The Politician attempts to run a strong campaign but fails find new and interesting ground to tread, leaving us with another unsatisfying election.
As the window of promised new television premieres begins to close, you would think that any and all new material would be greeted with open arms. To be fair, as the opening 3-minute recap of The Politician began, I was reminded of the hopefulness that the series inspired, even knowing that I was in for another season of bad people doing bad things just because they could get away with it.
What was truly great about The Politician season 1 was that Ryan Murphy and frequent collaborators Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuck stuck to their tried and true method of throwing everything they possibly could at the audience and seeing what stuck. A plot line about poisoning boring for you? Don’t worry someone is about to jump out a window to avoid divorce. Don’t like the issue of banning straws on a high school campus? Here’s an incredible look at what is going on inside Payton’s head as he grapples with the death of the person who served as his true North. A few things stuck! You had peel the layers back, but underneath some horribly plotted and acted scenes, there was a deeply touching narrative.
You can read all about season 1 here: What two people who are skeptical of Ryan Murphy think of his Netflix show, The Politician.
Unfortunately, The Politician loses any semblance of its former self in season 2. It felts as if I was watching the wooden casing from the opening credit sequence for seven episodes rather than any sort of drama. (As an aside, keeping Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” as The Politician‘s opening credit song keeps it an automatic “Don’t Skip.”)
Granted a few gems rise to the top — Judith Light is a gift, the costuming is once again in the capable hands of Lou Eyrich, and the supporting cast dances around some of the more seasoned vets of Murphy’s new set of favorites. However, this did not make up for, and I am not exaggerating, over 25 full minutes across episodes dedicated to Rock, Paper, Scissors.
‘The Politician’ season 2 review
When we last left Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), the squeaky clean, NYU junior was in the doldrums, biding his time after leaving high school, wearing a lot of turtlenecks and singing ballads at some dolled-up version of Marie’s Crisis. He was sparked back to life by his high school sweetheart and band of merry followers to run for New York Senate against incumbent Dede Standish (Light).
Though only a glimpse at Light’s Senate Majority Leader was shown in the final episode of season 1, she and chief of staff Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler) are in every single episode of season 2 going punch for punch against Payton in the race for the senate seat. The series takes place over the course of the final months leading up the big vote, slamming on the breaks just days before the election, drawing out the results over 2 ENTIRE episodes.
For a team that thrives on manipulating plot to cram as much in as possible, I’ve often wondered what would happen if there were smaller parameters to work within. The test was right here with only seven episodes to tell this leg of Payton’s run to the White House. Unfortunately, what ended up happening is that the plots fell victim to the campaign’s ideals. Running his campaign on one platform, Payton’s focus on climate change seeped into the writing room — Reduce, Recycle, Reuse.
Reduce: The amount of dirt you’re willing to dig up
I felt at times like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone. One where a recurring vision keeps coming up in plot after plot, but no one seems to notice and acts like it is new information with the same shock and distaste as the first 3 or 4 times they saw it.
Unfortunately, unlike The Twilight Zone which wraps up in 40 minutes or so, The Politician‘s resolution never seems to stick. And worse, they return. We unmask the cause, resolve the issue, and there it is again episodes, or in some cases seasons later. I could argue away some of the buried outbursts, particularly on the side of Payton and Alice’s relationship, but there are only so many times I need to see Ben Platt in a red speedo to drive several repetitive plot points.
As insane and watered down as the throuple plot line eventually became, it was oddly enough the only one that helped a character grow from its initiation. What is perhaps worse than having only a limited amount of smear to go around in a campaign is the conversations around the unwillingness of either party to use it to their advantage. Payton tries to save face, but loses it almost instantly only to run up and down the spectrum of right and wrong so many times it’s no wonder he wanted to show off his Speedo-fit body.
And while I was glad that the media was not a major player in the season — most of the campaign is kept out of the public eye–I also wished that the spin on the stories behind closed door was interesting enough to sustain their imagined stakes.
Recycle: The dirty water and try to make something like coffee
If Bette Midler and Judith Light were not in The Politician season 2, the entire ship would have sank. Presenting these two legends against the newcomers perfectly encapsulated the campaign. They have been working in politics (and the Hollywood game) longer than most of these kids have been alive. I could not tell you the issues that Dede is running on, and they probably would not make a difference. It is the old versus the new. The years of issues versus the shiny new thing. They have more talent and know how in the tip of their finger, but they do not know how to wield it against a younger generation. The Senate seat is slipping because they cannot connect to an audience who want nothing more than to think they are being heard and who need to hear those thoughts thrown back at them.
Save for the leftover throuple plot, the battle of the campaign camps was rather dull. Characters are spying and infiltrating left and right it was almost impossible to follow, let alone care, who was on whose side.
For one stand out episode midseason, the perspective does shift to a mother-daughter duo who are equally passionate, but not quite sure what they are passionate about. Neither one was listening, they were following their candidate blindly and when they stopped for a minute, they saw the cracks in the façade. But there was a choice to be made and both reconciled some hard truths about their opposition before coming together in an unsatisfying end.
A similar journey occurred for Dede, and luckily she was one of the few characters to see a fulfilling arc this season. She looked at what was being used against her and instead of seeing what she mirrored back, she instead looked at what others would see and say about her life. The acceptance of something she thought she needed to bury for nearly a decade was not only welcomed, but embraced. By choosing not to look directly at it, she could convince herself that the status quo was okay. Turns out the secrecy of it all was part of what kept her interested.
The same could not be said for any of the members of Payton’s campaign. In fact, I think I know less about McAfee, James, and Skye than when I started. In one episode, McAfee becomes frustrated that they are in a toxic three-way codependent friendship. But by the end of the season I could not tell you more than one fact that separated them from each other.
Reuse: The greatness of ‘The Politician’ season 1, but just as a wink
The most frustrating part of watching season 2 was the failure to deliver on the tiniest threads of hope in season 1. Payton was on the cusp of healing in a place where he might actually look in the mirror and seeing someone he recognized as uniquely him and not just what the People wanted him to be in that moment. So, it made sense that when he boiled over, he was without a paddle because he could slip into any one role that someone needed him to be. Enter River Barkley (David Corenswet).
Slipping over to star in Murphy’s Hollywood, Corenswet was arguably the force that grounded Payton in season 1 and made me most excited for season 2. This guide post clearly never left him, reflecting back exactly that Payton needed to hear and see in any moment — an image of someone who wanted to love him, all of him, and who he wanted to be loved by.
Of course, this mirage worked incredibly well in one of the best scenes The Politician manages in season 2, where Payton and Astrid discuss a shared experience with River. However, intentional or not, River is not around in season 2…almost at all. I find it hard to write out someone (or thing at this point) that had such a grounding effect on Payton. One of the boxes in the figure was left empty and the void was felt the entire season.
For all that we did not get to see of Payton turning inward this season, we did get to see him interact with very many characters old and new. But mostly he was confined to his staff, isolated from his mother and twin brothers who remained in California to carry out a plot that is, unfortunately not only believable, but also so tangentially ludicrous I am actually worse for having witnessed it.
Leave it to a Hail Mary play a third of the way through the The Politician‘s finale where Ben Platt finally fills his quota of two songs per season and sits behind that piano and crack open your cold, hardened heart. Just as all the characters eventually go full circle to raise a drink to one another for the efforts put into the events of the past several episodes, so too does the The Politician’s last ditch effort. Unfortunately, I think I’ll just download the Pippin cover instead of caring to see much more from this crew.
The Politician season 2 is now available to stream on Netflix.