tv review

The Politician Can’t Triumph Over Its Own Cynicism

Somehow, The Politician’s own political convictions are even less sincere than those of Payton Hobart (Ben Platt). Photo: Giovanni Rufino/Netflix

The concept for the opening credits of The Politician is a series of tiny wooden compartments, each containing some cute or meaningful symbol that represents a part of the show. In the first season, as the show’s protagonist Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) runs for president of his high school’s student council, the compartments have debate-team medals, a bee in a jar, an onion, a tiny Bible, a pile of campaign buttons, three silver bullets, and a collection of presidential biographies. In season two, the compartments still have campaign buttons and presidential biographies, but they also have pregnancy tests, a New York MetroCard, and a little old-fashioned printer spitting out a strip of hashtags: #socialdistancing #cancelculture #letsgetthecalouttahere #rememberwhentherewasice.

Those hashtags, which refer successively to safety during a pandemic, the fear of online social-justice movements, a fictional California secession movement, and climate change, are presented as equal on that little strip of paper. Their complexities, their social import, the role they play in peoples’ lives, and the relative gravity and alarm of each subject are flattened into a short catchphrase. (Sort of. “Letsgetthecalouttahere” is a long, nearly illegible hashtag.)

It’s hard to sum up the second season of The Politician better than that strip of paper. It is a show that’s ostensibly about politics and the people who run for office. It’s also a show that treats climate change as a subject with the same weight and significance as the online mob that comedians complain about when they’re called out for pursuing teenage girls. It’s a show about politicians that treats politics with such respect that it literally ends in a showdown using a child’s playground game, and it expects viewers to find this both gripping and hilarious. It scoffs at the naïve idea that it might actually matter what an elected official believes in. Most of all, The Politician is a show about ambition, about how the ends justify the means. In spite of that, The Politician does not care at all about the details of either the means or the ends.

Yes, the show is ridiculous on purpose, and much of its political squishiness is supposed to be excused by the sense that, really, all of this is a farce. The premise is that after unfairly winning the high-school student-body presidency, Payton is now running for a New York state-senator position even though he’s also only two years into an undergraduate degree at NYU. He’s running against longtime incumbent Dede Standish (Judith Light) and her campaign manager Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler). Meanwhile, Payton’s mother, Georgina Hobart (Gwyneth Paltrow), decides to become a Marianne Williamson–esque candidate for governor of California. Standish is being courted as a VP candidate, and is also trying to hide her passionate throuple relationship with her husband and a younger man. Payton is dating two nearly identical blonde women. At one point, Georgina Hobart for some inconceivable reason has to give a press conference solely to point out that she’s very, very good in bed.

I can feel what you’re thinking: But wait, a show starring Judith Light in a throuple and Gwyneth Paltrow as a crystal-healing-style gubernatorial candidate? That sounds really fun! I know it does. In season one, much of the show dragged on inexorably, and the thing that gave me hope for the future was the last episode’s sudden time jump forward to introduce season two’s New York–based story. Bette Midler! I thought. Bette Midler and Judith Light scheming to take down an upstart political rival! And I will say that The Politician’s second season is snappier than season one, avoiding the midseason doldrums that really plagued that first run of episodes.

It turns out, though, that a show can be snappier while still being remarkably dull, and for The Politician, that’s largely because it has zero conviction in the full wackiness of its own premise. It could dive deep into the dynamics of Dede Standish’s three-way marriage, but instead it skims the surface, treating none of the characters as actual people, and none of their feelings as worth serious consideration. Plus, The Politician figures, if one throuple is good, more must be better! So it turns “actually we’re in a throuple” into a returning plot development. It’s the kind of creative decision that you could imagine being sold as a “fictional motif” or perhaps a “thematic preoccupation,” and more than any of those, instead feels like laziness. “Wait,” you can imagine someone saying, trying to get all of the absurd pieces to fit together. “What if Payton … is also in a throuple.”

Even if you’re willing to set aside the strange repetitiveness of its storytelling (perhaps for the sake of Bette Midler saying the phrase “spicy lube” over and over again), there’s no getting over the fundamental cynicism of The Politician’s central ideology. I don’t mean its protagonist’s ideology, not quite — while Payton Hobart struggles with who he wants to be and what he’s willing to do in order to get it, he lands on politics of convenience. That does at least take some stance, sort of, even if that stance exists largely because it’s also one he thinks will get him elected. Somehow The Politician’s own political convictions are even less sincere. All of this is a game; basically no issue matters at all; climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but also recycling is a scam and climate activists are laughable; the older generation should probably get out of the way and let the kids have a turn, but actually, no, the older generation is right.

It’s possible, I think, to read The Politician as attempting to undermine that treatment of politics. When Payton finally embraces a win-at-all-costs mode because that’s the best way to do something, the show is not holding him up as a model of good behavior. Payton Hobart is not being presented as a saint. (Although Payton’s behavior is oddly immune to repercussions; see, for instance, the full episode plot where The Politician decides to put him in an Apache headdress and then — bafflingly — argue that actually Payton is honoring the legacy of Geronimo.)

The Politician clearly sympathizes with Payton, though. It presents his predicaments in a warmly understanding light, and even when other characters lightly scold Payton for his poor choices, he always seems to come back to himself, the Payton who mostly believes in whatever is most effective to get elected. Convictions, after all, are for dopes, and while climate change is important, it’s not so important in a systemic-change way, and more in a “what if we all dressed up as polar bears and pretended to be starving” way. I didn’t love the first season, but that kind of emptiness was easier to stomach when it was about a high-school election. Translated into the real world, that kind of farce does not feel fun.

The Politician Can’t Triumph Over Its Own Cynicism