Political Animals: TV Review

What was sold as "The West Wing" comes out looking a lot more like "Dallas." Not necessarily a bad thing, if you can lower your expectations.

USA Network’s bid for a serious, Hillary Clinton-inspired drama provides mere soap in place of beltway intrigue.

In television, there’s often a disconnect between image and content. You see a promo, get excited, then have a problem reconciling what you hoped for with what you’re actually seeing.

For example, you hear there’s a bunch of Westerns coming to the small screen and you’re hoping for Deadwood but end up with, well, something short of it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Longmire on A&E isn’t really a Western, of course, and it’s not as No Country for Old Men as we might have been led to believe by the promos. But it’s watchable. And it’s been renewed.

Consider USA Network’s Political Animals miniseries, what the channel describes as a “highly anticipated Limited Series Event.” And yes, it capitalized the last three words. Because it wants you to know this thing will be Important.

PHOTOS: 22 of the Best Presidents in Movies and TV

USA certainly has brought out the big guns. Sigourney Weaver headlines as former first lady Elaine Barrish Hammond, who stuck by her enormously popular husband and president, the philandering Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds), then made a very close but unsuccessful run of her own to be the Democratic party nominee for president, eventually losing to slick-talking young Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar), a defeat that leads Elaine to realize that despite her smarts, she lacks her husband’s popularity. There are obvious Bill and Hillary Clinton similarities throughout, and there’s probably an excellent series about female politicians and the struggles and double standards that confront them, but Animals is not that show.

No, what Animals is trying to do is take The West Wing and turn it into Dallas. And if you don’t like Dallas, that can be a real letdown.

Part of the initial problem with Animals is that it seems to want things both ways. Viewers are let in quickly on the fact that the Barrish-Hammond partnership was like a political dynasty, and even the tough-talking, hard-drinking matriarch, Margaret Barrish (Ellen Burstyn) finds Elaine’s defeat hard to swallow. Yet it gives Elaine some clarity: She asks for a divorce the very night she loses and, despite her husband’s protestations, goes on the campaign trail to support Garcetti, who wins and makes her — wait for it — secretary of state.

This is where Animals tries to cement itself early on, but you get the feeling, as a political family tale, it might not even be able to meet the low-bar standards of The Kennedys (you remember — Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear — yeah, that one).

STORY: 'Political Animals' Lands 'Dexter' Actor for Guest Role (Exclusive)

Elaine is now both respected and hugely popular, while Bud, thanks to his inability to keep chasing younger women, is the figure everyone keeps a distance from. The last person from the old political partnership of the glory years is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), who covered the Hammond White House and made a name for herself writing mostly nasty columns about the family, particularly about Elaine, who Berg thought was setting back feminism by sticking with her cheating husband. Now she’s tracking Elaine as the political power player mediates feuds between countries and plans the hot-ticket wedding of her son — and chief of staff — Douglas (James Wolk) to Anne Ogami (Brittany Ishibashi).

But wait. How in the world did the woman whom matriarch Margaret called “a bitch with a capital C” get the green light for an all-access exclusive with Elaine after writing such awful things about her all those years ago?

Because she found out a damaging secret about Elaine’s other son, the troubled, openly gay Thomas “T.J.” Hammond (Sebastian Stan).

OK, right. Here we go. No doubt you’ve assembled all the red flags and read them like tea leaves to come up with one very important distinction about Animals — it’s more soap than politics. You would have figured that out even without the Dallas-meets-West Wing reference.

Where you expect gravitas, you get little bubbles, which makes sense on blue-skies USA. But trying to make Animals significant by calling it a “highly anticipated Limited Series Event” doesn’t automatically make it All the President’s Men. Besides, the miniseries was created by Greg Berlanti, whose work includes Brothers & Sisters, Dirty Sexy Money and Dawson’s Creek. He’s very good at a certain kind of smart, sexy soap — particularly one with family issues — but probably less likely to deliver an Aaron Sorkin-style dissection of political minutia.

STORY: HBO's 'Newsroom', USA's 'Political Animals' Among Critics' Choice Most Exciting New Series Nominees

So the hints were there. But if you wanted, say, Brothers & Sisters to be overlaid on to the first family to get a behind-the-scenes look at how “American royalty” is just as messed up as the rest of us — addictions, scandals, bad behavior, etc. — Berlanti’s probably the guy to do it.

On the other hand, if you were hoping Political Animals would be more about politics than animals, this miniseries probably won’t get it done for you. Weaver is both great and believable as Hillary Clinton — whoops — but it’s less interesting to see Russian politicians grab her ass or believe that she’s still partly in love with Bud than it is to see her settle a crisis in Iran. And while Hinds is great in pretty much everything he does, he lays a Southern accent on Bud that is as outsized as Texas. The other actors are fine as well, but every time you want them to be involved in a political story, you get eating disorders andcoke addictions instead. Again, that might have had something to do with theimage we were sold of what Animals would be — so just because it doesn’t measure up that doesn’t necessarily mean the content is bad in a soapier context.

USA sent only one of the six episodes to critics in advance, so it’s impossible to get a real sense of what Animals can be as a soap. Hell, lots of soaps are great fun andsuperbly entertaining, as Berlanti has proven time and again. But it’s likely that one episode is more than enough to prove Animals, “Limited Series Event” or not, isn’t going to be “highly anticipated” by political wonks.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine