It was only a matter of time before the Year of Marvel and Falcon and the Winter Soldier brought this Sebastian Stan stan back to Political Animals.
I’ve long nursed a soft spot for Greg Berlanti’s limited series since it premiered on USA in 2012, but haven’t had the stomach to revisit it in years. The show opens with concession speech: Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver), a former First Lady married to a sinfully charming Southern philanderer (Ciarán Hinds), has just failed to cinch the Democratic nomination for President. She addresses the young girls in the crowd and urges them not to be discouraged.
If you can get through that opening — it’s brief, but a doozy — buckle up for a short but tumultuous run. Political Animals follows the Hammond family: Elaine, Bud (Hinds), and their sons Doug (James Wolk) and T.J. (Stan). On the surface, the show is so obviously about Hillary Clinton that you’ll experience secondhand embarrassment for everyone who put this out into the world smack-dab in the middle of the Obama presidency. But as the rest of Elaine’s story suggests, there is a delicious fantasy element to this show, wish fulfillment for an America that still remains elusive.
Not to mention plenty of chances for Stan to smile, cry, and smolder.
As more time passes since the show aired, I’m struck by the visceral 2012 of it all — not just the disdain for blogs and references to Words With Friends or someone saying “fashionista,” but the heavy-handed storytelling of even the era’s most prestigious shows. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; god knows House of Cards traded on the same currency to wild success. But every conflict is sex, drugs, and lies, with all the subtlety of Hinds’ sludgy Southern accent. T.J.’s story is the full trifecta (along with two-thirds of the Stan trifecta of gay, soldier, and named after a U.S. president): he’s hiding a suicide attempt, ongoing addiction struggle, and an old affair with a closeted Congressman.
The show is often at war with itself about how to treat women in power. The pilot puts this on full display, particularly with journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino). Susan craves Elaine’s validation, but the family hates her for covering Bud’s early affairs. Elaine’s mom (played by Ellen Burstyn, who won an Emmy) calls Susan “a rotten little thing” with unparalleled frostiness. At work, Susan openly despises the bubbly young intern (Meghann Fahy) vying for her editor boyfriend’s attention. For all the strength it takes Elaine and Susan to dump the weak men in their lives, they keep getting pulled back.
And all the while, we’re supposed to believe that this is a world where Elaine “The country didn’t elect me because they didn’t want to sleep with me” Barrish is one of the most popular political figures of her day. It’s a world where women haven’t yet ascended the country’s highest office, but will soon, as Elaine launches a second presidential run against her own party’s incumbent. (We do get Vanessa Redgrave as a gay Supreme Court justice.)
It’s the exact dichotomy that was at work when our own reality failed to elect a woman. As much as Political Animals underscores Elaine’s or Susan’s complexity, many in this country still can’t reconcile ambition and empathy, intelligence and emotion — the need to be respected with the desire to be loved. There’s a harshness to these characters and how they view each other that can be painful to watch, but offers a necessary understanding of this country’s treatment of women over time.
Years later, I still get sucked into this six-episode rollercoaster, even as it gets soapier with hindsight. As I get older, I compare my accumulating life experience to Elaine and Susan, pushing myself to be generous with their decisions and relationships the way I want to be with people in my own life. And I remember that it’s okay to have a bit of an edge.
“Never call a bitch a bitch,” Elaine tells Susan in the first episode. “Us bitches hate that.”
Political Animals is available for purchase on iTunes.
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