
We open on a political party, what I believe is at least a few years after Bud’s presidency, which provides a nice introduction the the members of Hammond family. Elaine has chosen to run for President, but tonight is conceding the Democratic nomination to her opponent (and future President) Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar). Afterwards, Elaine complains about campaigning, “an Olympic sport in hypocrisy” and says that she hates lying. However, while Bud blusters and boasts about how he’s not going to support Garcetti in his campaign, basically being his typical self-centered bastard self, Elaine shuts that shit down. She knows Garcetti is going to win because he believes the lie. Then, as she leaves the room to head home, BAMF Elaine arrives for good: “And Bud. I want a divorce.” Shut. It. Down.
It’s two years later! Elaine’s now Secretary of State in Garcetti’s administration, being interviewed by Susan Berg (Carla Gugino). Elaine pretty much loathes Susan, who won a Pulitzer in her 20s for covering Bud’s adultery. Elaine thinks it’s contemptible and a violation of journalistic ethics that Susan would, like, do her job? Report the news? Or as Elaine puts it “launching her career by stepping on the throat of another person’s marriage”. Um, sorry honey, but Susan is not to blame for your cheating scum-bucket of a husband’s infidelity, nor do I think it was unethical for her to report on it. The story and possibly “one little comment about her epitomizing the death of feminism” also caused Susan to be banned from the White House for the remaining 6 years of the Hammond presidency. Couldn’t even go to the Easter Egg Roll. That’s way harsh, Elaine.
This disparaging of Susan’s journalistic ethics and talent is repeatedly mentioned throughout this episode, at one point by Margaret in a pretty grossly misogynistic way, and yet it’s baffling to me, especially after we learn that Susan finally managed to get this profile of Elaine by leveraging the secret of T.J.’s suicide attempt; she wouldn’t print the story if she could follow Elaine around during the week of Douglas’ engagement party (he’s getting hitched to his long-time girlfriend Ann). Susan was never actually going to print the story, and is pretty much infuriated when it does leak and she loses her visiting privileges again. Basically, I don’t really understand why the Hammonds hate her so damn much.
Back to the interview: Elaine went straight from her concession to enthusiastically campaigning for Garcetti. She’s on record as saying she didn’t want to be Secretary of State, but Garcetti asked and Elaine’s old-West Wing-fashioned, so when the President asked you to serve, you serve (“I serve at the pleasure of the President”). Turns out, she fucking awesome at being Secretary of State. For example, after the Russian foreign minister grabs her ass in the middle of press conference, she says this:
Susan ex-posits that with her current approval numbers, if Elaine were to run for President again, she would win by a landslide, but Elaine doesn’t tip her hand to reveal if that’s in the cards for her (spoiler alert: it is). Elaine cuts the bullshit and asks what Susan’s goal is in trading T.J.’s secret (which is, apparently, actual news, while the President’s man-whoring wasn’t?) for a profile of the Secretary of State. Susan is straight up:
“Like any good reporter, I want the truth. Why did you ask your ex-husband for a divorce that night? Was he too much political baggage for you to re-create yourself in the face of such a set-back? Or did you just think your political career was over so you no longer had to tolerate his rampant infidelity? Were you surprised at the public’s reaction to the split? That the president was suddenly despised for the same repugnant sexual behavior the country used to find roguish and cute? That you were suddenly beloved after having been viewed for so long as a cold and calculating political animal? And lastly, do you regret staying with him for so long? Was it worth it, if you didn’t get the grand prize, the gold, glittering tiara of the presidency?”
We don’t hear her answer, or lack thereof.
Elaine bitches (pun intended) about having to do this profile to her son Douglas, who is her chief of staff (which I find questionable). Tonight’s a “salon”, some sort of pre-engagement party party, I guess? The whole Hammond clan will be there, including Bud, whom Elaine hasn’t seen in the 2 years since their divorce. Ann’s parents will be there too, as well as a Japanese diplomat (which Ann awesomely calls out later as being sort of racist, since her parents were both born in America), and Susan Berg.
Back at the office, we find out that Susan is dating and living with her editor, but it’s painfully obvious that he’s cheating on her with the newspaper’s blogger Georgia. Re Georgia: “I don’t trust her. If Eve Harrington were an actual person today she would look like Georgia. She would bake cupcakes, and she would have a blog.” Ugh, bloggers. Aren’t they the worst? Writing on the internet obviously means you’re an idiot. [/sarcasm] Susan also calls out the double standard of their inter-office relationship: “You’re a guy, and my boss. We kiss at the office you get high-fives, I get glares from people who think ‘that whore is sleeping with our editor’”. Fucking sexism, man. But then she apologizes! For expressing her weak, womanly emotions! Sigh.
No time for that though! There’s a crisis!! We get the run-down in the Situation Room: three journalists in Iran have been arrested and interrogated into signing a confession that they are American spies (and this) (they aren’t, btw, which Elaine makes sure to clarify). The Iranian president is promising a swift (sham) trial and the death penalty unless President Garcetti personally travels to Iran to negotiate their release, which is out of the question. And apparently TPTB have known about this for hours and were trying to handle this hostage crisis “internally” WITHOUT INFORMING THE SECRETARY OF STATE, THE LEADING DIPLOMAT. The President’s chief of staff solidifies his spot as the silver medalist in the Douche-canoe Olympics (he’s have to work really hard to oust Bud from the top spot) by being all “we didn’t want to both you, what with your son’s engagement and all”. Punch him in the throat, Elaine. Do it now. Go all Ripley on his ass.
Now, they want Elaine to present a press statement to calm the American people. Elaine’s a professional adult, but Douglas, a child, throws a mini temper tantrum about that, for which Elaine later repeatedly smacks him over the head (and then smooths his hair down; it’s a total mother/son moment and it’s wonderful).
Elaine isn’t happy about being dicked around by the President, but she’s focused on doing anything she can to get the journalists home safely. She also wonders why this is happening now, since it isn’t really logical. I’ll spare you the rest of the details and just get to the reveal (suffice to say, Elaine does the badass move of getting around the President’s cockblocking and uses the gross Russian diplomat in order to get the truth out of an Iranian diplomat). The the President knew exactly what was up because the Iranian Khan called him to tell him. Even though Garcetti said no, that Iranian rascal did it anyway! It’s a ploy by the Khan in order to get the ultra-conservatives on his side by killing Americans, because before he dies of pancreatic cancer he wants to open negotiations to freeze Iran’s nuclear program, and the President is just going to let that happen, I guess?
We’ll zip through most of the rest. There was the “salon”. Margaret said that bitchy, misogynistic shit to Susan. Susan intuited during dinner that Elaine still has feelings for Bud, which Susan thinks is mostly just sad. She doesn’t understand how Elaine, who got an 8 minute standing ovation for her law school valedictorian speech, “sat out the next 20 years of her life catering to a man who repeatedly cheated on her.” Because the (unoriginal) theme of this show is awesome ladies who are amazing in their professional lives and are massive failures in their personal ones.
T.J. seems to be doing better, until his parents deny him the money to invest in a nightclub venture, which causes him to relapse into doing lines, drinking, and having anonymous sex, which isn’t helped when the story of his suicide his leaked. Susan told her editor boyfriend, in the context of boyfriend not editor, about the deal she made, she was never planning on writing it, because “it isn’t news” and it’s “disgusting and exploitative”. He of course tells Georgia because he’s sleeping with her and Georgia posted it on her blog. Editor boyfriend, Bronze medalist in the Douche Olympics, actually blames his cheating on her reluctance to commit and not wanting to get married and her focus on her job, all “it’s not easy to love you”. Go die in a fire.
Douglas and Ann are fighting about the hassles of a political marriage. Also, Ann is bulimic, because, of course.
Elaine and Bud have a chat during the salon about their boys and when life was simpler. Bud turns on the Southern charm, and also shows his political prowess by advising her on the hostage situation. After T.J.’s suicide story leaks, she meets up with Bud at a motel to have sex, and then decides to recommend to the President to send him to Iran to negotiate the release of the hostages (just like Bill). ‘Course, that was Bud’s plan all along, which Elaine gets pissed about, but Bud makes a not untrue point: they were using each other. “Shit, you aren’t pissed because I wanted you to ask me, you’re pissed because I thought of it first, and I wasn’t playing you any more than you were playing me. Did we sleep together because of politics, sure. But it was also about love. Always about both with us, baby. That’s our story. Now we were made for each other. We were made to fight for this country; we were made to fight together and we’re not done, not by a long shot.”
Bud proclaims his love and says he’s not giving up on them; Elaine proclaims they are done. I wonder which one will be right? (Not). As Elaine and her Secret Service agent drive away, Sigourney Weaver bursts into this amazing, hysterical, slightly sad fit of giggles. Sometimes the only thing you can do is laugh. She calls up and decides to meet with Susan, at the National Zoo, by the elephants (because Elaine loveeeeees the elephants [which is maybe a tiny bit ironic, since she's a Dem], and because this show is called “Political Animals”).
Susan apologizes again for the story leaking, and explains about her cheating ex-boyfriend, but now she understands why Elaine took so long to leave Bud. Actually this exchange is so well done I feel like the whole thing ought to be here.
“Thank you for seeing me. I found out the story was my fault. I inadvertently leaked it. I told my editor, who I’m sleeping with. He told the other woman he’s also sleeping with, a fellow journalist.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Genuinely.”
“Thought you’d appreciate the irony.”
“That may be the meanest thing you’ve said about me.”
“Well, you haven’t read my columns. They were pretty mean.”
“I may have read a few of your columns.”
“For years I wrote about you being an affront to women because you stayed with your husband. Like most I believed it was because of your political ambitions. Then when I went to pack tonight, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
“I stayed because I loved him.”
“I know. So why’d you finally leave?”
“Because after 30 years, in that moment, exhausted from the campaign, I finally had the strength to. I never answer the question because there is no article, no book that can explain the complexities of a single marriage.”
Elaine gives Susan the exclusive on Bud going to Iran (which should also supplant the T.J. story); Elaine’s pulling a Harvey Spector with the President: either he sends Bud or she resigns. Susan wants to be on that plane, “because if the current Secretary of State sends her ex-husband to rescue a bunch of hostages in Iran and it works, I want that story. I need that story.” I’m guessing she’ll get it.
Elaine gives a thematically appropriate little speech about 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. They’re a matriarchal society. And when the males reach their mating age, the females kick them the hell out of the herd.” She gets in her car and tells her agent, “I’m going to run for President again, and this time I’m going to win.” Fuck yeah.
Oy, that was a lot, I’m sorry. Without a doubt the best parts were the conversations between Elaine and Susan, so much more of that please. There were also some other really good quotes.
- “If the American people actually knew how this government ran there would be one big, collective upchuck the size of which FEMA would have to clean up.” “We probably shouldn’t start the press conference with that.”
- “It’s the diplomatic equivalent of instructions from IKEA. None of it makes any sense.”
- “Are you two really drinking already?” “TJ started it. He said that you can’t make margaritas with Jack Daniels.” “Turns out you can, and it’s good.”
- “I didn’t get all the gay genes, but I got the style one.”
- “It’s always important to look your best when you feel your worst.”
- “I must be the highest ranking co-dependent in the country.”
- “I did read your book about the impending 4thwave of feminism. Not bad.”
“No one read my book.”
“Maybe it was the title: “When Bitches Rule””
“I was trying to reclaim the word.”
“Might have impacted your sales. After all, never call a bitch a bitch. Us bitches hate that.”
- “How do you do it? Even people like me who have criticized you really do admire your resolve.”
“My usual answer is that I share the ethos with most Americans: if you work hard and give it everything you got, tomorrow will be better than today.”
“And the truth?”
“Most of life is hell. It’s filed with failure and loss. People disappoint you. Dreams don’t work out. Hearts get broken. Innocent journalists die. And the best moments of life, when everything comes together, are few and fleeting. But you’ll never get to the next great moment if you don’t keep going. So that’s what I do. I keep going.”
Wow, word vomit. I apologize for the TL;DR. The rest shouldn’t be this bad, now that we’ve gotten through with alllll the Pilot exposition. So what do y’all think> Good? Bad? So-so? Any predictions? Are you willing to wager yet that this will either get picked up for a series (al la Battlestar Galactica) or possibly just get a second “limited run” mini-series? Hit the comments with your thoughts!