Writers Store

Political Animals: Series Premiere

Well, it appears USA is hopping on the political train. It’s what’s hot right now and it seems every network wants a piece of the red, white and blue. Even Farrell and Galifianakas are spoofing the madness that is election season. But with everyone gunning for ratings gold, from Hatfields & McCoys to Game Change to Veep, is Political Animals good enough to pull ahead? With the pilot only drawing 2.6 million viewers, it doesn’t seem highly likely.

Perhaps it’s due to the challenge of making all its characters likeable. America is no stranger to the fact that politicians are masters of the mask. They may be likeable to the public, but in private are they people we want to know? All the best political dramas have managed to balance the slime with the sincerity and deliver characters that we love and we love to hate. USA may just have a shot at that success: it struck the casting jackpot.

Sigourney Weaver leads the political pack as Elaine Barrish, former First Lady and current Secretary of State. Not only is she dealing with the pressure of her job, but she’s also just decided to divorce her husband, the previous president, Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds).

Luckily, the public received their separation well, similarly to their acceptance of her son Thomas (Sebastian Stan) coming out of the closet. Stan has a keen ability to play wide-eyed innocence along with deep-rooted torment. Come to find out he tried to take his life only months prior; something secret to everyone except a very smart reporter: Susan Berg.

Carla Gugino, who always manages to bring the sexy, plays Berg, the foil and potential friend to Elaine Barrish.  She found her big break after publishing a story revealing the slime-bag (big surprise) tendencies of President Hammond. She ruined his career in order to preserve her own. Barrish has decided, reluctantly, to allow Berg to follow her for the week in return for keeping the secret about Thomas under wraps.

But nothing stays secret for long in D.C.

Barrish’s other son Douglas (James Wolk) is more politically involved with the family and also engaged to be married. He seems to be the Prince William-Prince Charming member of the Hammond clan, but again, no politician stays pure for long.

The pilot was no short of drama. Every character has their own plot, well planned and guaranteed for juice and longevity. Even within the first episode there was infidelity, captivity, alcoholism, addiction, and a splash of sex with an ex. No worry should be spent on those issues.

It’s easy to grab viewers with sin; what’s harder is making it all stick. Plenty of people can watch an episode of Gossip Girl or Keeping up with the Kardashians and walk away unscathed. USA is gunning for something more; to be in the category with shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Of course those shows also have their helping of lust and lies, but their characters are also extremely complex and draw our compassion.

USA network executives Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber are finally ready to take hold of higher ratings and a better prestige for the channel and become part of the awards race and interest in cultural issues. Wachtel told The Hollywood Reporter, "Even before it premiered, USA became part of the cultural conversation," referencing columns in The New York Times and Huffington Post. The duo’s plan to evolve the network is lucky to have found stability with actors like Weaver and Ellen Burstyn, who plays Barrish’s mother Margaret.

The pilot had me hooked, but it seems executives will have to look to spectacular writing and stellar cast performances to find big success in their new political plan.