[8 August 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Party Animals is a critically highly regarded British political drama that aired on the BBC in 2007, but it isn’t very well known outside the UK. In fact, it’s probably best known for being the show on which Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith was starring before he was given a TARDIS key.
That’s a bit sad, really, because Party Animals is so much more than a testing ground for its most famous alumnus cast member. It’s an engaging, intelligent look at the inner workings of the British government and political system, through the lives of several young members of parliament and their staffers, and the lobbyists and journalists whose jobs depend on the daily turn of events at Whitehall. Specifically, the series follows the careers of conservative politician James Northcote (Patrick Baladi, The Office) and Labour MP Jo Porter (Raquel Cassidy, Teachers), who each represent the youthful, more modern, public faces of the Tory and Labour parties, respectively. However in drama, as in life, the real action goes on behind the scenes, between the people behind the public figures.
Danny Foster (Smith) is Porter’s researcher, he’s also kind of her right hand in that he not only provides her material and writes her speeches, but he does a great deal of damage control for her outside of the office. Danny’s very dedicated and idealistic, and Smith plays these qualities beautifully, but he’s even better at portraying the foibles and vulnerabilities within the character. Chief among those are Kirsty (Andrea Riseborough), who is Jo’s new intern, and Scott (Andrew Buchan, Cranford), who is Danny’s older brother. Kirsty is a career girl who will do just about anything to further herself, which is both an asset and detriment to Jo, but definitely bad for Danny who’s in love with her despite the fact that she clearly doesn’t value him at all. Scott’s a hotshot lobbyist, so—at least as the series begins—he’s the salesman, the charmer… the enemy.
Of course, no one is really the enemy, but the people on the other side of the political fence are always painted as such. Jo, Danny and Kirsty are pitted against James Northcote and his staff, Matt (Pip Carter) and Ashika. Matt doesn’t figure into many story lines, but he fulfills the best friend roll to Ashika. Ashika Chandirimani (Shelley Conn) is like a counterpart to Danny with more political ambition, but she’s also James’s mistress. The Tories pick her to stand for a junior seat in parliament, which threatens James, both professionally and privately. The seat she’s campaigning for was once held by Danny and Scott’s late father, a beloved Labour leader in his time. Add to that the fact that early on in the series Ashika and Scott fall for each other (love knows no party affiliation), and you’ve got the perfect recipe for the show’s most interesting character. At least, Ashika is the one with the greatest potential.
Although this is ostensibly a show about the workings of parliamentary policy, it’s a drama first and foremost, so the personal relationships and romantic entanglements get the lion’s share of the story. Jo’s bright political future exists at the expense of her crumbling marriage, Danny’s making costly mistakes because of his infatuation with Kirsty, Scott is sleeping with a posh journalist who uses him for tips, Ashika is sleeping with her married boss and in love with Scott, Scott accidentally sleeps with Kirsty. You can see how the show’s governmental politics take a back seat to the personal politics.
It sounds a bit more sordid than it is, though. Rather than being salacious and sensationalized, the relationships are actually well presented and essential to the plots. Actually the most intriguing relationship is the familial one. Scott and Danny love politics the way a lot of people love football. Buchan and Smith are brilliant in their scenes together. It’s obvious, in spite of all the drama that goes on around and between the Fosters, that their love of each other and of the political game will never dim.
This DVD set contains all eight original episodes on three discs. There are no bonus features on this release, but they aren’t missed. Party Animals is a fast paced, smartly written, superbly acted drama. It is well worth watching whether or not you’re curious about British politics.