Clinton Nostalgia

‘Political Animals’: Greg Berlanti on the Clintons, Fiction, and More

Jace Lacob talks with creator Greg Berlanti about Political Animals, which begins Sunday, about whether his characters are analogs for Bill and Hillary Clinton, and more.

David Giesbrecht / USA Network

It’s difficult to avoid the Bill and Hillary Clinton comparisons in Political Animals, USA’s ambitious and soapy six-episode miniseries, which begins Sunday.

Created by Greg Berlanti (Everwood), the limited-run series’ plot revolves around Sigourney Weaver’s Elaine Barrish, a former first lady who becomes the U.S. Secretary of State after a failed presidential bid, and a highly public sex scandal involving her husband, Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds). Sound familiar?

“I’m not being coy about it,” said Berlanti, over breakfast at a West Hollywood café. “There is no doubt that Elaine’s ex-husband was the president. Those are similarities that I don’t pretend don’t exist.” But Elaine, Berlanti said, is drawn as much from Madeleine Albright as she is the former real-life first lady.

“For Bud, there is more LBJ in there,” he said of how the character deviates from the Bill Clinton model. “There is a big difference between them, even though they were both Southern Democrats. One was an academic who wore that on his sleeve; LBJ was not. He got people and he altered between being incredibly intimidating and using that intimidation and being very jocular … and he had a real, almost tragic dark side that we’re able to explore with this character as we go on.”

In fact, there’s an ambient darkness to many of the Hammond clan members throughout Political Animals, embodied by Ellen Burstyn as Elaine’s mother Margaret, and the twins, Thomas and T.J., played respectively by James Wolk and Sebastian Stan. Inasmuch as the miniseries is about “political machinations,” it’s also about the how our pasts do and don’t define our destinies—for both the Hammond clan and for a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), who covered the dissolution of their marriage—and flashbacks in each of the episodes to the Hammonds’ glory days underscore this further.

There is a strong sense within the show of what Berlanti calls “the halcyon days of when things were great, what the Hammonds kind of represent: weren’t we this great country in the ‘90s?” But in the Hammonds, it’s clear that both the country and the family that once served at its center, have fallen on hard times.

“One is a sex addict, one is a drug addict, one is a rageaholic, [Burstyn’s Margaret] is a drunk, one is maybe an ambitious viper. Yet we look at them and we see ourselves and we want them back in the White House. We root for them, we want them to go back, but right now they’re living with certain frailties. Elaine is recovering from a loss and Bud’s out of power, the kids are realizing at 30 that life isn’t the way that it was when they were the princes of the White House. Susan Berg won a Pulitzer 15 years ago and hasn’t necessarily done anything "great" since then and works at a company that’s being strangled and dying and has to figure out how to evolve.”

That notion of evolution lurks within the DNA of the miniseries itself, which tackles both the fortunes of the Hammonds and how both Bud and Elaine remain politically relevant—it simultaneously looks at the role of the media, lurching between an incisive tool and being overtaken by the gossip bloggers of the online world. But each of the characters, shifting between being sympathetic and being ambitious, remain wholly relatable throughout.

“There are sacrifices they all make for their ambition,” said Berlanti. “That’s at the cornerstone of the show. They live, breathe, eat, and sleep their passion. The other people around them are sometimes the collateral damage of that, those who don’t have that political animal in them. But they’re all very human. They all balance each other out pretty well. With Bud and Elaine, she’s the doer and he’s the dreamer. He’s so in his own reality, that it is still 1998. He is still the king shit.”

“On the surface, T.J. is the troubled one, but he may not be the most damaging one to the family,” he continued. “A lot of times, it’s the archetypical black sheep of a political family that goes on to hold elective office and sometimes becomes president of the United States.”

Berlanti is no stranger to writing about political dynasties, and created a show about two brothers, one of whom would go on to become the POTUS in the future, in the short-lived WB drama Jack & Bobby. Like Political Animals, that show also aired in a presidential election year.

“We did Jack & Bobby in the middle of the Kerry/Bush election,” Berlanti said. “It hurt it a little bit. No matter what we did, everyone thought we were advocating for one person over the other. The stuff I work on is more about the people. [Political Animals] is fun for me because it’s about a lot of the in-fighting of Democratic politics. Democrats can look at it and maybe enjoy it, but the Republicans or more conservative people can look at it, and say, ‘they’re destroying themselves.’ People are feeding on themselves. That does happen.”

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Berlanti, meanwhile, said he identifies himself as a Democrat, though admitted he’s more interested in human dynamics than in policy. “It doesn’t mean that I agree with everything that they say or that I think television is the place where I’m going to get my political ideas out,” he said. “It’s my job to entertain.” (Of President Obama, Berlanti said, “What I really appreciated about Obama in the last campaign was that he was not reactive and we’re such a reactive culture ... It takes a certain strength to be patient and have a plan.”)

Sigourney Weaver’s Elaine Barrish, however, does represent an idealized vision of a politician, who manages to be both pragmatic and optimistic, something Berlanti says this nation needs politically. “What we crave now is almost a Trumanesque pragmatic optimist, someone who cuts through the bullshit, because we look at our government and we just see the structure is so broken and people are at each other’s throats … Sigourney plays her with a gracefulness and sense of power and strength, and yet a vulnerability.”

And, at the narrative’s center, said Berlanti, there is a love story, one between Elaine and Bud.

“It’s a love story that starts with a divorce, where she’s finally herself and finally free of this guy,” said Berlanti. “But yet they have this immense shared history and they really do get each other. He really, really loves her. He just has a compulsion, like a lot of the characters do in different ways, to sleep with everything that moves.”

But if viewers believe they know where the story of Political Animals—and that of Elaine Barrish’s presidential bid—is going, Berlanti said they should guess again. But he also said that the six episodes do offer a resolution of sorts at the very end. “There’s a big arc, there is a big twist, but there’s still closure,” he said. “You will feel gratified by the six episodes so people won’t feel like they shouldn’t invest if they’re not going to watch a future season. It has a very clear beginning, middle, and end, but because it’s a miniseries there is some big stuff that starts to go down.”

Did Berlanti just tease a future season?

“We have the actors under contract for multiple seasons,” he said. “If it does well, we would love to bring it back. It’s been a really rewarding experience … We have to figure out the storytelling formula and the budget and how we actually do a show like this in 10 episodes or however many. But it takes the audience to respond to it.”

The miniseries, which alternates sharply among soapy melodrama, sexual hijinks, and emotional murkiness, is a real departure for USA, which has become highly successful for its happy-time procedural programming. For Berlanti, however, Political Animals remains a deeply intimate work, despite the fact that he grew up in Westchester and not in the White House.

“All of the characters in Political Animals have either emotionally things I’ve been through or have characteristics that I aspired to, sometimes both,” said Berlanti. “In a lot of ways, it’s the most personal thing I’ve done maybe since Everwood. Sometimes, it’s completely biographical things that happen to the characters or just the dynamics that are very, very personal.”

“Susan’s almost 40. She’s approaching 40 and I’m 40 and she’s looking at her life and her career. I’m single, and she’s single by the end of the pilot. They each have things that are fairly honest in terms of coming from parts of me,” he said. “But once these characters are inhabited by great actors, it’s so much less about your biography.”