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Political Animals: U.S. politics as TV drama, with plenty of cheese

It's not art. It's not evenly particularly well-executed TV drama. But Political Animals (Sunday, Bravo!, 9 p.m.) is damn fine delish.

The show is all sizzle, a soap opera about U.S. politics, Washington insiders. What makes it interesting is its impulse to reduce political complexities to mundane family dynamics. A son is a drug addict. A soon-to-be daughter-in-law is bulimic and the guy who was president of the United States twice talks a lot of blather and is addicted to bedding bosomy actresses. Somebody else is gay and there are conflicted feelings about that. A nice old lady, mom to powerful politicians, has a formidably vicious tongue.

In taking this tack, the show is an example of a cable drama delivering what a lot of viewers want but what critics tend to diminish as froth. It's unlikely that Political Animals will win any awards, but viewers will savour the cheesy antics, and women in particular will relish the portrait of women politicians and powerful women journalists.

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Political Animals started last Sunday and it's easy to catch up if you didn't see the first episode.

Sigourney Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, a very Hillary-Clinton-esque figure who becomes U.S. Secretary of State after failing to get her party's presidential nomination. The winning candidate and new president, one Paul Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar) appoints her. Barrish was first lady while her husband Bud (Ciarán Hinds) was president. He tended to sleep around and, in the opening minutes of the first episode Elaine barked that at last she wanted a divorce.

What has transpired so far is high-grade twaddle. But loads of fun.

Elaine has to go to some state dinner which her ex-husband, the ex-president, also attends. He brings as his date the actress Eva Flores. In a flashback we see Bud meeting Eva. "Who is that foxy lady?" he asks a pal. And the answer is, "She's on that show where the doctors bang each other. Hawaii Medical." Also along – and this doesn't make a blind bit of sense – is a journalist named Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) who is writing a lengthy profile of the Secretary of State and has written nasty things about her in the past.

Oh yes, there's some business about Elaine and Bud's good son and bad son. The bad son is the one who is gay, a drug addict and tends to emotional hysterics. Oh my, does he cause a fuss. There was a bit about American journalists in Iran being arrested and sentenced to death for spying. But everybody forgot about that while Elaine went about the business of dealing with her son and her ex.

At another point, everything stopped while Elaine made a speech to that journalist Susan. It began, "Most of life is hell. It's filled with failure and loss. People disappoint you. Dreams don't work out. Hearts get broken." And so forth until it's clear to even the dumbest viewer that Elaine is tough and a tad cynical. At the end Elaine said, to nobody is particular, that she was going to run for president gain.

You get the picture – there's a soap-opera gloss applied to the vaguely real, and the tough slog of a woman in a man's world is the core story. Elaine actually bonded with the ruthless journalist Susan because, well, it turned out that both their men were rats.

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In the past few months we've seen a lot of political-themed material on U.S. TV. HBO's Game Change, about Sarah Palin and the McCain/Palin campaign; the ABC drama Scandal about spin doctors in Washington; and the satirical HBO comedy Veep, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a beleaguered female vice-president. In an election years, the surge can be expected.

Mind you, apart from Game Change, a one-off about real people and real events, the shows have been disappointing. Political Animals is the best so far, mostly because it doesn't try to be classy, deep or even approach penetrating satire. It's garish, even cartoonish and, as such deeply satisfying. Politics tends to be more boring than people imagine, so the cheesier the take on it, the better.

Also airing this weekend

The Cove (Sunday, CBC NN, 10 p.m.) is the controversial documentary made by National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos about the systematic slaughter of dolphins in a hidden cove on the coast off Taiji, Japan. Made in secret and some danger, it is meant to be emotional and provocative and it sure is.

Mighty Ships

(Sunday, Discovery Channel, 8 p.m.) has two consecutive episodes tonight. On this one, about the cruise ship Crystal Serenity, viewers tag along as the ship visits Sydney, Melbourne, Bali and Indonesia and the port of Singapore. And the second program is about the USS New York, the massive amphibious transport dock, which was in part forged using steel salvaged from the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks. You get to sail the seas and never leave home.

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All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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