Tuned In: Poor start mars USA's 'Political Animals'

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The notion of a summer soap inspired by real-life politicians has merit, but USA Network's "Political Animals" gets bogged down in exposition throughout its 75-minute premiere at 10 p.m. Sunday.

The problem is not the concept, it's the execution.

Created by Greg Berlanti ("Everwood," "Brothers & Sisters"), who also wrote and directed Sunday's premiere, "Political Animals" tracks the career of Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver, "Aliens"), wife of former U.S. President Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds). A Democrat, Elaine ran unsuccessfully for president and later accepted the job as U.S. secretary of state. If that makes her sound a lot like Hillary Clinton, well, that's intentional.

Many of the characters, situations and events in "Political Animals" are clearly inspired by real politicos with enough fabricated elements tossed in to give Mr. Berlanti grist for the drama mill. But there are a whole lot of characters to meet, and each one seems to have motivations that have to be spelled out in neon letters.

At first the exposition onslaught is handled smartly. The opening scene is an MSNBC broadcast, which allows faux TV news reporters to fill viewers in on the backgrounds of the many characters.

You can see bits of Elaine's sense of humor and toughness in her mother, former first mother-in-law Margaret Barrish (Ellen Burstyn), who complains, "They never let me talk on the record. I'm either too drunk or too honest."

Elaine's twin sons also bring drama, most notably Thomas, aka T.J. (Sebastian Stan, "Gossip Girl"), who is openly gay and a drug addict. His more politically savvy brother, Douglas (James Wolk, "Lonestar"), serves as Elaine's chief of staff. Douglas is preparing to marry Anne (Brittany Ishibashi), with whom he has a pretty graphic sexual interlude in Sunday's premiere.

Some exposition is always necessary in a pilot episode, but with "Political Animals" it never seems to stop. After gutting it out through the family introductions, "Political Animals" clobbers viewers again with more shoehorned-in background on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), who blackmails her way into an exclusive interview with the secretary of state.

"Political Animals" begins as Elaine's campaign ends and she files for divorce from her ex-president husband, who looks like Richard Nixon and sounds like Bill Clinton. This makes the character closer to a cartoon president than any real president; there's just too much caricature slathered onto Mr. Hinds' performance to be believed. Bud's obnoxiousness also calls into question Elaine's smarts -- what did she ever see in him anyway?

In a rare TV appearance, Ms. Weaver proves she has the mettle to tango with politicians -- after an Alien, these guys are a piece of cake -- but the self-assured competence she brings to the role is undermined by some of Elaine's bad choices.

USA Network describes "Political Animals" as a "limited series television event" that airs for the next six Sundays. And while it's hard to imagine that the show won't continue if it's a hit, Sunday's premiere marks an inauspicious debut that ignores the sound advice given to all writers: show, don't tell.

'Leverage' on the move

Opposite "Political Animals" TNT brings back "Leverage" (10 p.m. Sunday) as the team of Robin Hoods reunite for a fifth season with a new setting.

"Leverage" has been filmed in Portland, Ore., since its second season, but the show was set in Boston. For the new season, producers moved the setting to Portland, allowing the production team to turn their cameras anywhere without fear of filming an Oregon license plate.

This season the show will see the relationship between Alec (Aldis Hodge) and Parker (Beth Riesgraf) heat up. Guest stars will include Treat Williams ("Everwood"), Matthew Lillard ("Scooby-Doo") and Carey Elwes ("The Princess Bride"), who appears in Sunday's season premiere as a conniving shipping executive who schemes to steal Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose.

TV-car connections

Wayne Carini, host of "Chasing Classic Cars" (10 p.m. Tuesday) on cable's Velocity network, will serve as honorary race director for the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, July 20-22. He'll race throughout the weekend and lead a parade of vintage cars through Squirrel Hill on the evening of July 20. Locally, Velocity is available on Comcast (Channel 225), Verizon's FiOS TV (631), DirecTV (281) and DISH Network (364).

Just in time for the release of Pittsburgh-lensed "The Dark Knight Rises," The CW will air "The Batmobile" (8 p.m. Monday, WPCW), a half-hour special about the history and evolution of Batman's vehicle of choice through multiple TV and film series. "Batman" actors Christian Bale and Adam West and directors Christopher Nolan, Joel Schumacher and Tim Burton will be interviewed in the special.

Gardell comes home

"Mike & Molly" star and Swissvale native Billy Gardell will be back in the 'Burgh next week in advance of a stand-up show at 8 p.m. July 21 at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in Chester, W. Va.

Tickets for Mr. Gardell's show, staged at The Harv, range in price from $20-$60. Details at moreatmountaineer.com.

Pitt grad on 'The Thrill'

The Sportsman Channel is airing "The Thrill With Benmont and Kate" (2:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 a.m. Wednesday and 1:30 p.m. Saturday), which is written, produced and edited by Keith Parish, a 2007 University of Pittsburgh graduate. Katelyn Frey and Benmont Locker are the hosts.

The series combines hunting scenes with a look at the redevelopment of Medalist, a line of hunting apparel. Sportsman Channel can be found on Comcast (Channel 153 and 917HD), Verizon's FiOS TV (308), DirecTV (605) and DISH Network (285, 395).

Channel surfing

HBO announced premiere dates this week for "Boardwalk Empire" (9 p.m. Sept. 16) and "Treme" (10 p.m. Sept. 23). ... Syfy renewed reality competition "Total Blackout" for a second season to debut Nov. 13 at 9 p.m. ... TCM will remember the late Ernest Borgnine with a 24-hour marathon of his films on July 26. ... Next month A&E brings back "Storage Wars: Texas" (9 p.m. Aug. 15) and "American Hoggers" (10 p.m. Aug. 15). ... PBS will rebroadcast the Ken Burns documentary "The War" at 9 p.m. July 31-Aug. 2 and 9 p.m. Aug. 5-8 on WQED-TV. ... TNT has renewed "Falling Skies" for a 10-episode third season to air in 2013. ... A contract dispute between Viacom and DirecTV led DirecTV to drop all Viacom-owned networks (MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, VH1, Spike, etc.) earlier this week. As of Thursday, the Viacom blackout on DirecTV continued. ... In another contract dispute, DISH Network dropped AMC earlier this month. DISH will make Sunday's "Breaking Bad" season premiere available to DISH customers through a special live stream at 10 p.m. Sunday at amctv.com. Beginning today at 3 p.m., DISH customers can register for access to the live stream at www.amctv.com/breakingbad4dish. ... With Comcast's ownership of NBC, it's no surprise the company is touting all of its Summer Olympics content across various platforms available to Xfinity TV subscribers, including HD channels for basketball (Channel 796), soccer (797) and the Olympic 3D channel (981).

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about product placement, a cable anchor's hairstyle and cable oddities. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Breaking Bad," "Perception" and "Trust Us With Your Life." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about Savannah Guthrie on "Today," BBC America's "Twenty Twelve" and Comic-Con. Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.


TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.


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