America cast Hillary Clinton as a soap diva long before Political Animals put Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver), Hillary’s obvious proxy, on the airwaves. For years Clinton’s family scandals, ambition, infamous headbands, and, more recently, her ability to look totally badass while sending text messages have captivated the nation. Whatever accomplishments she’s made as a senator and secretary of state are icing on the cake. That attitude, at least, seems to pervade Political Animals, which takes the basic narrative and public persona of Mrs. Clinton as a jumping-off point for an almost surreal saga involving a former first lady, one-time presidential candidate, and current secretary of state as she weighs whether or not to run again for president against her boss, the disillusioned and ineffective President Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar). The series may be blatantly opportunistic in its use of a real-life political legend, but its commitment to serving the people what they need—whether it be a matriarchal queen bee with bold one-liners to spare, shirtless men in scandalous situations, or a series of convenient crises for our heroine to overcome with poise and probity—is so steadfast as to be admirable.
Perhaps Political Animals’s greatest act of public service, however, is the outrageously comforting notion that honest and humane politicians might actually exist. Barrish stays with her cheating husband for several years not for political gain, but because she “sees the best in people”; she chooses to challenge her boss in the Democratic primary not out of a desire for selfish gain, but because the country needs a strong leader. In the wake of each new bout of geopolitical turmoil, she forces the president time and again to make the morally and strategically right choices without any hope of receiving public credit. Even former President Bud Hammond manages an act of genuine altruism, deliberately damaging his own reputation in order to save face for his wife. If you found the parallel universe in Lost perplexing, Political Animals’s sheer optimism might leave you utterly baffled.
Yet Weaver’s grounding performance goes beyond maternal warmth and shrewdness, because Barrish doesn’t just see the best in people; she demands it. Whether dealing with one son’s addiction problems or the other son’s internal sabotage, she’s insensate to excuses. Journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), whose skepticism of the secretary is meant to mirror our own, and whose gradual trust develops into the central relationship of the series, receives the brunt of Barrish’s cold stares. Unlike most of the characters, she probably deserves worse. Her convoluted and self-defeating attempts to prioritize her own career while minimizing collateral damage to Barrish’s sometimes draws more interest than our protagonist, but the series only shines when the two work symbiotically, if testily.
Berg lends the series the unpredictability of someone who hasn’t yet figured out how far she’s willing to go to accomplish her career goals, and she keeps Barrish on her toes more than any corrupt diplomats or hostile foreign officials. When Berg manages to blackmail her way into the secretary’s inner circle, Barrish decides not to trust her the same way she foolishly trusted her cheating husband, her relapsing son, and her traitorous campaign manager. When Berg leaks evidence of Barrish’s presidential ambitions as retaliation for the secretary not giving her the scoop, Barrish not only regrets having turned a potential ally into a volatile threat, but she sympathizes with Berg’s sense of betrayal. The fact that Weaver pulls this off without looking naïve is a testament to the chemistry between the actors and the poignancy of a relationship steeped in equal parts rivalry and mentorship.
These days, such a eulogistic treatment of a political family, fictional or otherwise, seems likely to be met with cynical jabs, especially when so thoroughly devoid of camp or irony. And truth be told, there’s something amiss when Barrish takes herself more seriously than the real-life secretary of state. But her conviction that “no one is as horrible as we imagine them to be” might just be so shamelessly out of step with the current political climate that it amounts to some kind of a vision. What if, behind closed doors and away from the spotlight, when no one else is looking, our politicians are better than they seem? It’s enough of a mind-bender to keep viewers guessing, even as the series delivers time and again exactly what they want to see.