On Sunday night, the first installment of the USA network miniseries Political Animals premiered opposite the fourth episode of The Newsroom. Both offer big-canvas portraits of workplace environments that fascinate the media (politics and, well, the media); both star actors who normally don’t “do” television (Sigourney Weaver; Jeff Daniels); both come from producers who’ve done interesting TV work in the past (Everwood and Jack & Bobby from Greg Berlanti; The West Wing and SportsNight from Aaron Sorkin). While no one would argue that Sorkin’s resume doesn’t carry more weight (a feature film career that includes The Social Network, A Few Good Men, and Moneyball — of which I really liked two out of three — will do that for a fella), Berlanti’s work here feels fully up to the level of Sorkin’s latest as fast-paced entertainment. It’s also received better reviews in the most prominent outlets.
Which leads to the question: Why?
The Newsroom is on classy HBO and arrives with the most thoroughgoing TV critique of the TV news media since Jon Stewart sat down for an interview with Rachel Maddow. Political Animals is on USA, home of Suits and “Characters Welcome” and features a performance by Ciaran Hinds as Weaver’s ex-husband ex-President so hammy, Jimmy Dean recently called from the grave to see if he could do the “Political Animals Pork Sausage” merchandizing.
Still, Political Animals, at least based on two episodes I’ve seen, is the more enjoyable, less irritating viewing experience for a few reasons. First, it is what it is: A glossy nighttime soap with particular things to say about how women are treated in politics and the media, packaged in a way that suits the product. The Newsroom is, with the exception of a few performances (Jeff Daniels'; Thomas Sadoski’s; Sam Waterston’s; maybe Jane Fonda’s), an overreaching drama that tries to pass itself off as a tough, realistic, insider expose. With, last night, Coldplay music and the shooting of Gabby Giffords used as a shorthand way to clinch an hour-long argument about how rotten the Real Housewives franchise is.
Political Animals, for the way it showcases and vividly delineates the characters played by Weaver and Carla Gugino and Ellen Burstyn, a good example of melodrama that is straining at something interesting — to work in the tradition female-admiring filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk and George Cukor. By contrast, The Newsroom represents its fine actresses, including Emily Mortimer and Allison Pill, as intelligent flakes who are present to serve as foils for Guys Who Know The Real Score. I mean, did you see this week’s latest Maggie-loves-Jim-but-loses-it-denying-herself scenes? (If Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig from James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News could watch The Newsroom, she’d be sweating as much as Albert Brooks did, nervous for the well-being of her sisters-in-broadcasting.)
Whether or not these factors consciously figured into the reviews of either of these shows, I cannot know, but the underlying tone of many reviews, including my own, tap into the same feeling: that Political Animals accomplishes more of what it sets out to do, in the right format and with the right approach to its excellent cast, than The Newsroom. Of course, who knows — this is weekly television: It’s possible that as Animals unreels the rest of its story, and Newsroom moves on through the rest of its (longer) season and goes into its (renewed) next, the latter may ultimately prove superior to the former.
But right now, I think the critics and the audience know which show seems more satisfying.