Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Monday Movie Post

There are essentially two things good about Political Animals, the recent six-episode miniseries on USA. Make that three things: six-episode length is excellent (I just finished State of Play, also. Six episodes is excellent).

The other two things? Well, we get to watch Sigourney Weaver, which is always a great thing. I've actually missed a lot of highlights of Weaver's career, and this reminds me that I really should seek out more of her stuff. Fans of Washington movies will know that she was wonderful in "Dave," but she's even better in this.

And the last worthwhile thing about it, as Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out, is that it's a rare entertainment about powerful, smart, capable, political women. It has a bit of an aspect of a feminist fantasy to it...at each turn, the women wind up triumphing, always (as Rosenberg noted) with the perfect zinger, the perfect line. Since we have so few of these, it's refreshing and very welcome.

(Warning: the rest of this contains spoilers, so if you care...)

That extends all the way to the end, at least in some ways. The reporter who is the second lead character after Weaver misbehaves in various ways, including sleeping with people she shouldn't sleep with -- except in this version, she comes out of it pretty much just fine, while her boss loses his job. This, shall we say, does not happen often on TV. So all of this is good: the women are allowed to be strong but also to fail at some things, and without falling back on men saving them or having them inordinately punished.

And yet...well, several things.

First: as a show, it's a mess. I guess I should back up a bit...I haven't mentioned the main conceit, which is that Weaver is playing (a version of) Hillary Clinton -- former first lady, lost a tough nomination fight, is now Secretary of State. Anyway, instead of one daughter, Hillary and Bill have a soap opera family of two sons who  would fit right in with the Tates and the Campbells, except that those characters were better developed and more interesting. Six episodes is not enough time for, say, the gay suicidal drug-addict son to be anything more than awful. So as a show, you have to really want your feminist political power fantasy (and really enjoy Weaver) to make the rest tolerable.

The second thing is that the Hillary wish fulfillment (she's going to challenge the president who beat her for re-nomination) makes the feminist wish-fulfillment pretty awkward, or at least so it seemed to me. Yes, it's cute to see this version of Hillary dump her Bill, although as the show goes on you wonder what the point is, since they're basically back together. Beyond that, however, what struck me is that we sort of have to buy into that Bill is his worst image, and of course Hillary should have been president instead of Obama. Not to mention that some people might not actually like Hillary because they're, well, Republicans; the only Republican we get to know is not exactly impressive. If it was a bit less about Bill and Hillary in all but name then I don't think it would be a problem, but I think it is, here. So: when in a late episode she basically shames the not-Obama president into being a good president after all, and teaches him how to do it, I just couldn't get past how condescending it was to real-Obama, even though the show's character shares neither ethnicity nor any other obvious traits with the real thing.

And then...well, the thing sort of collapses on itself eventually. The big plot conflict for Weaver's Elaine Barrish is that she wants to run for president again even though it will probably destroy both of her (adult) sons. Wait, what? What's that doing in here? Do we really need to have an exaggerated career/mother conflict? And the resolution in the final episode is just awful: as both of her sons' lives collapse, she decides to bow out after all...although only to run for vice president, which apparently wouldn't be hard on her family at all...except that then the president up and dies and leaves the villainous VP in change, and now she's just got to run after all. Which I think, although I couldn't quite tell, was supposed to be okay because now she's going to do it because the country needed her and not because it turns out she was just being ambitious with her earlier decision to run. If that's what we're supposed to believe, it's awful: the whole point of the piece is presumably that her ambition is a good thing. Anyway, it would have worked fine if the sons had less desperate problems, but as it is we're ping-ponged rapidly from being told that it's okay for her to sacrifice her ambition for her family to being told that she needs to do it anyway.

Perhaps I'm asking too much of a show on USA. To their credit, I thought the political (unlike the personal) twists and turns were at least plausibly okay. I just wish that more of it had been watchable, and that the ending wasn't as messed up as it was.

1 comment:

  1. I'm late seeing this, but -- no comments? OK, here ya go:

    I had almost forgotten having watched the first episode of this thing, which left me mildly interested (only by the very end) but apparently not enough to look for it again. It seemed unlikely to be the work of people with any serious interest in politics; the woman might as easily have been contending for CEO of the world's biggest donut conglomerate or something. The soap-y struggles brought on by errant children and/or other family pressures is a cliche of political fictions at this point (it started in the '60s), and the good ol' boy ex-husband-president was repellant, at least in episode 1. I understand the artistic value-added you can get from thinly fictionalizing real people, but it should be to some purpose, and I couldn't see any here. Yeah, these two are like Hillary and Bill Clinton, except when they're not. It seemed intended just as a selling point for the series, i.e. a choice made on commercial rather than artistic grounds.

    In short, in the annals of "presidential fiction," it was a step backwards (as was Commander-in-Chief a few years ago, for similar reasons). Seems like a lot of people want to be Aaron Sorkin but don't notice the elements that made his work, at least sometimes, a lot better than this.


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