USA Elects to Go With a Different Type of 'Animal'

Network plays politics with new miniseries that can broaden reach, build buzz
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RELATED:Q&A With Political Animals creator Greg Berlanti, executive producer Laurence Mark and series star Sigourney Weaver

When USA Network was looking for a big, limited-event series to anchor its summer lineup, it couldn’t resist a drama with political themes, given the current election-year climate.

So when creator Greg Berlanti pitched them Political Animals, a six-part miniseries starring Sigourney Weaver as a Secretary of State/matriarch of a former First Family, the network fast-tracked the project from script straight to series—something USA had never done before—to get it on the air in the heat of the 2012 election.

“Greg pitched the script, and we saw it was a great story of a great royal American family taking place against the backdrop of all the political things that are happening this time of year. For us, it just seemed like perfect timing,” says USA copresident Chris McCumber.

Political Animals
, which premieres July 15, is a different type of drama for USA, which has worked its way to the top of the cable ratings chart with characteristic “blue sky” dramedies. Animals is more serialized and a bit more serious, and with a cast that includes Weaver, Carla Gugino and Ellen Burstyn, the show also offers a chance at critical praise and awards—the type of prestige that is not often lavished on USA’s mass-appeal series.

“A show like Political Animals, there’s a real halo effect for the network,” McCumber says. “Beyond the ratings and beyond the business side of it, having the auspices of a Greg Berlanti, a Sigourney Weaver, the incredible cast that we have, just makes USA an even bigger player than it is.”

In a sign of that pedigree, the network has scheduled Political Animals on Sunday, that night of the highbrow cable drama. Execs hope the series can broaden the reach of the network by appealing to non-USA viewers who may tune in for Weaver, or the political setting.

Though Animals is a political show, with Weaver’s character sharing a strikingly similar backstory to Hilary Clinton, Berlanti pitched it as primarily a family show, which USA saw as similar enough to its current slate to fit its schedule while also helping lure new viewers. In the series, Weaver portrays former First Lady Elaine Barrish, who after a failed bid for the presidential nomination divorces her philandering husband, becomes Secretary of State and strikes an unlikely friendship with a female journalist. The toll that life in the public sphere takes on Barrish’s family, especially her two sons, is a major theme of the series.

“We still think it has all the aspects that our USA core fans are going to love—the family drama of it all,” McCumber says. “There is a certain blue sky-ness to it all. We call it different shades of blue.”

Jeff Wachtel, USA copresident and cohead of original content for Universal Cable Productions, says the network is open to doing more serialized dramas, and based on its ratings, would consider extending Political Animals to a full series. And the show was written with that in mind, Berlanti says, with big events happening in the final episode that set it up for a possible second season.

“The curtain does come down at the end of the sixth episode, and hopefully you’re satisfied,” adds executive producer Laurence Mark. “If you’d like to bring the curtain up again, we’re happy to do it.”

But beyond ratings, USA is looking at the buzz the series creates in judging its success. “Certainly the monetizable audience is incredibly important to us,” Wachtel says. “The other thing is the imprint you make on the culture, because that inures to the benefit of the overall network.”

For USA, that includes making noise beyond TV to have an effect on the broader culture, something that can be said of a cable series like AMC’s Mad Men and its impact on fashion trends. As such, USA has partnered with the Huffington Post to unveil a list of the “Top 50 Political Animals” in advance of the premiere.

“We want to have people writing about the political animal phenomenon,” Wachtel says. “We want to create conversations that are happening off the entertainment pages.”

Spurring that conversation will be the series’ quick production schedule, with Berlanti writing the episodes this spring that will air in July and August, just before the start of the conventions, and the glut of political news and story lines set to play out this year.

“I think when you write about something that has politics in it, it can seem really dated really fast,” Berlanti says of the timing. “There were stories that we wrote that have since happened actually in the press. If we wrote it and then we sat on it for a year-and-a-half, it can feel really stale in a year.”

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

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