Careening wildly between shallow sentimentality and grotesque cynicism, Netflix‘s The Politician returns with more cartoonish satire of America’s electoral system. Now in his twenties, our egomaniac antihero Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) is running for state senate in New York, opposing longtime incumbent Dede Standish (Judith Light). Back home in California, his charismatic but hilariously out-of-touch mother Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow, the highlight of the show) is doing far better while running for governor. Embracing self-parody once again, Georgina is a riff on Marianne Williamson: a rich hippy with no knowledge of government, but plenty of charm and celebrity connections. She’s due to win by a landslide, while Payton is being crushed by Dede’s more experienced Democratic campaign, led by her loyal manager Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler).
CREATORS: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan
Now in his twenties, ambitious politician Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) is running for office in NYC. Framed as a Boomer v. Zoomer election, his campaign makes for an entertaining dramedy, but is hopelessly out of touch with real-world politics.
Enthusiastically clueless in season 1, The Politician now feels blatantly disconnected from—perhaps even insensitive towards—America’s real political climate. Focusing on the machinations of rich white people, it follows the same tone as several other Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk/Ian Brennan dramedies, including Hollywood last month. While paying lip service to progressive Gen-Z values, The Politician displays zero respect for real activism. It treats the election like a game, and treats life-or-death issues like a joke. And sure, that’s kind of the point, because Payton is a self-serving asshole who tries to market himself as a new AOC. But unlike the pure cynicism of Veep, this show seems to want it both ways, with characters delivering inspiring monologues about climate change like they just arrived from a teen revival of The West Wing.
The Politician’s creative team are incredibly good at making fun, over-the-top dramedies with breakneck plot twists and ridiculous characters. One particularly entertaining element is the sheer volume of throuple-related subplots, to the point where the word “throuple” begins to lose all meaning. But the show ultimately trips over its own concept by using weighty political issues as a backdrop for soap opera hijinks. Like Hollywood, it also has a careless attitude to race. Framing the election as a Zoomer v. Boomer generational divide between an establishment Democrat (Dede) and a young upstart climate activist (Payton), there’s little exploration of other issues, and only brief mentions of the fact that Payton is a rich white outsider campaigning to a diverse electorate.
The characters talk about appealing to nonwhite voters, but those voters and campaigners rarely appear. Instead, we get lots of silly infighting about whether Payton is trying hard enough to be carbon-neutral and recycle plastic packaging. After a few episodes, you can’t help but notice the number of times he gives a speech and the camera cuts to a Black extra reacting positively to his inspiring words. Meanwhile, the main cast is predominantly white, including Payton’s family, opponents, girlfriend (Julia Schlaepfer), and friends (Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, Laura Dreyfuss, and Theo Germaine). The one Black character in his social circle, Skye (Rahne Jones), is often self-referentially tokenized, like when someone leaks a photo of Payton wearing a Native American headdress, and Skye delivers a Wikipedia-style explanation of cultural appropriation before accompanying Payton to his public apology. The show would actually be better if it didn’t try to hammer home positive political messages because they always feel ill-informed and insincere compared to all the shrieking betrayals and interpersonal meltdowns.
Like last season, the best episode is the one about the voters, zooming out from the drama of Payton’s campaign. Last time, we saw Payton’s student election from the perspective of a bored and disconnected teen who was constantly barraged with unwanted attention from the two warring campaigns. This time, we get two different voter perspectives, one for each side of the Payton/Dede race. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re both rich and white. One is a middle-aged mom who has voted for Dede for years, and the other is her daughter, a young adult who cares deeply about the environment and volunteers for Payton’s campaign. Both are invested and well-informed about liberal/progressive politics, illustrating the generational divide at the heart of the election. Over the course of the episode, their opinions are shaken by personal encounters with the candidates, who turn out to be more obnoxious and self-absorbed than the voters expected. The daughter’s half of the story is one of the few realistic elements of the season, as she continues to champion a cause she believes in, while facing sexual harassment from a campaign staffer and witnessing Payton throw childish tantrums at the office. A helpful reminder that Payton and Dede’s behavior isn’t “normal” even within the heightened environment of the show, and their antics actually affect people’s lives.
Next season (whenever it arrives) will feature another time-jump, following another pair of election campaigns starring Payton and his mother. Sadly, there’s no sign yet of The Politician doing anything more ambitious with this longterm storytelling conceit. Following Payton and his friends from high school to college and beyond, the show will track his political career to the White House—conveniently helped by the fact that Ben Platt (26) will be more convincing as a thirty-something than he ever was as a teen. But while we’ve now covered about five years of their lives, everything still seems to take place in the “present,” with no exterior markers of the passage of time. The cultural references are contemporary (including a mention of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), but it’s not really clear whether Trump is president in this universe. It’s as if the showrunners want to make a show that gently acknowledges 2020-era issues, but only in a fun way that can be illustrated through a dated, West Wing-style view of election campaigning.
Obviously, the show’s creators couldn’t have predicted the mass uprising of Spring 2020, but even without that, The Politician feels thoroughly unrelatable—and not in an intentional way, like Georgina’s airily dismissive privilege. Despite amusing turns from castmembers like Paltrow, Midler, and Platt, The Politician’s zany comedic strengths are often outweighed by its clunky, occasionally offensive political storytelling.