John Ostrander: Political Television Theater
The late great newspaper columnist, Mike Royko, once observed of the Chicago city council (I’m paraphrasing), “I never said it was the most politically corrupt council in the world; I said it was the most theatrically politically corrupt council in the world.” There is an inherent theatricality and drama in politics; more so in an election year and a lot more so this election year.
It can also make for good television. Or not, depending on the show. Let’s look at three that are running this summer.
The first is the six episode Political Animals on USA on Sundays at 10 PM. It stars Sigourney Weaver and has a pretty stellar cast, including Ellen Burstyn, Carla Gugino, Vanessa Redgrave and Ciaran Hinds. Weaver plays a (very) Hillary Clinton-esque character, once married to a philandering Southern president (Hinds), then a failed candidate for her party’s presidential candidate, and then Secretary of State to the guy who beat her. She also has two sons: one a hard working straight arrow who is also her chief aide and the other a gay man with lots of problems including substance abuse.
I was really looking forward to this one and now I don’t know if I’ll finish watching the series. It’s more soap opera than anything else and relies too much on the Clinton comparisons to the point of making it predictable. Ciaran Hinds is a wonderful actor (as seen in the wonderful Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day and many other films) but he’s a caricature in this as Weaver’s Bill Clinton-esque husband. He’s more buffoon than anything else and makes Weaver’s character look stupid by her constant return to him.
There’s also stupid plot twists. Weaver’s character, Elaine Barrish Hammond, has decided to run again for president against her boss, the sitting president. That’s never worked for any candidate and she would know that (in fact, it’s pointed out to her in the show); she would become persona-non-grata within her own party and this character is supposed to be politically astute. And I can’t fathom the reason she would do it.
Also, it’s her gay son who has all the emotional problems and drug abuse and that’s so stereotyped. It would have been a lot more interesting if the gay son was the top aide and the straight son who had the emotional problems but that’s not the choice they made.
If I was Hillary Clinton, I’d sue.
Over on HBO, The Newsroom is on the same day and time and it’s Aaron Sorkin’s latest foray into television and it has all of Sorkin’s strengths and weaknesses. Whether you like it or not may be determined by whether or not you like Sorkin; I do so I’m enjoying myself.
The series is set in the newsroom (fancy that) of a nightly news hour show set on a mythical cable news network. Jeff Daniels (who I have long enjoyed as an actor) plays the starring role of Will McAvoy, the anchor who had been coasting too long until he answers a question honestly on a panel. His boss, Charlie Skinner (played by Sam Waterston who is plainly having a good time with this part) brings in McAvoy’s former girlfriend (and lost love), MacKenzie MacHale (played by Emily Mortimer) as McAvoy’s new producer and she shakes him up to the point where he becomes Keith Olbermann (sorta). I should also mention that the head of the network is played by Jane Fonda, the former Mrs. Ted Turner, who is also having too much fun.
Cannily, the show is set in the recent past (within the past two years approximately) that allows Sorkin to comment with a perspective of time passed. He has described it as a “political fantasy” enabling him to show how he wished things had been reported. Yes, that allows him to preach but, in general, his politics and mine coincide so I enjoy it.
I do have my problems with the show. Too many of the female characters get addled in ways that their male counterparts don’t. The exception appears to be Jane Fonda’s character thus far, but we’ll see. From what I’ve read, Sorkin had a traumatic break-up with a girlfriend and it appears to be factoring into a lot of his work. For me, the plusses far outweigh the minuses on this show. It’s been renewed for a second season and I’ll be there.
In passing, I’ll mention Boss on Starz, featuring Kelsey Grammar as the mayor of Chicago. You would think this would be a natural for me, Chicago boy that I am and raised during the era of the first Mayor Daley. I bailed after a few episodes. Too sudsy.
My last selection is Suits which is in its second season on USA Thursday nights at 10 PM. It stars Gabriel Macht, Patrick J. Adams, Rick Hoffman and the spectacular Gina Torres, who you’ll remember from Firefly. This is less about the world of politics and much more about office politics as practiced in a high-level law firm. I think someone once said ”All politics are personal” and this is very much the case here.
Patrick J. Adams plays Mike Ross, a brilliant college dropout who winds up working for Harvey Specter (Macht) even though he doesn’t have a law degree, a fact that both of them conceal – which is illegal and, if it got out, would do serious damage to the firm. The office, sexual, and romantic politics are all high level and so is the writing and the performances. Of the three series I mentioned here, this is far and away my favorite. The characters, all of them, are a mixture of faults and virtues. This is not a bunch of people I would have thought I would ever identify with but I wouldn’t miss a single episode.
Oh, and there’s also Donna, Harvey’s redheaded secretary, played with élan and brio by Sarah Rafferty. She’s hot, she’s brainy, she’s sharp with a line and it’s worth tuning in just to see her. All the female characters are really strong, especially Gina Torres as Jessica Pearson, the managing partner of the firm who is beautiful, smart, and sometimes utterly ruthless and scary.
So you can vote with your remote and, as we say in Chicago, remember to vote early and often.
MONDAY: Mindy Newell