Breaking Bad wasn't the only show to premiere last night. No, over on the USA Network, land of poorly lit comic dramas about snappy people doing snappy things, Sigourney Weaver made her big TV (mini)series debut on Political Animals, a look at a First Lady turned unsuccessful presidential candidate turned Secretary of State that could be called Hillary! This isn't exactly Secretary Clinton's story — Weaver's Elaine Barrish divorces her caddish husband right at the beginning — but the show is certainly directly inspired by the no-nonsense boss lady. Though, if I were Ms. Clinton, I would heartily deny any connection to the series whatsoever, because it is a silly, crass mess. A silly, crass mess that I intend to watch to the end.
Written and directed by Greg Berlanti, the six-episode series' premiere installment is rife with awkward salty language and spouts of verbal diarrhea that ache and creak with effort. Berlanti, creator of the much-loved but seriously drippy shows Everwood and Brothers and Sisters (and the not-so-loved but still tremendously drippy Jack & Bobby), seems eager to prove that he can write dirty things and craft snarky, intelligent banter with the best of 'em, but the trouble is, he really can't. Watching Weaver and the great Ciarán Hinds, as drawling former president Bud Hammond, forced to say things like "I'm going to tear your shriveled balls off and serve them to you in cold borscht soup" or simply the word "douche" is dismaying, while the wonderful Ellen Burstyn, playing Elaine's mother, is forced to throw out tons of sassy grandma lines about booze and tits. It's undignified, to say the least.
If this was some grimy political comedy that would be one thing — blue jokes have their place, so long as they're done well and in the right context — but the show also aspires to be a serious political drama. There's a crisis in Iran with some captured American journalists in the first episode, as well as a storyline about a recent, hush-hush family near-tragedy getting uncovered in the press. So Berlanti and crew are going for something respectable here, rendering all the naughty words and strained linguistic grandstanding (there's a phrase in there that goes something like "...an upchuck the likes of which..." that almost hurts to hear come out of someone's mouth) juvenile and out of place in contrast. I know you can swear a little on nighttime cable, Mr. Berlanti, and I know that you clearly like The West Wing and have seen an episode or two of Armando Ianucci's work, but come on. Write you. All you can do is write you. And this is not you.
Despite the junky script they've been given, the actors fare decently. It's nice to see Weaver in a commanding dramatic role that has nothing to do with aliens of any stripe. She wears lots of power suits and pumps and has fixed her face into a just slightly unreadable Mona Lisa scowl — is she angry at herself, or everyone around her? Both? — that's imposing yet alluring. It's a good role for her in theory, she's got the bearing of someone who truly relishes power, I just wish she was better served by the lines. Hinds lays on a thick, buttery Southrun accent that's a little embarrassing, but he's still got enough innate wit and sparkle to sell it. Elaine and her ex have two grown twin sons, straightlaced Douglas (James Wolk, perfectly square) and troubled, gay TJ, played by Sebastian Stan. This is the second time Stan has played the darkly conflicted gay son of a politician — he did the role on NBC's admirably ambitious, sadly doomed Kings — and he does all the wounded, pouty glowering well. I am a bit suspect about why the gay character needs to be the listless suicidal drug addict with no bright prospects on the horizon, haven't we seen that a million times before, but TJ is at least an interestingly drawn character amid a sea of cliches.
Another bright spot besides Weaver and Stan is the slick and feisty Carla Gugino as a sly, intrepid, slightly amoral reporter who won a Pulitzer years ago for covering Bud's affairs and is now hungry to write a juicy story on Elaine. But she's softened a bit since her early at-all-costs days, and while she and Elaine do a lot of sparring in the first episode, it seems they might eventually become wary allies. It's an interesting dynamic and Gugino holds her own against Weaver's forcefulness. Again I wish these two had been blessed with better words to say. They both deserve them.
Still, seeing as this hokey gimcrack is only a six-episode run, I'd imagine I'll stick with it through the bitter end. Elaine has decided she's running for president again, after all, so I have to find out what happens with that. Plus, y'know, gay TJ is a looker and Douglas' elegant fiance is secretly bulimic, and what's going to happen to those reporters in Iran?? Just kidding, I don't much care about that last one — the show sounds in no way credible when it speaks politicalese — but the rest of those soapy subplots have me intrigued. This isn't exactly a triumphant series debut for Weaver, but it could certainly have been far less entertaining than it is. Ultimately, I'm not sure I'd vote for it, but I might still throw a few bucks at the campaign anyway.