Political Animals – Pilot
Political Animals quite cleverly start its story in media res, in both a translated and literal sense of the latin. The show opens this episode, its pilot, several years into a story of massive scale and complexity, one with a multitude of characters and within minutes jumps forward another twenty four months to introduce even more and yet we new viewers are never once confused by what’s happening or unaware of changes that happened and this is because of how cleanly it manages to make its exposition. Like any good politician would Political Animals cleverly manages the media, utilizing them as spinners of stories and spitters of fact; the first scene, a concession speech, is commentated by the kind of on-site reporters that would cover such a thing and the second is a scathing one on one interview between two characters more than willing to claw at the past of their competitor. I would say that other shows could well learn a thing or two from the clarity of this pilot, but of course it did come in with an advantage over those; we already know this story, we see it splayed out on our televisions several times a year.
No matter how well the pilot works on its own it is impossible to cleanly cleave its story of a female First Lady come Scorned Secretary of State from its current historical context, specifically that of Bill and Hilary Clinton, which is something of a shame; as is the fact that many people will simply view this as a kind of commentary or dramatic recreation, getting caught up in its relationship to reality in a way they wouldn’t with other cable dramas. Yes Animals is quite clearly inspired by the Clinton’s but it, like all shows and films that are ‘Based on a True Story’, quickly takes this set-up and spins it off in different and more daring directions.
Strangely the same thing happened recently with another Sunday night drama, The Newsroom, and though on paper you would bet the other way this show actually does a much better job of incorporating its non-fictional features in with the fantastic (It’s also the closest thing to The West Wing currently on television, maybe even since. So… suck it Sorkin?). If you want to you can play a kind of drinking game in which you guess who is who, what really happened and why they would have changed this one thing but not others though the knowledge is far from required. Whereas each week’s episode of The Newsroom picks a broadcast topic tangential to the character’s crises the case in this pilot fit so well with what was happening that I almost missed that it too was true until the more obvious nods at the end. This though is tangential, the most important thing that it does better thanThe Newsroom is not fictionalizing but feminism.
The charm, the drawl, the scandal and the pantsuits are all made a part of the plot in this pilot but the Clinton trait that inspired this show the most is also that which almost inspired women everywhere; her attempt to blow out the glass ceiling and become the first female president. In our world she didn’t succeed but she still made a decent dent and that is story enough for a show, especially one that seems set to let her take a second crack at it. So the show is as much about what it means to be a woman in this modern world as it is about that one particular woman: the two central characters around whom the rest of the ensemble revolve are women and neither of them are weak willed or subservient.
It’s not all idealized though, the show is constantly (and hopefully satirically) criticizing what these women wear (as the media famously did Hilary and Sarah Palin during their debates) and openly asks them both what their primary priority is – Pleasure or Politics? Work or Play? – because it seems to say that in this world they cannot have both. I think though that it would be a waste of time to delve too deep into the successes and failures of the show’s ‘fourth wave of feminism’ – a word that probably needs to be reclaimed similar to how Gugino’s journalist does ‘bitch’ with her book When Bitches Rule – after only one episode. I think you need to give a show time to settle in and finish a full sentence before you can start to tear apart its thematics; what is important at this early stage is not the answer it gives but that it asks the question at all.
There are of course more characters in the show than Gugino and Sigourney’s and most of these supports are male – mates, husbands and sons – which only serves to further the singularity of their natures but all of these are more shaky at this stage: Hind’s hammy past POTUS is plenty of fun to watch but perhaps a little too un-PC for people to get attached too, Futterman’s role seems all but finished in the story while the President and progeny both tasted a little blandly on my palette. It’s hard to introduce an entire ensemble in a pilot but I do wish that they had managed to establish subjective connections – to make us care – even half as well as they did the objective contexts.
So it’s flawed, mainly by being mediocre in many areas, but for a show I had no interest in only two hours ago on a network I’ve never even noticed I couldn’t help but find myself being mildly impressed by the premiere of this pseudo-mini-series. At this stage I plan to stick with it through its six week run, though it will likely be third on my list; make of that what you will.