The Political Animals Premiere: Meet the Hammonds

Political Animals S01E01: “Pilot”

Two years after losing the Democratic nomination for president, former first lady Elaine Barrish Hammond was free of her philandering ex-president husband and loved by the American public as an upstanding Secretary of State. Plus her oldest son, Doug, was a successful politician in his own right and engaged to be married.

And then that repulsive journalist who built her Pulitzer Prize-winning career on publicly eviscerating the Hammond family when Bud was president got her hands on some sensitive information and elbowed her way back into Elaine’s life. Meet Susan Berg, who by episode’s end proved herself to be much more than a glorified gossip columnist.

But initially, Elaine wanted nothing to do with the woman who had stepped on her marriage to advance her own career. The parallel between Elaine and Susan, the different paths they took to success in their respective fields and their occasionally conflicting philosophies of those paths, provided the backbone for Political Animals’ pilot. Susan once referred to Elaine as “the death of feminism” but in a lot of ways, Elaine is the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Susan’s Luke Skywalker. Susan idolized Elaine as a college student but later found herself disillusioned by the decisions that Elaine made as the wife of a popular U.S. president and the mother of two children accustomed to growing up under public scrutiny. She saw her former feminist ideal seemingly return to the traditional patriarchy, and she saw her refusal to divorce Bud after his affairs became public as either a calculated political move, or the desperate actions of a woman hopelessly tethered to a bad husband.

Elaine, however, saw Susan as a cold, opportunistic sort of monster. She certainly didn’t fault Susan for being driven in her want for a successful career, but Susan crossed a line in Elaine’s mind. She took private family matters and turned them into public cannon fodder, justified it as news. Elaine’s only concern was her family.

Just last month, The Atlantic featured an article called “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” highlighting the ongoing struggles that working women face. While great strides have certainly been made since Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, there is still a careful balance that has to be maintained. Being a mother is a full-time position, one that takes precedent over professional jobs, yet there is still a stigma attached to leaving the workforce to stay at home and raise children, as though the woman who chooses that life has failed to meet her fullest potential. Conversely, the woman who chooses to focus fully on her professional life, sacrificing the traditional husband and 2.5 kids, can also find herself alternately pitied and vilified for abandoning what many see as an essential part of being a woman.

The woman who tries to do both certainly has her job cut out for her and Sigourney Weaver’s Elaine Hammond is very much that woman. One of the most delightful things about Political Animals is that it refuses to pick a side on the working mom spectrum. Elaine Hammond makes it work, but it’s not a cakewalk. The difficulty endured by regular working women is amplified by her public job and high-profile family.

Two years after her presidential loss, Elaine found herself in Susan’s crosshairs yet again. One of Susan’s informants at a D.C. hospital let slip that Hammond’s youngest son, TJ, had been treated after a suicide attempt a few months earlier. She threatened to leak the story to the public unless Elaine agreed to an in-depth interview, which is how Susan got to join Elaine’s entourage, despite Elaine kind of hating her a lot. Classy.

I instantly loved TJ. He was charming and darkly comedic. However, he was also the first openly gay child to grow up in the White House during his father’s presidency, an experience that deeply affected him. He claimed to have entered rehab for his substance abuse issues in the aftermath of his suicide attempt, but later excused himself from the dinner table at big bro Doug’s engagement party to snort a line of coke in the restroom. Like his mother, TJ is a character defined by his struggles. Disgusted by the political circus, TJ has rejected the Hammond family birthright and sought a life away from public scrutiny—which is, of course, easier said than done. When a male prostitute delightedly explained that TJ was his first celebrity crush, TJ was more irritated than touched. It’s hard enough to be a gay teen. To be a gay teen in a family as famous as the Hammonds must have been horrific, and while TJ came out of it seemingly rewarded with iconic status, it was a reward he never wanted.

The worst part about running for president, Elaine stated, was the campaigning itself. She hated lying to potential voters, promising that she could make things better for them if they cast their ballot for her. She referred to campaigning as an “Olympic sport in hypocrisy”—but for all of his apparently sliminess, Elaine conceded that if nothing else, her ex-husband, Bud, didn’t have to lie when he campaigned for his own presidency. He believed in the lie and he believed that he really could change Americans’ lives while in office.

This inner honesty is what manages to keep Bud Hammond likeable, despite the fact that he’s a good ol’ boy of sorts who's never refused a beautiful woman who offered to sleep with him. Bud was a celebrated president who once wielded considerable influence even after he left office. However, after his divorce from Elaine and her rise to Secretary of State, Bud became largely irrelevant. He was lampooned by the late-night comedians as a washed-up joke of an ex-president with a shiny new trophy girlfriend. His ex, who wasn’t exactly as well-loved as he was when they were in the White House, seemed to have gotten the last laugh.

However, Bud isn’t without his experience and when the current president (and Elaine’s boss) Garcetti refused to rescue three American journalists wrongly accused of being spies from probable execution in the Middle East, Elaine asked her ex-husband to use what remaining influence he had to intervene. Oh, and they slept together because, well, their relationship is complicated, and it probably always has been, adding a further insulting angle to Susan’s old columns in their dogmatic insistence that Elaine was a bad feminist for standing by her cheating husband. I loved the two secret service agents exchanging knowing looks at the no-tell motel those two crazy kids hooked up at.

Finally, there’s Doug, the oldest Hammond son—clean-cut, PR-savvy, and loyal to is family as well as his career, just like his mother. I was actually expecting to see more of a sibling rivalry between Doug and TJ, but I’m thrilled that there isn’t one. It would have been so easy to write Doug as the functional favorite son and TJ as the dysfunctional black sheep, and while both men encompass those personae to an extent, they don’t let their polar opposite roles in the family define their brotherly relationship. Doug was quick to call TJ and make sure he was all right when news of his suicide attempt broke, despite Susan’s insistence that she would never have ok'd a story like that (and she didn’t, her douchebag ex-boyfriend/editor did). When Elaine asked him to keep an eye on his younger brother, he did it without question or eye-rolling. Doug doesn’t treat his brother like a political liability, though the story certainly has the potential to make his mother and himself—her assistant—look bad. Rather he, like Elaine, dreaded the release of the story for the infringement of TJ’s privacy that it was and their first thoughts were of his welfare.

The other parallel in Political Animals runs between two of the people closest to Doug, his fiancée Anne and his brother TJ. Both are disgusted by the political spotlight, but endure the scrutiny for the sake of the family... and both characters harbor destructive secrets. I was braced for further restroom revelations after TJ and Anne both made use of the brief privacy to indulge in their respective illnesses—TJ’s continued drug addiction and Anne’s bulimia. It’s certainly a sad commentary on the magnifying glass that these characters live under that literally the ONLY time they have complete privacy is in the bathroom, and even that privacy is tentative at best.

When we left the Hammonds at the end of Political Animals’ first installment, Elaine was in hot water with President Garcetti over her decision to send Bud abroad to negotiate for the journalists’ safe return... and then to leak news of the trip to her new unlikely ally, Susan, revealing further that in she planned to run for president once again—and this time, she plans to win.


Amendments


– “It’s always important to look your best when you feel your worst.” Between the sage advice and the Jack Daniels-infused margaritas, TJ Hammond is my spirit animal.

– I love that Elaine named her dogs after the Kennedy brothers. I LOLed for real.

– You know, on some level, I think Doug’s comment, “There’s a tsunami of bullshit that comes with being in my family. Don’t you love me more than you hate it?” can apply to any family, not just the famous political ones.

– Okay, okay, so Susan is actually awesome and we like her, but wasn’t Grandma Barrish’s dressing down of her at the engagement party epic?

Political Animals is ambitious and awesome (awesomely ambitious?), but at its core, it's really just a story about a family. Admittedly, the Barrishes are an insanely complicated family, but aren’t most families? People are complicated and nobody is ever just one thing. That’s why we humans tend to frown on labeling.

– In the introduction, Elaine was referred to as both a “feminist icon” and a “closet conservative” and in practice, she is both a loving mother, and a fierce political force—a self-described “bitch.” I’m hooked. How about you?


UPDATE: The full premiere is now available to watch online:

Political Animals Promo Photos

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I thought the premiere was... okay. For most of the first half of it, I thought it was just too sappy or overly dramatic. It felt like too much of a soap opera, and not enough of a solid drama -- which is fine if you like soaps, but I typically dislike them.



The acting was very good and I generally like all the characters -- well, except Bud, every word he speaks annoys me -- and better yet, the episode got much better in the second half / last third. Also, CRAIG FERGUSON.



During most of it, I felt like I'd give up on the show... but the last third or so may have reeled me back in a bit to watch the next episode.
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Everything I probably could have pointed out about this was pretty much covered in the review and going into it much further would pretty much be redundant. I LOVED the approach they took with feminism in general. I mean they painted it so honestly and realistically that I was thoroughly impressed. Fact is decades and even centuries later and we still don't know how to fully define what feminism is. It's as complicated as it gets, where no one ever really honors it the way that they feel that they should. Elaine and the reporter really showcased that well.



I've noticed and mentioned on more than one occasion that USA is really getting liberal with their language and...well everything. Everything is getting a bit edgier and PA had me thinking I was watching HBO and not USA. But despite the gratuitous sex and language...because some of it really was overkill and not really essential to the storyline compared to others. (TJ's sex scene...pertinent. Bud's and Doug's...not so much...and the langague at times seemed like they went out of their way to insert some of it rather than it being organic.) All that aside I didn't mind.



T.J. It's funny because I knew the moment I saw that promos that he would instantly be my favorite character and I was right. For starters Sebastian Stan has this wonderful way of really embodying any and every character he plays, his performances are almost mesmerizing to me and his delivery of TJ was exactly that. He's complicated and there is this instant sympathy and admiration and just magnetic draw to his character. I adored him...plus I'm an underdog type of person. And I also adored that despite the whole "good son" vs "perpetual screw up son" it doesn't intefered with their relationship whatsoever. Also love TJ and Grandma...the two of them together tossing out quips and drinking margaritas was one of the many highlights. LOVE those two!



I gotta say...that bathroom sees a hell of a lot of action! Yikes! I had a problem with Doug's fiancee. I just can't feel for someone who knows what they are getting into and then complains about it the whole way through. I mean clearly she did know whom she would be marrying and I'm assuming his involvement in the politics was always there. But Doug taking his mum's calls during sex is a no no. LOL



I instantly loved this and I do hope the ratings get better and that it gets a pickup because it deserves it. It's definitely well written, gritty, edgy. I love the accurate portrayal of modern day women, fierce, strong, also vulnerable. The dialogue was fab, they managed to hit cliches and skirt them at the same time and the characters have depth. I'm intrigued...and hooked.
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No show set in DC will ever really be able to capture us again like the way that "The West Wing" did. It was the first, and it was fantastic. So I'll try not to compare the two because that's like trying to compare "The Notebook" to "Casablanca". Good love stories, the both of them, but from different points in movie history. So we have this in TV history of DC shows.



Side note: I would love to see this picked up for a series. The ratings were not great. I think this has to do with the Sunday evening time slot. Summer is absolutely littered with Sunday evening cable shows. I'm not saying I know better, but this is my thought.



-I loved that sequence.

-I had to pause it because I was still laughing.

-I agree. Pretty much every family has that. Just some families have a more public version of it.

-Grandma Barrish was awesome. I want to see more of her taking people down for size as we continue in this.

-Agreed.

-I loved it. To be fair, though, I've always been a fan of Sigourney Weaver. I am looking forward to more, and, as I said, I do hope that this gets picked up. Watch it, people!
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Don't sell yourself short. You do know better. : )



I agree. Well, with pretty much all of this. I mean such a great cast and great writing. I'd love to see this become more permanent.
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Loved it! Can't wait for the next episode!
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Surprisingly awesome. Loved it, can't wait to see where it goes...
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TOTALLY hooked! Made me even more bummed that Hillary didn't get to run for President. I loved Sigourney (and the writing!)...she really showed the complexities of a being a woman in her position, not to mention a mother. I can't wait for the next episode. Best lines were about the elephants being a matriarchal society, and how they kick out the males when they reach puberty (or something like that). Very funny.
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Hilary DID get to run for president - but Bill effed it up for her, as he's wont to do whenever the spotlight might shift to someone else. And I thought the elephant scene was funny too, only because it happens to be the Republican symbol.
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Finally got time to watch it - LOVED IT! It made me want to go to the US, get citizenship (I am a Brit) and campaign for Hilary. It's just delicious - the wonderfully disfunctional family who really love each other to bits, the journo with a true sense of ethics tempered with savvy intelligence, the alcoholic mother-in-law with a wicked tongue and and a brain as sharp as a razor blade, the sleazy, slimy politician willing to sacrifice the innocent journalists to advance his political standing, the fiercely strong woman willing to put up with almost anything for the love of her family but still human and clever and wily, oh so many brilliant characters. It still needs a strident atheist but maybe that will come. I really hope this is converted into a full series but I suspect it probably will not. I watched the first episode of Veep (it was a real effort to get to the end but I just about managed it) and thought it was absolutely dreadful but Political Animals is great. Please America, watch it, get the ratings up and save this show.
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Just watched it. It SUCKED. Overhyped to the max. I can't believe USA spent 4 Million USD per episode on this...seriously.



Had potential, and still does. Some shows recover from a bad Pilot. But with Breaking Bad and True Blood on at Sundays, does this show really expect to get anywhere?
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I hope "Profit" gets to do some nasty things!
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After watching the pilot, I like it better than Veep, but not as much as Commander in Chief.
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hated it
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I am thrilled that this show has finally started because that means it will end and I won't have to watch the stupid commercials for it any more. Gee, ya think it's really about the Clintons?
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They are so under-using Ellen Burstyn it's sick. She steals the light from every scene she's in. Buuttt, it's Bill Clinton's show so we have to pretend his character is more important.
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I highly enjoyed it myself. I thought Sigourney Weaver was great. I'm really looking forward to the next episode.
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It was kind of slow. But with good characters and actors it has great potential.
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It was alright. Mediocre at best. The pace was a bit uneven, and the characters still need time to develop. It's all still a bit much now. It actually comes across more like a primetime soap with all the sex and "problems." It was pretty disappointing. I had higher hopes. I found more depth in Veep than I did in Political Animals (and that's a comedy). I'll stick around though because it has potential. And it has the fabulous James Wolk! There's definitely that too... lol
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He's definitely amazing. If this isn't picked up for more episodes then he better return to Happy Endings. Loved him on there.
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Epic!! Loved every minute! Fantastic dialogue!! Awesome!!
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I felt at times that the show was *trying* to be edgy with the excess sex and the swearing just for the sake of it. I'm not at all against those things; I just don't think it added to the plot in any substantial waymost of the time. It was often more distracting than it was engaging. That said, Sigourney Weaver was fantastic as was Ellen Burstyn and I loved the complex relationship between Elaine and Susan. By far the best part of the show. And while I agree that the portrayal of TJ (the gay son) was a little stereotypical (the drugs, the anonymous sex, the 'stylist' routine) I also found much of it believable, given his character's circumstances. And I felt there was a real humanity to his pain, which made it forgivable. He was actually the character I found most compelling, besides Elaine and Susan. All in all, it wasn't perfect, but it was definitely worth watching, and I will be tuning in next week for sure.
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I didn't notice any excess sex or excess swearing, just the normal amount that tends to happen while one is living.
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