Ten days ago, Netflix premiered the second season of The Politician, Ryan Murphy's ultra-arch series about ultra-ambitious Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), who spent Season 1 running a highly organized and ruthless campaign for his high-school presidency, and who enters Season 2 as an NYU student determined to take down bajillion-term incumbent state senator Dede Standish (Judith Light). The first season was a colossal mess, a mishmash of off-putting characters, constantly-shifting personal betrayals, lengthy narrative detours into things like dynastic inheritance, an unconvincing romance between a boy and the ghost of his dead onetime love, a multi-episode pause to stage a high-school musical of Assassins, and a meticulously rendered parody of Hulu's The Act. But it ended with a ray of hope: a three-year time jump, a change of setting to New York City, and the intriguing addition of Standish and her shark political strategist (Bette Midler) as foils for Payton going into the second season. So, much like on Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, there was mess, but there was hope.
Unfortunately, while Season 2 of The Politician does a better job streamlining its narrative — drastically reducing screentime for Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), and cutting out her grandmother (Jessica Lange) helped a lot in that regard — it's still quite terrible. The two fatal flaws at its center continue to be that a) Ryan Murphy doesn't appear to have anything substantial to say about the current state of American politics, and b) Payton Hobart is just not believable as an inspirational political figure, even a hollowly subversive one. In setting up the conflict between Payton and Dede Standish, Murphy recreates the current political divide between vocal young progressives and establishment Democrats, a rich vein for exploration that mostly ends up being Murphy casting a quizzical eye at Millennials/Zoomers. As it turns out, he doesn't have a ton to say about them other than that they're ambitious, annoying, ambisexual, and both prone to and under the assault of the weaponization of cancel culture. Oh, and the one political issue that seems to motivate them is the environment (a notion that doesn't hold up very well at a time when young people of color and their allies have been demonstrating en masse for racial justice).
This would all be merely irksome if not for the larger problem of Payton himself. The show has never quite had a handle on whether he's meant to be a flawed but genuinely inspirational figure or a darkly comedic cautionary tale about falling for political figures who make all the right moves. The show's opening credits suggest the latter: a hollow wooden doll of a man filled with various ephemera from the show, and the ingredients a successful politician "should" have, sealed up and then lacquered to look like the human form of Ben Platt. In the first season, much was made of Payton lacking any genuine sense of empathy, although that, like many things about Payton (including, as retroactively depicted in Season 2, his relationship with his dead beloved River, played by Hollywood handsome David Corenswet), ends up getting muddled beyond all recognition. But this depiction of Payton as a cipher runs counter to the numerous times the show depicts him as a sympathetic striver, whose friends/strategic team can't help but remind the audience at all times that, for all his faults, has a fierce desire to help people and make the world better.
When it comes down to it, though, Payton doesn't work as an insidious pied piper, mostly because it's so impossible to believe he would attract the kind of following that he draws in Season 2. If the idea is to depict Dede Standish as a Hillary Clinton figure, with Payton opposed to her as a kind of Bernie-Sanders-meets-AOC progressive totem, Murphy and his co-creator Brad Falchuk have grossly overestimated Payton. While the show is as enamored of Ben Platt as it's ever been — not only do they find multiple incredibly effortful excuses to get Platt into a Speedo, but they once again deliver a gratuitous musical performance, which leads to perhaps the most infuriating moment of the season, though since it occurs in the season finale, I won't spoil it — there is still zero justification for how someone with Payton's demographic profile and public persona would ever amass such a following. Certainly not among the grassroots, youthful voter base that we see lining up behind him this time around. The show seems to think it's dealing with this disconnect by repeatedly having Payton's opponents call out this privileged, white, undergrad, rich boy from Santa Barbara, but rather than defuse the bomb, it merely spotlights the flaw. AOC and Bernie he is very much not. He's barely a Buttigieg, and we all saw how well that worked out for him.
Here's the thing, though: the show had the chance to course-correct this whole time, and it was sitting right there in front of them. If Season 2 had only had the insight and courage to pivot completely to Payton's mother, Georgina, played with note-perfect charismatic hollowness by Gwyneth Paltrow, things might still have been profoundly messy, but the show could have at least stood a chance of delivering a coherent message. If the show was really looking for an insidious political figure whose popularity masked a deep and dangerous void, Georgina would have been ideal. At the end of Season 1, Georgina ends up divorced from her husband and loses her copious wealth. She enters Season 2 having become radicalized for climate change (a recurring theme) and in a shocking reveal, a candidate for governor of California.
In merely one scene of the California gubernatorial debate — wherein Georgina lays out her forceful and quite serious proposal that California secede from the U.S. and operate independently as its own country — Paltrow delivers everything the show really wants: a charismatic wealthy white woman with a big platform, a media-friendly screen presence, and Marianne Williamson levels of virality. She's well-connected in deep pocketed liberal circles, and she is dangerously unserious and politically out of touch. She is, in so many ways, the liberal Trump, which, as appalling as that sounds, is most certainly an idea. Much more of an idea than anything going on in the other corners of The Politician. You absolutely believe that this woman would attract voters; you understand her appeal instantaneously.
Pivoting to Georgina would not only have allowed The Politician to be the audacious show it clearly wants to be, it would also play into the show's greatest strength, which is Paltrow, who harnesses everything about her own GOOP-y public persona combined with the easy appeal of the Hollywood liberal with the campy psychosis of the average Ryan Murphy protagonist. In other words, she's perfect.
We've endured two election cycles of The Politician now, and once again, the season leaves off with a springboard for even higher stakes in an eventual Season 3. But at this point, the bedrock that is Payton Hobart is horribly shaky, and the higher up the political ladder he climbs, the more that hollow foundation will hamper the show's ability to say anything of substance. Which makes it all the more frustrating is that it had the solution right in its hands but couldn't grasp it.
All seven Season 2 episodes of The Politician are now streaming on Netflix.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.