In a blog post for Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker asks why “Political Animals,” a new mini-series on USA Network starring Sigourney Weaver as Secretary of State, received better reviews from TV critics than did HBO’s new Aaron Sorkin-scripted series “The Newsroom,” which stars Jeff Daniels as a cable network news anchor. Since both shows are politically-themed entertainments, it’s a fair question. Tucker’s answer: “’Political Animals’ accomplishes more of what it sets out to do, in the right format with the right approach to its excellent cast, than ‘The Newsroom.’”
“Political Animals” is, writes Tucker, a “good example of melodrama that is straining at something of interest,” but the key words in that assessment are melodrama and straining. The series is exactly as Tucker describes it. A soap opera with a political setting, “Political Animals” is basically “Dallas” in D.C. Many commentators have described the show’s main characters, Secretary of State Ellen Barrish Hammond and ex-president Bud Hammond, as thinly-veiled versions of Hillary and Bill Clinton, but really they’re just Sue Ellen and J.R. Ewing given the Clintons’ resumes.
He’s a wolf, and she’s foxy. His latest inamorata is a buxom TV star; she, although Secretary of State, is groped at a press conference by the Russian foreign minister. The ex-president has a southern drawl of a type rarely heard outside cartoons featuring Foghorn Leghorn; she wears pantsuits, but the ones she chooses would be more appropriate for a showgirl in a Vegas lounge than for a cabinet secretary in Foggy Bottom. (The outfit Weaver wears in the opening sequence, when she delivers a rousing, feminist concession after losing her presidential primary bid to a younger, dimmer male candidate, is a kind of a purple jump suit with a wide, purple, patent leather belt that would not look out of place if Jennifer Lopez had sported the ensemble while judging “American Idol.”)
The plot of the pilot episode of “Political Animals” is, to say the least, pretty pulpy. Although Ellen and Bud are now divorced, they are still very much attracted to each other. At one point, they even have an afternoon rendezvous at a cheap motel with their respective Secret Service details guarding the door to their room. They have two sons: the “good” son, Douglas, and the “bad” son, T.J. Douglas works for his mother as her chief of staff and is engaged to a beautiful, educated Asian American woman (who, it so happens, suffers from bulimia, a subplot that will no doubt be expanded in future episodes). T.J., by contrast, is a mess—he regularly uses cocaine, pays for sex, gets involved in risky business investments, and carries with him a secret that is so dark that the Secretary of State allows herself to be blackmailed into giving a series of interviews to a hated reporter rather than having the secret revealed. Oh, and T.J. is openly gay.
Ultimately, “Political Animals” is about the Hammond family’s doings and undoings and only incidentally about the family business, politics. Yes, there is a subplot in the pilot that has something to do with the handling of a hostage crisis, but its main purpose appears to be to demonstrate that Elaine is smarter than the president she serves and that Bud is, if not smarter than Elaine, at least shrewder. The series is not about the political aspects of governance but the dramatic aspects of governance.
Why then was “Political Animals” treated more kindly by the critics than “The Newsroom,” which was widely denounced as preachy, heavy-handed, and propagandistic? The New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum, for example, denounced the first episode of “The Newsroom” as “full of yelling and self-righteousness,” the second episode as “more obviously stuffed with piety and syrup,” the third episode as “lousy” and the fourth as the “worst,” adding dispiritedly that “there are six to go.”
I read Nussbaum’s review before I watched the show, and maybe it’s just the paradox of lowered expectations, but when I watched “The Newsroom,” I found it entertaining and often funny and consistently well-acted, with lots of Aaron Sorkin’s patented snappy dialogue to keep me paying attention between the frequent lefty political sermons that aren’t going to persuade anyone and that, even in context, make little dramatic sense. (Since the characters are delivering their political speeches to other characters who obviously already agree with them, what’s the point?) There’s no denying that “The Newsroom” is deeply flawed and that, in its essence, it’s really just a remix of elements Sorkin has used before (in “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” as well as “The West Wing”), thrown together with riffs on “His Girl Friday,” “Broadcast News” and Paddy Chayevsky’s “Network.”
Furthermore, Sorkin has been rightly criticized for his election to use real historical events, rather than fictionalized events, in his plots. Not only is this a questionable dramatic choice—we already know how Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill turned out, so there’s no suspense. It’s a tastelessly exploitive one, as became fully clear in an episode where Sorkin used the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to make a dramatic, as well as political, point.
Still, say what you will about “The Newsroom,” point out as many flaws as you want, is “Political Animals” really a superior series? Perhaps the critics came down so hard on Sorkin because, despite his protestations in interviews to the contrary, it’s always clear from his writing that Sorkin believes in his heart he’s the smartest person in the room. Piling on the criticism of “The Newsroom” was clearly a way of taking his Sorkinness down a peg.
But I think—and please don’t pick up any blunt objects you can throw at me for writing this—the real reason “Political Animals” got better reviews is a kind of gender bias. “Political Animals” is about girl power, and “The Newsroom” isn’t. In “The Newsroom,” the women characters have been given important positions—the executive producer of the news broadcast that is the focus of the series is played by Emily Mortimer, and the head of the network is played by Jane Fonda, who has had some real life experience with media moguls, but, in their personal relationships (we haven’t seen Fonda’s character in anything but a business setting), the women characters on “The Newsroom” become a little ditzy, a little too much Carole Lombard and not enough Rosalind Russell.
For this “The Newsroom” has been widely and justifiably criticized.
Nussbaum describes the female characters thusly: “There are brilliant accomplished women who are also irrational, high-strung lunatics—the dames and muses who pop their eyes and throw jealous fits when not urging the great man on.” In her review of “Political Animals,” the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan dismissed “The Newsroom” as “condescending to its female characters.”
But does that make it worse than “Political Animals” which is ostentatiously condescending to its male characters? Consider for a minute—for a second, even—the buffoonish characterization of the ex-president on “Political Animals.” Among other things, in his grotesquely thick Southern accent, ex-President Hammond is given to spewing ethnic slurs about the current president, whom he refers to as a “dago.” (One can only assume the show’s creators made their Hillary-character’s primary opponent a white Italian American, rather than a stand-in for Barack Obama, because they could never get away with Bud Hammond’s making similar remarks about a black politician.) If this isn’t enough, Bud crassly refers to his distinguished ex-wife as a the “foxiest piece of ass” and insists that he is the most popular Democratic politician “since John Kennedy had his brains splattered across the sidewalk in Dallas.”
The other male characters on “Political Animals” fare only slightly better. The current president, played by Adrian Pasdar, is good –looking but dim, clearly no match for his Secretary of State. The “good” son, Douglas, needs to be repeatedly reined in by his mother, and the bad son, T.J., can’t be reined in by anyone. To make matters worse, despite the seemingly progressive inclusion of a gay character on the show, T.J. is portrayed as such a messed-up, sexed-up, doped-up individual that the series sends out, unintentionally no doubt, a whiff of homophobia.
On the whole, the male characters in “Political Animals” are probably treated worse than the female characters on “The Newsroom,” but, however one weighs the gender bias of the shows, it’s clear that “Political Animals” skews female and “The Newsroom” skews male, and this, I would argue, accounts for the favorable treatment accorded one and the critical trashing of the other. Despite the political back stories embedded in their plots, neither of these shows tells us anything particularly trenchant about our current political moment, but the preferential treatment accorded “Political Animals” tells us a great deal about our current cultural moment.