Look, everyone is going to tell you that "Political Animals," the new six-episode series on USA Network that premiered July 15, is about Hillary Clinton, that it’s wish-fulfillment chocolate cake day for everyone who still dreams of a) Hillary divorcing Bill, and b) Hillary running for president and winning.
They’re not wrong. The impossibly tall, patrician, and sexy Sigourney Weaver plays Elaine Barrish Hammond, a former First Lady who subsequently held high political office; ran for president; lost in the primary to a young upstart; divorced her cheating, Southern-accent slinging ex-President husband; accepted the post of Secretary of State in her former rival’s administration; and, as the series starts, decides to run for the highest office once more, but this time she’ll win.
That’s mostly Clinton, all right, and who can blame anyone for wanting to turn such juicy biography into fiction again and again? How else are we to understand her tenacity, her choices, her reserve, her power and, I include this with great respect and admiration, her unexpected sexagenarian beauty?
(Did you see the photos from her daughter’s wedding? In that fuscia Oscar de la Renta dress, she was more radiant than the bride.)
But I’ll tell you this: As I watched the pilot episode of "Political Animals," I found I didn’t need the Clinton backstory. I didn’t care. To be honest, I am usually
There came one moment, though, one brief exhilarating moment, when I realized that something more compelling than alternate-reality fantasy was happening on the screen.
In this moment, Elaine Barrish (the Hammond disappeared with the divorce) is sitting in the passenger seat of a silver SUV. Her silent Secret Service agent is speeding her back to D.C. after a humiliating, confusing, tender, passionate and frustrating encounter with her ex-husband, Bud.
In the course of that encounter, Elaine removed a red coral choker, and in the car, flustered and annoyed, she is trying to re-fasten it. She can’t; her fingers fumble with the clasp, and she flings the necklace into her lap.
It’s the moment where she is supposed to cry. That’s what ladies do when they are vulnerable and overwhelmed, at least on TV, right? Elaine’s lips quiver. The corners of her eyes droop a little. Her bruised and stymied pride comes rushing up in salty tears. And then --
And then --
She laughs. It’s a touch hysterical, a pinch humble, a lot tough and wise and yet surprising. It is to Weaver’s credit that she makes three seconds of laughter convey all of these tones.
It’s the laugh of power, survival and maturity. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it from a woman on TV.
The truism is that television offers female actors more complex, interesting, often funnier and just plain bigger roles than movies do. Look back at Lucy Ricardo, Molly Goldberg, Mary Richards, Maude Findlay, Claire Huxtable, Elyse Keaton, Murphy Brown, Angela Bower, and all of the Golden Girls. Right now we have Liz Lemon, Leslie Knope, Hannah Horvath, Nurse Jackie, Britta Perry, Annie Edison, Shirley Bennett. These are comic parts, sometimes not especially deep, but full and funny and at the center of the action.
Dramas, too, are rich in complicated female characters who aren’t merely big personalities, but have real power in public life. There’s high stakes lawyer Patty Hewes in "Damages." Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson in "The Closer." Lawyer Alicia Florrick in "The Good Wife." The scientist Temperance Brennan in "Bones." The outlaw drug dealer Nancy Botwin in "Weeds." Carrie Mathison, national security expert, in "Homeland." And, long off the air but dear to my heart, Buffy, the vampire slayer.
As accomplished and important as these characters are, I still don’t think any of them could laugh like Elaine Barrish. Most powerful women on TV are some combination of amoral, psychotic, paranormally gifted, or teenaged. They are outliers, extremes. All but a few are extremely beautiful, and most are struggling with losing or gaining their identities in sexual relationships. Few have raised kids.
None are in their sixties.
Elaine Barrish is. She is on the other side of the river. She’s seen battle; she’s lost and won.
She is an exceptional person, but she’s just a person. She’s fallible and vulnerable (the White House Chief of Staff is a real toad to her), and her family is a high-functioning mess, but she is also gritty and resilient. Love, sex and loneliness trip her up, but there, on the ground, she lifts her lined and savvy face to the sky and she laughs. Then she keeps going. She does the next thing, whatever it is, that she needs to do to fulfill her ambition, avert a diplomatic disaster, do her helpless or micromanaging best for her sons (depending on the son), or even make a friend.
"Political Animals" is entertaining for other reasons as well. The scenes have a self-assured rhythm and the tone is soapy. The dialogue is very much on-the-nose, but it has a lot of zingers and a satisfying, beefy cadence. The plot is twisty but light, perfect for summer. The secondary women characters are interesting, if not as heroic as Elaine. Her clothes are almost majestic, those pantsuit legs cascading to the floor. It’s not a genre-shattering, Emmy-baiting show, but I don’t think it’s meant to make you feel clever or special for watching it. This is a show that knows itself, as Elaine knows herself, and so it is able to have fun.
For me, though, I’ll be watching for that laugh. Or I could take a trip to D.C. and lurk in the halls of the State Department. I have a hunch that Secretary Clinton has, over the years, cultivated a pretty good chuckle too.