Sunday, August 12, 2012

Political Animals: Roman à clef with too much clef

The Cast of Political Animals with Dexter
     Political Animals is USA Network’s bid for appointment television following the glowing lead of FX and AMC.  This approach has worked well for AMC in terms of awards and prestige and FX has had a considerable niche audience for over a decade.  This show is about a Democratic Secretary of State, who was a former First Lady, then Governor of Illinois, but lost the presidential nomination to her current boss.  Her former husband was Governor of North Carolina before becoming President and he’s now at loggerheads about what
(and whom) to do.  It’s close to the Clinton’s relationship in such a way as to make the viewer wonder ‘is that what they’re really like?’

A Towering
Sigourney Weaver
     The cast is made up of A-listers for television.  Sigourney Weaver plays the lead, Elaine Barrish, and it’s the first time in over thirty years that her height goes against her.  Barrish is a pure liberal idealist and she’s always right, which gets a little old.  Carla Gugino is the reporter Susan Berg, who seems to work at The Washington Post and is having to negotiate her relationship with Elaine and Douglas, Elaine’s son and Chief of Staff, played by James Wolk.  Gugino has been excellent in many TV series and movies, but she’s never become a star.  However, she’s the only actor of a talented ensemble that is able to negotiate the politics of the theme and the melodrama of the plot without ending up stranded.  Sebastian Stan is Elaine’s other twin son T.J., who’s openly gay, an addict, ticked at his parents, suicidal after a break-up with a married Republican closet case (is there any other kind?) Representative and if there’s another negative stereotype, I’m sure T.J. will be stuck with it in the next couple of weeks.  Ellen Burstyn is Elaine’s mother, an alcoholic former showgirl, and seems to be channeling Elaine Stritch (if only she’d played the part).  I thought she was much better as Barbara Bush in Oliver Stone’s W.  

     Casting can make or break any performance. Like any hiring decision, it’s based on who’s available, what each candidate requires, and whether there’s the requisite passion or fit. Ciarán Hands was creepily suave in the third season of Prime Suspect and a credible romantic lead in Persuasion over seventeen years ago, but he’s miscast in this part that’s too close to Bill Clinton for comfort.  Does Bud Hammond have to be Southern?  What’s wrong with Hands’ chin?  His mouth
Ciarán Hands
and jaw move like Charlie McCarthy’s.  Why does he move so strangely?  Did Bud lose a lot of weight?  Hands tries valiantly, but when those efforts exert the performer and the viewer begins mentally re-casting the role, it’s a failure.  Weaver’s problem is that, as my Mom pointed out, she is aloof and that has been her secret weapon in her success as an action heroine and a light and romantic comedienne.  This show requires a star that can work in the middle range of melodrama the way that Sally Field rang all the notes from Brothers and Sisters even the grace notes that weren’t really there in the scripts.

     Greg Berlanti was the creator/executive producer for Brothers and Sisters, after his initial start in Dawson’s Creek.  He has excellent instincts for the arc of a show and how it should move through a season and eventual series, but dialogue is a weakness.  It can be slick and formulaic as if it’s advancing a plot, rather than revealing character.  Field, Rachel Griffiths, and Rob Lowe were able to provide a subtext to Berlanti’s earlier series that made them interesting.  Only Gugino is able to do so here.  I’m not sure it will return next year since it’s been called a mini-series and it’s not generating the same heat as Dallas, a soap whose stars know exactly how to sell the story.  The Good Wife has some of the
Josh Charles, Julianna Marguilies,
and Chris Noth of The Good Wife
best writing on a major network series, even though the initial premise seemed to be based uncomfortably on the Elliott Spitzer scandal.  It moved beyond that, however, with subtle, complex storytelling examining work and home life with a political backdrop and intriguing legal cases.  Somehow, it does all of that and doesn’t seem to sweat.  Instead, the audience wants more of the tension between ethics and compromise.  It helps that it has one of the best ensembles on television with great acting by Julianna Marguilies, Archie Punjabi, Christine Baranski, and Matt Czuchry.  I wish Josh Charles was a more interesting presence, but he’s more than made up for by the commanding Chris Noth.  His take on a brilliant, Machiavellian, and loving politician should have won him an Emmy by now.

No comments: