In USA Network’s biggest production commitment to date, the top-rated basic cable network has given a straight-to-series six-episode order to Political Animals, a drama from Greg Berlanti and feature producer Laurence Mark. In his first cable project, Berlanti wrote Political Animals on spec — his first solo spec script since Everwood — in a midst of a busy first development season for his Berlanti Prods at Warner Bros TV, which has resulted in 4 broadcast pilot orders so far. The Washington DC-based series, from Warner Horizon, explores a fictional former first family that is on the verge of falling apart. It centers on Elaine Barrish, a divorced former First Lady and current Secretary of State who struggles to keep her family together while dealing with the crises of the State Department. She finds an unlikely ally in Susan Berg, a famous DC journalist who has spent her career tearing Elaine down. USA will air Political Animals at the height of the presidential campaign this summer. “The timing couldn’t be more perfect,” USA co-president Chris McCumber said. “The soap opera of politics will be at top of mind for everyone.”
Berlanti’s series credits also include the WB drama Jack & Bobby, about two brothers in high school, one of whom becomes U.S. president in 2041, and the long-running ABC family drama Brothers & Sisters, which he ran for the first several seasons. “I’m a political junkie and I obviously love smart, rich family dramas — and a drama about a former First Family seemed to me to be the ultimate political family show,” Berlanti said. “Also the fact the family doesn’t currently reside in the White House gave us a lot of room for fun with the characters.” Like on Jack & Bobby, where the names and the story of the title characters evoked John and Robert Kennedy, “many of the characters in (Political Animals) are an amalgamation of former Presidents and their clans — and other famous political figures as well in the tradition of something like Primary Colors, I guess,” Berlanti said. He wouldn’t elaborate on its inspirations, but people who have read the script say that there are noticeable hints of both the Clintons and the second Bush presidential couple in the fictional first family on the show.
Berlanti developed the idea for Political Animals with his longtime friend Larry Mark, producer of such movies as Jerry Maguire, As Good As It Gets and Julie and Julia. “We often talk politics at dinner — imaging how scenes between different family members and Washington politicians really play out — and what must go on behind closed doors,” Berlanti said. He wrote the spec specifically for cable, something he had been looking to do for awhile and was finally able to be pursue with the blessing and encouragement of his new studio, WBTV. The spec was taken out to cable networks. USA immediately jumped in, offering a series order. “We pursued it with the same passion Greg wrote it, we wouldn’t let go,” said USA’s co-president Jeff Wachtel, adding that Berlanti had long been on the network’s wish list of creators to work with. The ABC quirky supernatural/music legal drama Eli Stone, which Berlanti co-created, “was one of the only broadcast shows over the years that we looked at and said, man we wish it was on USA.” How does a show about a dysfunctional first family fit into USA’s brand? “The fictional Barrish family is like our royal family, and it is broken,” Wachtel said. “If they can be fixed so can we. This is ultimately an aspirational show.”
While going straight to series with a 6-episode order was most recently implemented by AMC with the smash The Walking Dead, USA has done it successfully in the past with two shows that started off as mini-series, the 5-episode 4400 and the 6-episode The Starter Wife. Political Animal, whose license fee is said to be comparable to that for broadcast dramas, is not envisioned as a possible mini- or limited series but as a regular series that “we see going for a number of years,” Wachtel said.
In his first TV directing gig, Berlanti will direct the pilot. (In features, he helmed Broken Hearts Club and Life As We Know It and is attached to Replay at Warner Bros.) Berlanti and Mark will executive produce, with Berlanti Prods.’ Melissa Kellner Berman co-executive producing. Political Animals marks the first Warner Bros.-produced series on USA in 15 years, since La Femme Nikita launched in 1997. The deal came after months of negotiations between the studio and the network, with Brett Paul spearheading the talks for WBTV. With so many thorny issues, mostly related to digital distribution, reaching an agreement between two non-vertically integrated entities is not easy these days as evident by the recent impasse between USA and Fox21 on a pilot deal for comedy Paging Dr. Freed over SVOD rights. In what could be used as a template in the future, I hear that USA and Warner Bros. have agreed to split the SVOD rights on Political Animals, with USA taking first crack for a year to exploit them on affiliated sites, including Hulu, after which Warners would get them for a potential syndication-type streaming deal with services like Netflix or Amazon.
With the pickup for Political Animals, USA is poised to air 10 original scripted series in the summer for a second straight year. This time, the network also has a new reality series on tap, the recently greenlighted The Moment. The series order doesn’t bode well for USA pilots Over/Under and Wild Card, which are unlikely to go forward. Political Animals is not expected to interfere with the 4 broadcast pilots WME-repped Berlanti executive produces, an untitled comedy at CBS, which he co-wrote, as well as dramas Guilty at Fox, Arrow at the CW and Golden Boy at CBS. The USA series is slated to start shooting after those pilots are completed.
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