The makers of a new miniseries, including one of the year's most impressive television casts, have America's political parties to thank for it coming together so fast.
Executive producer Greg Berlanti ("Brothers & Sisters") admits this being an election year was a huge factor in his rapid development -- and USA Network's quick purchase -- of "Political Animals," which begins a weekly run Sunday. The drama boasts a rare home-screen appearance by Sigourney Weaver as a maritally troubled former first lady and failed presidential candidate who becomes secretary of state.
If that sounds somewhat familiar, let it be noted the character is fictional, indicated by her demand for a divorce from her ex-president husband (Ciarán Hinds) early in the premiere episode. However, his charisma and connections keep him useful to her in matters of international diplomacy . . . again, fiction in this case.
The secretary also has a problem in a reporter (Carla Gugino), who won a Pulitzer for covering the former president's affairs and starts digging into his ex-spouse's life. Included in it, and cleverly introduced in the faux MSNBC news report that opens the show, are the Weaver character's sons (James Wolk, Sebastian Stan) and brassy mother (Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn).
Also in the top-notch group of "Political Animals" stars: Adrian Pasdar ("Heroes") as the current president; Dylan Baker ("The Good Wife") as his less-than-trustworthy vice president; another Academy Award recipient, Vanessa Redgrave, as a Supreme Court justice and Weaver's adviser; Roger Bart ("Desperate Housewives") as the White House chief of staff; and Dan Futterman ("Judging Amy") as Gugino's beau and journalistic colleague.
"We brought this around to all the networks," Berlanti says, "but USA's pitch was, 'We want to go right away. We want to skip a pilot and go right to series.' In television, you usually sit on something for four months, so that was really appealing to me. I hadn't been a part of something that's happened this quickly, and hopefully, putting this on the air around the conventions will garner some conversation about it."
Weaver has stood in the shoes of a first lady before, in the 1993 movie comedy "Dave," but she confirms the requirements of "Political Animals" are quite different.
"The material is delicious and interesting," she says, "and it taps reservoirs in me that have not been tapped in a while. Not only is she this passionate and effective woman in the world, she's also a mother and a divorcee. She's incredibly high-functioning and idealistic professionally, but less so in her personal life."
The daughter of Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the late NBC executive who created "Today" and "Tonight," Weaver -- star of such movies as "Alien," "Working Girl," "Gorillas in the Mist" and "Avatar" -- has been nominated for Emmys twice but still finds the pace of television a challenge.
"I'm glad I've done the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival," she says, "where you do eight shows in eight weeks with different directors. That's the only thing I can think of that's comparable to this."
While global concerns are prominent in "Political Animals" -- particularly another hostage crisis that develops in Iran -- family matters are of equal concern; the fate of an engagement party is a prime example. Berlanti maintains he didn't set out to create a more political "Brothers & Sisters," adding he wasn't trying to mirror any one person in his central character.
"When I was researching the part, it didn't seem a coincidence to me that all three of the last secretaries of state have been women. I thought it was interesting and fascinating that we've chosen three times to put a female face on our American power in the world."
"Political Animals" also explores the relationship between media and politics at a time when HBO's "The Newsroom" is training a dramatic eye on journalism as well. "I'd been reading scripts, and nothing was quite clicking with me, then I opened this and was totally taken with it," says Gugino, who has been alternating work in film ("Sucker Punch") and theater ("The Road to Mecca"). "What I'm really happy about is that my character is strong and accomplished and ambitious, but we also see what's bubbling under the surface."
Known for dramas about families, also thanks to "Everwood" and "Dirty Sexy Money," Berlanti uses the wider boundaries of his basic cable debut to get edgier with the language and romantic liaisons in "Political Animals." As with his previous projects, though, he insists the characters and situations are what counts. "I think the event of this, for the audience, is that we're not blowing stuff up," Berlanti says. "Hopefully, people will come to see the actors do really great acting, and our job as the writers is to showcase that. It keeps you up at night, because you want to make sure you deliver for them. On the other hand, you can get the illusion that you're more talented than you are, because they make everything look great."