Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Political Animals: Women in Washington

Political Animals is the latest entry in the ever-growing list of quality cable dramas. Presented by the USA network, it stars Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish, a former First Lady (her husband Bud was a popular President in the 90s whose main legacy was a string of extramarital affairs) who is now the Secretary of State  after a failed presidential bid. Sound familiar?

Despite being an obvious ode to Hillary Clinton, the show is by no means a biopic. Instead it serves as an insider's guide to Washington and also explores how politics severely complicate family dynamics. Elaine divorces Bud when she loses her presidential bid, and the show picks up two years into her tenure as Secretary of State. Her son Douglas (who is also Chief of Staff) is engaged but various diplomatic crises keep hampering the Barrish's plans for an engagement party. In the meantime, Elaine is forced to endure the company of Susan Berg (the wonderful Carla Gugino), a journalist who won a Pulitzer for covering Bud's sex scandals in the 90s and has now gained access to Elaine by threatening to leak a news story about her son T.J.'s attempted suicide a few years ago. These two women serve as formidable adversaries - two self-proclaimed "bitches" who are determined to do their jobs well and not apologize for doing so. Despite the rocky beginning of their relationship, the two develop a mutual respect for each other, and it will be interesting to note how they help each other as the series progresses through its six-episode run.

The show can be overly soapy when dealing with the family story lines, and often relies heavily on real-life events to supply the political narrative. For example, in the second episode, Elaine enlists her ex-husband's help to rescue American hostages in Iran, much like Bill Clinton jetted off to North Korea in 2009. However, the show expertly goes behind-the-scenes and reveals just what it means to be a woman in the boy's club of Washington. Elaine has to deal with advances from foreign dignitaries and is subjected to sexist backtalk and various indignities simply by virtue of being female. But she coolly handles the assorted insults and makes it clear that only a woman knows the true meaning of "diplomacy." It takes an actress like Sigourney Weaver to round out this character and make her someone who is sympathetic and admirable, despite being a "bitch." Ciaran Hinds is somewhat over-the-top as the former lothario President, but the two actors have great chemistry on screen and it's fun to see them attempt to work together as parents and politicians. The supporting cast are an equally fun bunch, and the family tensions and eccentricities just keep escalating from episode to episode.

Television can never feature enough strong female characters, so it is great to see a leading lady who is fiercely intelligent and competent. Elaine has just announced her desire to run for President again, so the next four episodes should give us more insight into the campaigning process, as well as how difficult it is to balance the wishes of her family against her own political ambitions. Her sons are not keen to re-experience the scrutiny that comes with being the President's children, so there should be a fair amount of sabotage and emotional blackmail coming up. Such is the plight of the working woman.

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