Before sitting down to watch the pilot episode of Political Animals, you could have been forgiven for being dubious about it (we were). It looks absurdly soapy, for one thing, and it comes to us via USA, a network whose characters usually inhabit a parallel universe where broke but principled doctors are given mansions in the Hamptons for free and rogue CIA agents get sentenced to live in Miami forever rather than, say, Gitmo.
Nevertheless, we have all now seen Elaine Barrish Hammond, and all we can say is she’s a thrillary and a half. Elaine (Sigourney Weaver), as the fake MSNBC talking heads kindly inform us at the beginning of the episode, is not a million miles away from our very own texting rock star of a Secretary of State. For one thing, she ran for President two years ago, and conceded by giving a speech that inspired women everywhere to continually strive for greatness (18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, blah blah blah). For another, she’s a former First Lady whose husband, Bud (Ciaran Hinds), is a noted and inexplicably popular philanderer. She wears pantsuits. And a lot of people call her a bitch while also going on about her naked political ambition like it’s a rare and totally unheard-of quality in presidential candidates.
Unlike her Washington counterpart, however, Elaine has two sons, Douglas (James Wolk) and TJ (Sebastian Stan). Douglas is engaged, which means Elaine has to juggle global peacekeeping with planning a wedding. TJ is gay and apparently a big ol’ mess. He looks like Jason Priestley and plays piano. The most notable divergence from the family we shall not name, however, is that at the end of the opening scene of the first episode, Elaine tells her husband to STFU, then asks him for a divorce. Cue the first of so many Aretha Franklin Moments that we shall henceforth refer to them as AFMs.
Two years later, Elaine is now Secretary of State, reluctantly giving an interview to journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), whom she apparently hates because Susan won a Pulitzer covering all Bud Hammond’s affairs in the ’90s. Susan briefly lists all of Elaine’s achievements, which means we see a photo montage of her posing with children in Africa, standing next to Ban Ki-moon, and getting her ass grabbed by the Russian Foreign Minister at a press conference. Elaine smiles, continues talking, and then confronts the poor schmuck afterward by telling him, “The next time you touch me, I’m going to rip off your tiny shriveled balls and serve them to you in a cold borscht soup.” Then, in case he missed the nuance, she continues in Russian, “I will fuck your shit up,” then throws her scarf casually over her shoulder and walks away (AFM).
Bud, apparently, is now dating an actress, Eva Flores (Lucila Sola), who looks a lot like Sofia Vergara and plays a doctor on a show called Hawaii Medical. Elaine tells Susan she doesn’t watch the show but has heard Eva’s “very talented,” which of course means we cut to a shot of Eva riding Bud like a rodeo clown, screaming, “Yes, Mr. President!” over and over. Talent indeed.
Susan, meanwhile, finagled the interview by bribing Elaine with some dirt she has on TJ. In terms of interview tactics, this isn’t one people typically adopt when they want their subjects to like them. Susan then calls Elaine a “cold and calculating political animal” and asks her if it was worth it, since she didn’t get the “glittering gold tiara of the presidency,” which is again not a typical interview tactic. Elaine’s mom (Ellen Burstyn), an apparent alcoholic in Chanel, spells out what the viewers are probably thinking by calling Susan “a bitch with a capital C.”
Except Susan isn’t a bitch! She’s a fan, and in the same way boys punch girls they have crushes on, Susan is actually crazy in love with Elaine, as she tells her weaselly editor/boyfriend, Alex (played by the amazing and talented and not-on-TV-enough Dan Futterman). Apparently when Elaine was in law school, she gave a speech and people gave her a standing ovation for ten whole minutes, which is a lot when it’s graduation and all you want to do is get to the bar and keep your divorced parents away from each other. But we digress. Susan actually loves Elaine, and she wrote a book called When Bitches Rule all about her, and it apparently didn’t sell very well because she used the b-word, even though she was only trying to “reclaim it.” As Elaine tells her, “Never call a bitch a bitch. Us bitches hate that.”
Susan and Alex work at the Washington Globe, and Alex, ever aware that newspapers will soon be as obsolete as rotary phones and “Call Me Maybe” spoofs, neglects his Pulitzer Prize-winning girlfriend in favor of a slutty-looking blogger called Georgia Gibbons (Meghann Fahy) who bakes cupcakes to celebrate her blog’s 1 million unique users (we actually know people like this). Unlike Georgia, Susan is a Serious Journalist. Another reporter tells her she should change for the “salon” she’s attending at Elaine’s house, to which she retorts, “I only wear one outfit a day. I’m not Beyoncé.”
And guess what? Elaine only wears one outfit a day too, and we’re starting to get that she and Susan are actually very similar, and all that. Only TJ makes Elaine change into a gold outfit he’s picked out that reminds his mother of her former husband’s very public and presumably very painful infidelity. Nice work, TJ! Not only does she now look like an Oscar statuette, but all the memories of repressed tears and public stoicism come flooding back. But Bud compliments her “fine ass,” so it’s totally worth it. And Susan’s actually changed too, and the salon goes ahead, and Douglas tells everyone that his family loves “the National,” which is what all Washingtonians call the Zoo. No, really. Douglas’s fiancée goes to the toilet to throw up, and TJ goes in and does a bump of coke, and it’s basically everyone’s family dinner when they’re in their twenties.
On a side note, there’s a diplomatic crisis which President Garcetti (I’m starting to think they stole these names from The Wire, but he’s played by Adrian Pasdar, who weirdly is married to a Dixie Chick in real life) fails to tell Elaine about, which makes her mad because she’s the nation’s highest-ranking diplomat and people should actually tell her stuff like this and not be all, Oh, sorry, we thought you were too busy with your engagement salon to care that three American journalists are about to be executed. The Iranian president, whom we’ll call President Pecan because we have no idea how his name is actually spelled since he hasn’t appeared onscreen and thus isn’t in IMDB, forced the journalists to admit they were spies because he’s actually dying of cancer and wants to broker a peace treaty with the US before he shuffles off the mortal coil. Elaine finds this out by flying to New York in a private jet and pulling her old friend the Russian foreign minister out of a game of strip poker with call girls. Then she flies back to Washington and discovers the President knows all this and doesn’t care and is totally going to let the journalists die because his dick is bigger than President Pecan’s. And Elaine shames him royally, saying, “Some day, Sir, it would be nice to be working for the man who beat me.” (AFM)
But oh, no! The Washington Globe has published the story about TJ, and it’s gross Georgia Gibbons, no less, the cupcake blogger from Hades, who has the scoop. And she must have found out from Alex, because he was the only person whom Susan told when he entreated her to trust him as her boyfriend, not her editor. And of course Susan figures out this means he’s sleeping with Georgia, and of course he admits to it. To add insult to injury, Elaine now hates her even more. “Was it your child you found alive?,” she yells. “Was it? And yet you trade on my pain and suffering to coerce me into this interview. The only good news I’ve had this week is that I don’t have to share the same space with you. Now get the hell out!” (AFM)
The TJ story is all over the news, and TJ watches it with his friend, and by “friend” we mean “drug dealer.” Said drug dealer, Omar (they’re definitely getting these names from The Wire), is actually touchingly concerned for TJ’s welfare—right before he sells him an eight-ball. Meanwhile Elaine lights a cigarette and phones her booty call, who turns out to be . . . Bud. She wants to sleep with Bud to manipulate him into flying to North Korea—sorry, Iran—to save the journalists, but he’s one step ahead of her and actually wants to go, which, instead of being awesome, is infuriating. Elaine realizes she’s been played by a playa, and she storms off and laughs hysterically, which makes her Secret Service agent look at her askance.
Susan has been calling Elaine nonstop, and even though Elaine hates her guts, she agrees to meet her at “the National.” Susan tells Elaine about her cheating a-hole of a boyfriend, and the two bond, and then Elaine feeds Susan the scoop about Bud going to North Korea—sorry, Iran—and then goes off on a lecture about elephants. Is this a Republican analogy? A Planet Earth rerun? “They move slower than most animals, but they can travel just as far.” Okay, Planet Earth. “And when the males reach their mating age, the females kick them the hell out of the herd.”
Okay. Not Planet Earth. AFM.
Meanwhile, Elaine tells her Secret Service guy she’s decided to run for President again. Zing! And somewhere, Hillary is rubbing her hands together in glee, because this show is the best PR in the world, and here is poor Mitt Romney getting people to spend literally billions of dollars on TV ads while all Hillary has to do is be awesome and let Sigourney Weaver and network television do the rest.
What did you think of last night’s episode of Political Animals? Let us know in the comments.