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'Political Animals' is smartly done

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The six-episode drama "Political Animals" (10 p.m. Sunday) is the latest addition to USA's programming slate. I'm a fan of much of that programming, and "Political Animals" is no exception.

The show centers on Secretary of State Elaine Barrish, the ex-wife of a former two-term president and a presidential nominee herself. She's a force to be reckoned with, and Sigourney Weaver imbues her with fiery energy and fierce determination.

Things begin with a flashback to the night that kicks the series' events into motion. It's the night when Elaine cedes the Democratic presidential nomination to Paul Garcetti, who would go on to win the presidency and make her his secretary of state. It's also the night when she tells Bud Hammond, her husband of 30 years, that she wants a divorce.

Flash forward two years, and Elaine is balancing international relations with familial ones. She's dealing with a hostage crisis in Tehran and preparing for the engagement party for her elder son, Doug (James Wolk), who is also her assistant. Soon, she'll throw her hat into the ring again for president.

She also worries about her troubled younger son, Thomas, or T.J. (played with just the right emotional touch by Sebastian Stan). As the first openly gay child in the White House, he hasn't had an easy life. He's a recovering drug addict struggling with sobriety and trying to distance himself from an "incident" that his family has worked to keep out of the press.

That incident is the leverage journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) uses to gain access to Elaine, threatening to expose it unless Elaine allows Susan into her life. Susan also happens to be the journalist who revealed Bud's affairs and who Elaine had barred from the White House press pool, so the two have a very antagonistic relationship.

They are more alike than they care to admit, though (and they gain even more of a connection by the first episode's end). Both are very strong females who know their influence and aren't afraid to use whatever tools are in their arsenal to get what they need. They're bitches and they're fine with that; they even refer to themselves as such.

Despite being divorced, Bud is still very much a presence in Elaine's life, both politically and personally. Ciaran Hinds is thoroughly entertaining as the boisterous former president, who is almost gleefully politically incorrect, especially when it comes to the Italian-American president who he frequently refers to with an ethnic slur.

Rounding out the family is Elaine's boozy, outspoken mom, played colorfully by Ellen Burstyn. "They never let me talk on the record. I'm either too drunk or too honest or, god forbid, both," she explains to Susan at a party, drink in hand.

Creator Greg Berlanti is no stranger to sprawling casts, having helmed projects like "Everwood" and "Brothers & Sisters." He does another great job with this ensemble, juggling all the characters' stories and fleshing them out nicely.

The first episode is slightly more than an hour, and there are a lot of players and plot strands introduced in that time, but the show never feels dull or bogged down with exposition. It's smartly done and entertaining, a brief bit of fictional political drama before the real stuff heats up heading into November.

"Political Animals" will be long gone by then, though. It's being referred to as a "limited series event" and, for now, that seems to be a fancy term for "miniseries," as there doesn't appear to be anything planned beyond these six episodes.

However, the preview that aired at the end of the first episode said "This season on . . .," and it seems like it could be expanded fairly easily, especially if Elaine wins the presidency.

If you missed that episode, there are several ways you can catch up before episode 2 on Sunday. It's on TV at midnight Friday, 1 p.m. and midnight Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. It's also on Suddenlink's USA On Demand and online at hulu.com and usanetwork.com.

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Series premieres: "Sullivan & Son," 10 p.m. Thursday, TBS (sitcom about a NYC lawyer who buys his dad's working-class Pittsburgh bar); "Great Lakes Warriors," 10 p.m. today, History (tugboat sailors on the lakes).

Season premieres: "Project Runway," 9 p.m. Thursday, Lifetime (with casting special at 8 p.m.); "Bachelor Pad," 8 p.m. Monday, ABC; "Warehouse 13," 9 p.m., and "Alphas," 10 p.m. Monday, Syfy; "Top Chef Masters," 10 p.m. Wednesday, Bravo.

Returning: "Love Broker," 10 p.m. Tuesday, Bravo.

Season finales: "Duets," 8 p.m. Thursday, ABC; "Whale Wars," 9 p.m., and "Louisiana Lockdown," 10 p.m. Friday, Animal Planet; "Merlin," 10 p.m. Saturday, BBC America; "The Bachelorette," 8 p.m. Sunday, ABC (Note different day.); "American Ninja Warrior," 8 p.m. Monday, NBC; "Love in the Wild," 10 p.m. Tuesday, NBC.

Specials: "Live from the Artist's Den: Death Cab for Cutie," 9 p.m. Friday, PBS2; "30 Greatest NBC Olympic Moments," 8 p.m. Saturday, NBC; "Teen Choice Awards," 8 p.m. Sunday, Fox; "The CLIOS: World's Best Commercials," 8 p.m. Wednesday, NBC.

Of note: The standout "Community" spoof of "Law & Order" airs 8:30 p.m. Friday, NBC.

Reach Amy Robinson at flipside@wvgazette.com.


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