Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Political Animals need not be caged

The season finale of USA's limited series event, Political Animals, aired this week. The title of the episode is "Resignation Day." But to whom does this refer? Is it Elaine's (Sigourney Weaver) last day as Secretary of State, having promised President Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar) that she would step down? Or will Douglas (James Wolk) be the one quitting, having leaked sensitive information that will make him untrustworthy, and thus unemployable, in his chosen field? Or perhaps Susan (Carla Gugino) will be forced to leave the paper, having crossed more than one line in the pursuit of a story?

Thankfully, although a second season had yet to be ordered, none of these come to pass, so all of the characters can stay around and relevant. A shocking tragedy resets everyone's priorities, ending several arcs succinctly, and kicking off a couple of new possibilities for the future. Should another go-round be ordered, there is plenty more story to ell, and given the tease at the end, with Elaine smiling at Bud's (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) insistence she run for president herself, the writers already have some ideas mapped out.

Let's back up a second. As Political Animals' freshman run plays out, Elaine considers taking on Garcetti, worried he isn't sticking to his guns the way he should be. But Garcetti comes 'round when Elaine calls him on the carpet, and ends up offering her the Vice President position in his challenge for a second term. However, before she can make the decision about whether to accept, Garcetti is seemingly killed in a plane crash, and sleazy V.P. Fred Collier (Dylan Baker) is put in charge instead, necessitating Elaine's own run, rather than leave a cad like Collier in power.

Had Garcetti survived, and as his body had not been found yet, he still could be alive, Elaine would surely have stood by him. Political Animals has done a good job making politics neither black nor white, and at the end of the day, Garcetti was the man Elaine hoped he would be. Yet, Collier is much more a villain, providing a delicious antagonist for season two, which points to Garcetti most likely being deceased. After all, the more drama a series can muster up, the better, right? Though a last minute reveal of finding Garcetti alive after Elaine and Collier battle it out, while stretching reality to the breaking point, could be even juicier.

Thankfully, Political Animals does not thrive on unnecessary drama, delivering a good story without venturing too far into that television trope of forcing antagonism. Yes, Douglas does cheat on Anne (Brittany Ishibashi) with Susan, but that's the only real misstep I can find in this first batch of episodes. There is upheaval and scandal, to be sure, but it almost always stops before going too far, keeping true to the characters, as they have been established.

One moment from "Resignation Day" really stands out, and crystallizes something this show does very well. Susan tells Douglas that, despite cheating on his fiance and betraying his mother, he is still a good guy. And somehow, as hard as it is to accept on paper, she's right! Not only that, but after writing Bud off as a womanizer who can't keep his mouth shut, Political Animals goes out of its way to prove he also loves his (ex-, for now) wife, and has willingly sacrificed himself for her career. This is the mark of a compelling character, who, likes the others on this show, lives in the fuzzy gray world of reality, rather than being shelved as either hero or villain. Very cool.

Another sweet point in "Resignation Day" is when Elaine tells Susan the truth of the whole power struggle. The friendship between these women is a real highlight of Political Animals, and what keeps the political world from coming across as too slimy. Providing a relationship both hang on tight to amidst the turmoil givens each a strong foundation they can stand on, and provides viewers with ways to root for them. Who needs mean girls when nice works so much better?

I would be remiss if I didn't praise the fantastic Ellen Burstyn, who plays Elaine's mother, Margaret. Whether making her daughter consider what her decisions do to the family, or confronting Anne and T.J. (Sebastian Stan) about their demons without judgment while struggling with her own, she is a powerful force on the series, and one that drives along a number of stories that could stall out without her assistance. She is doing some seriously brilliant work here.

Then there's the scene where Barry (Roger Bart) comes to make up with Elaine, his priorities put in order by what happens to Garcetti. These kind of pathos help the show thrive, and thrive it does. The cast has been signed for multiple seasons. Let's hope Political Animals gets that chance.

First posted on TheTVKing

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