'Political Animals' finale review: Real-life politics ended up swamping this miniseries

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Image Credit: David Giesbrecht/USA Network

Political Animals concluded its miniseries saga on Sunday night, and it must be said that this well-cast, well-acted nighttime soap became progressively less engaging as it went along. The series tried to wrap things up with a cliffhanger that would leave viewers rooting for more — an always-possible additional season — but I doubt this final hour stirred up too much support for a new campaign. Political Animals concluded at an unfortunate time its creators could not have predicted: When the real-life Presidential race and political policy debate has become more wild and florid than anything this USA network entry could match.

This is your SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched the series (season?) finale of Political Animals.

Sigourney Weaver remained consistently appealing as Secretary of State Elaine Barrish, which is to say she smoothed the edges off a Hillary Clinton impersonation, added her own strong-jawed glamor, and was convincing in a way few actors can be that she could actually hold high-position office without seeming like a conflicted liberal who’d have fit into a season on The West Wing: Weaver really had the Pragmatic Pol thing down.

Animals got bogged down and repetitive during the final weeks of its subplots. Weaver took an awfully long time to draft that letter of resignation to Adrian Pasdar’s President (and as much as I usually like Pasdar, his best talent — projecting an oiliness that’s as slick as his hair — was not well-served over the long haul). And while Barrish son #1, Doug (James Wolk) got a well-deserved thrill bedding Carla Gugino’s Susan Berg instead of his cold fish of a fiancee (woe to poor Brittany Ishibashi), he remained, in reporter Berg’s intentionally dull phrase, “still a good guy” — i.e., a principled dullard.

Gugino’s character fared best when she was interacting with the Barrish clan, but the newspaper scenes involving Dan Futterman’s pious hypocrite editor, and especially Meghann Fahey as a truly wretched caricature of a blogger promoted above her I.Q. level, were dud plot-lines that led everywhere you’d expect them to, and no further.

Right up until the end, Political Animals seemed not quite comfortable with the sexuality and the relapsing substance-abusing of Barrish son #2, T.J. (Sebastian Stan, who really has to unlearn the soap opera tic of squinting whenever a scene asks him to feign thinking). In the finale, he told Doug that he found his brother’s fondness for keeping a picture of the two of them in his apartment “gay” — loving your brother is “gay”? I guess it’s just a bro-joke, but it sort of didn’t make sense as an insult, and neither did the gratuitous reminiscing of their boyhood tutor, whom T.J. said he “bedded.” Doug, shocked, asked, You had sex with a woman the same year you came out of the closet? T.J. said that just because he was “handed the gay card,” that didn’t mean he didn’t find breasts, in particular, appealing. It seemed as though Political Animals was occasionally trying to make bisexuality a more audience-sympathetic state than simply being out-and-out gay.

The final episode included an almost literal deus ex machina, with the President’s plane going down, Dylan Baker’s weasel Vice President being sworn in, and the now-gone President’s proposal to Elaine — that she run in the Vice Presidential spot on his reelection ticket, rather than against him as President — all conspiring rather too neatly to clear the field for a Barrish Presidential run

Political Animals started out fun, tart, and fueled by fast-paced chicanery. It added luster to Weaver as a future TV performer, reminded us just how good Ellen Burstyn still is. But it didn’t pay off on what it initially promised: The fantasy of what might have happened had Hillary become the new Clinton the country was finally ready to have lead it.

Twitter: @kentucker

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