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Political Animals - Episode 1.01 - Pilot Review

POLITICAL ANIMALS - Episode 1.01 - Pilot Review

(Keep in mind, there are mild spoilers in here because I like to analyze characters! Skip to the end if you want the short, spoiler-free version!)

I was very excited to hear about this new limited series coming to USA because I saw the cast and thought immediately that this would be something that I'd have to see. Sigourney Weaver on television is not something I'll miss, as I am generally enamored with whatever she does. So having her play the matriarch of a famous family whilst also a venomous politician who is adored by the country for her straightforward demeanor and her apparently very public personal life, well it just seemed like a damn good fit! Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, the ambitious and estranged ex-wife of the former president of the United States, Bud Hammond (Clarán Hinds), and the mother of the beloved Hammond family, which consists of her two sons, Douglas and TJ, (James Wolk, Sebastian Stan, respectively) as well as Douglas' new fiance. Also starring is Carla Gugino as journalist Susan Berg. Overall I was immensely excited by the cast, and the premise as well - a bold and risque political drama that surrounds the ultra-famous Hammond brood. 

However, from the very first scene I knew it wasn't going to be quite what I was hoping. The dialogue throughout the entire episode was terse, fraught with cliches, and fairly predictable. The story itself was familiar to me as a fan of The Good Wife, but the similarities between these two shows ended at the point of "political drama focusing on wife of famous politician, and her exploits" because Political Animals is about as subtle as a punch to the face. I enjoyed the characters, their places in each others' lives, and I generally enjoyed the political and personal drama all around the episode, but it just felt so heavy-handed... and not just in a singular way.

The main issue I had was the writing, which was not bad, but most of the time felt a little too on-the-nose... Some of the zingers didn't work for me because they were, well, duds, like the writers were trying too hard... Then there were the occasional bouts of over-acting, which is also forgivable as well. They handled issues ranging from self-detrimental acts to homophobia, which is great, but it was once again way too...weirdly handled for me. I think back to that scene early in the pilot when the grandmother responded to TJ "That's what you homos say..." I was like...huh? -- It was just awkwardly thrown in there. And Douglas' fiances' body-perception issue was sad but also thrown in there and then barely touched on later. (Of course they will likely expand upon it in newer episodes!) 

Finally, Elaine Barrish was way too preachy for me. I am pretty good at not hating on characters being preachy (often because I agree with them I suppose) but it felt like every 5 minutes Weaver was thrust into a moral sermon in which she would sanctimoniously tell others to effectively piss off and just see reason (which of course is always at least somewhat satisfying to see as a viewer!). I agreed with her each time, and I felt like Weaver did a great job with the material, but still it was a tad overkill to have her so often launch into those lectures.

Alright, I've given you a fair amount of "what I didn't like," (or way too much?) how about some positives? 

The cast, while stumbling through a few places here and there, is excellent and well-picked. It was simply fun to watch them interact and love/tolerate each other. Elaine is definitely a good egg, and a strong woman in her own right - elephants and all. The upstart reporter Susan Berg has a very good arc in this episode as well. She is painted as a go-for-broke reporter who will do whatever it takes to get the story she needs (through her actions, so this is justified at least for the most part), but as the story continues, we see who she is, and what she has to deal with in today's climate, and it ultimately puts her on the sympathetic side of the audience. She, to me, had the most growing up to do in this one episode, dealing with her inner pressures for maintaining her dignity while still getting to the story she needed. Adrian Pasdar as the president, well, he didn't really have a whole lot of screen time, but at least he was seen, and we learned a little bit about his motives as president by the end of the episode.

Elaine warped in and out of multiple stories in the pilot, and they were all ultimately satisfying. She had to deal with the return of her husband (with his hot new girlfriend), her son's engagement party, a pesky reporter threatening her with startling news (cue Gugino's Susan Berg), as well as a hostage situation that revealed the utter apathy by which she was surrounded. It was great to see her deal with all of these inner demons and then finally come to an important decision at the close of the pilot. 

The sons were decent enough as well. Wolk's Douglas was agreeable but still protective of his younger brother, and Stan did a great job as the hopeful but unabashedly naive TJ. Meanwhile, Hinds was smug and disgusting and endearing all at the same time as Elaine's ex-husband. 

In short:

It was fun, with great characters, and had a cluster of promising plots all lining up. The dialogue was lackluster and didn't quite have the spark or snappy zingers I was hoping for, but if you want zany, character-driven (if not self-aware and/or subtle) political/family drama...then this is the show for you.
(3/5 stars)

-Wilson Crawford

Now it's your turn! Tell me what you think down below in the comments section!

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