'Political Animals' Review: Clinton Saga Seen Through Soap Opera Lens

'Political Animals' Review: Clinton Saga Seen Through Soap Opera Lens

It’s not HBO, it’s the USA Network.

HBO routinely plays to its progressive fan base – and critics – with politically charged programming like “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Newsroom.”

USA Network has something far different in mind with “Political Animals,” a new limited series bowing at 10 p.m. EST tomorrow. “Animals” may be set in Washington and track the travails of a very Hillary Clinton-esque character, but the network is gunning for juicy melodrama, not political points.

It’s oddly refreshing, but the early results show the series is eager to settle for rudimentary catfights that could play out in any setting, not just the ultimate corridors of power.

Sigourney Weaver radiates intelligence as Elaine Barrish, former First Lady and current Secretary of State. The show’s prologue finds her narrowly losing in a primary battle for the White House and, moments later, telling her cad of a husband Bud (Ciaran Hinds) she wants a divorce.

Two years later, Elaine is the trusted Secretary of State for the Democratic president, but her family’s soapy issues are making her life a mess. Her gay son (Sebastian Stan) is prone to throwing tantrums and falling off the wagon, while her other son (James Wolk) seems to think the White House is the proper place for throwing his non-existent weight around.

And then there’s Mama Barrish (Ellen Burstyn), an ornery type who drinks too much and tells everyone what she really thinks about them. It’s another sassy grandmother role, but Burstyn owns it from her opening scene.

The biggest thorn in Elaine’s side is a D.C. reporter (Carla Gugino) who hounds her for the real reasons she divorced her husband – and any other scoop she can squeeze out of her. Not only does Gugino’s character ring false – since when did the press go into witch hunt mode for a Democrat? – but her war with a comely female blogger at her newspaper feels like a subplot swiped from 2009.

Hinds is an underrated character actor but clearly not the first, second or fifth best choice to play the Bill Clinton stand-in. The show’s script does him no favors, making his coarse tongue so egregious it’s a wonder he could win so much as a local election without erupting in a massive gaffe. He still shows a convincing affection toward his ex, something which will clearly play out during the series.

You can’t blame Bud for still pining for Elaine. Weaver remains a powerful presence no matter the screen size, and even though the Clinton echoes are profound she still manages to make the production her own.

In fact, one could view “Political Animals” as an extended explanation for why Hillary Clinton stayed with her hubbie through one fidelity after another. The first episode even ends with an obvious cheer line for those who preferred Mrs. Clinton over Barack Obama four years ago.

But if the series is gunning for such a pro-Hillary rationale, it isn’t smacking conservatives or trumpeting Democratic talking points along the way – yet.

“Political Animals” proves there’s plenty of dramatic noise to be made from inside the Beltway, and a network need not insult half its audience in the process. 

Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies