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'Animals' finds soapy success at political circus

At a time when our country is preparing for yet another cutthroat presidential contest, USA Network has provided ample fodder for our election-crazed minds with Political Animals, a new six-episode miniseries.

The show stars Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish, a former first lady and Democratic governor of Illinois who serves as secretary of state. You may recognize Weaver from her other starring roles in films such as Ghostbusters, the Alien franchise and Avatar. The veteran actress lives up to the high standards set by these performances with her work in Political Animals, which is one of Weaver’s meatiest roles to date.

The miniseries, which first aired on July 15 and ended Aug. 19, follows Barrish as she struggles to juggle her relationships with her cheating ex-husband, former President Bud Hammond (played by Ciarán Hinds); her son and chief-of-staff, Douglas Hammond, (played by James Wolk) and Douglas’ drug-addicted and openly gay twin brother T.J. Hammond (played by Sebastian Stan). And all that while helping to run a country.

Political Animals aims to represent both the highs and lows of life in the Oval Office — from combatting the schemes of the invasive and unrelenting press corps to coping with the high-stakes responsibilities of international diplomacy.

Much of the story’s poignancy arises from the parallels between the show’s characters and real-world political figures. Barrish bears an uncanny resemblance to Hillary Clinton, as a Democratic secretary of state and former first lady forced to deal with a philandering husband, an unfairly hostile public image and a major loss in a presidential primary election. The miniseries imbues Bud Hammond with a number of Bill Clinton’s trademark traits and mannerisms, from his easygoing Southern demeanor to his unexpected intellectual power.

But the show departs from this mimicry in certain areas for the sake of dramatic interest. Unlike the Clintons, Barrish and Hammond have divorced by the time the miniseries begins, although they still function as a political power couple, enveloped in waves of sexual tension.

And rather than present its viewers with fictionalized versions of the Clintons’ offspring, Political Animals draws a connection between T.J. Hammond and Mary Cheney, the openly gay daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The USA miniseries may seem like a close relative of NBC’s landmark series The West Wing, but Political Animals lacks the intensity that made The West Wing so great. Although creator Greg Berlanti intended to make a hard-hitting drama, the series lost many of its viewers by its final episode. All told, Political Animals more closely resembles a soap opera than a smart political drama. Maybe that’s why it is so addicting.