Sometimes, Netflix wears me down, catches me off guard, and convinces me to watch a show it has been peddling at me for months. In this case, that show was Party Animals, an unfortunately-titled 2007 BBC Two drama that follows fictional researchers, lobbyists, and MPs behind-the-scenes of the British Parliament. I have no shame in admitting that Netflix’s eventual victory had more to do with Doctor Who’s Matt Smith gracing the digital “cover” than it did the show’s premise, but it was more than just Smith’s stellar performance that kept me coming back for more.
Party Animals only lasted one season of eight episodes, but it is still well worth a watch. The characters are well written; the plot moves forward at a quick, but developed pace; and the setting in and around Westminster is complex-yet-fun. As an America viewer, there is a certain novelty to it and enough political depth to keep me interested. This may not be the case for British viewers of the series who are probably not as easily challenged figuring out the basic organization of their own political system.
It is also refreshing to see a show that seems to have more of a balance when it comes to political diversity, with a host of complex Labour and Tory characters represented. The show may lean a little leftward, but I find my radar has been thrown off after watching so much Aaron Sorkin over the years so I can’t really tell. Regardless, the political climate is about setting more than substance, and it is the characters who live in that climate that I really care about! Party Animals populates its world with a host of clever, diverse, and flawed characters to choose from – including a few powerful women.
The program is grounded by the relationship between two brothers: Danny (played by Smith), a young, dedicated researcher to a Labor MP and Scott (played by Andrew Buchan), a lobbyist conflicted by the nature of his job. Both actors are superb in their roles. It is fun to see Smith play such a naïvely earnest character in comparison to the savvy omniscience of the Doctor. He is very young and charmingly awkward as the idealistic researcher who genuinely believes in the policies he helps to create, as well as in the good nature of the people he loves – even when they are not, in fact, acting good-naturedly.
Buchan adds a rough sincerity to the morally-conflicted and at times unforgivable Scott in what is a difficult role to make likeable. The character has perhaps the most interesting character arc as he struggles to decide what kind of brother, partner, and person he wants to be. The two are at their best when they are in a scene together, thoroughly convincing as siblings who love and depend on each other, even as they are very different people who have made very different life choices.
The best thing about this show is, while at-times heartwarming, it still manages to let its character do some truly unlikeable things. Scott makes some extremely poor choices – including one that genuinely hurts Danny – but perhaps the most unlikable character is Labour MP Jo, Danny’s mentor and boss. Jo is played by Raquel Cassidy (who you may recognize as Cleaves from Doctor Who‘s “Rebel Flesh”). Cassidy does a fantastic job playing a woman struggling to balance her roles as mother/wife and politician, and often failing.
I was ready to write Jo’s character off in the first episode as an archetypal foil to protagonist Danny’s mission to do good, but the show didn’t let me, making an unexpectedly interesting decision not to make Jo a villain. Instead, she is a complex female character who has trouble juggling demanding roles as both mother and wife and career woman in a society that insists she should be able to do both perfectly. In a short interview on the BBC website, Cassidy has this to say about her character and her character’s arc:
Jo’s husband isn’t coping with being the main child carer and not the main breadwinner. I find it interesting, and sadly not unrealistic, that while Jo, the family provider and a woman, is being left by her husband for the younger-model nanny, James, the family provider and a man, is having his cake and eating it… In short I think she’s a fantastically, flawed human.
Jo is a strong woman in power, but she is also real and deeply flawed. There are times that the show asks us to sympathize with Jo’s character, but it never asks us to pity her. I would have liked to see where her character went with another season.
Perhaps equally intriguing is the show’s treatment of Kirsty, played by bad-ass actress Andrea Riseborough (Riseborough has a bright future, I think. She pops up in all over the place, and is excellent in every role I’ve seen her in). Kirsty is Danny’s work colleague and love interest. She is ambitious, but does not apologize for it, even though she makes some questionable decisions along the way.
Ashika, a Tory researcher and MP candidate, is another example of Party Animals‘ cast of strong, complex female characters. Ashika is played by Shelley Conn (most recognizable to me as the Dr. Elisabeth Shannon in the dismal Terra Nova).
As a young, female minority, Ashika gains power in the Tory’s bid to be seen as fresh and dynamic. She is sharp, aware of the way she is perceived by those in her party and across the political divide, and uses that to shape her own narrative. Ashika could be defined by her relationships to the men in her life — she is involved, at various points in the first season, with her boss, Tory MP James Northcote, and Scott — but she doesn’t let herself be. Her career is important to her, and she often prioritizes it above the men in her life.
The show was created by Ben Richards and Robert Jones, who went on to work on Outcasts and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, respectively. I have seen neither, but after watching Party Animals, plan to check them both out. I’m sorry they couldn’t have kept on creating this show, but am excited to see what its cast of talented creators and actors will do in the future. In the mean time, I recommend you check out Party Animals on Netflix Instant (it is also available in its entirety, I believe, on YouTube, and on Hulu Plus). Until next time!