In its second season, “The Politician” remains as delightfully corrupt, dramatic and villainous as the first season. The characters slowly become more unhinged as the season develops, leading to poor choice after poor choice. In this race for a seat in the state senate, candidates’ personal lives are just as important as their policy. This show is everything that American politics has become about.
Now, I’m aware that “The Politician” is a funhouse mirror reflection of American politics and society. Who could have guessed that not one but two candidates would be involved in a throuple or that someone close to a candidate would steal a box of ballots? These extreme scenarios are incredibly entertaining and serve as a rather harsh eye-opener to our current society. The show continues to pose characters whose policies and beliefs, while perhaps on the right/progressive side of history, are constantly at odds with morality. Is it really so crazy to imagine a young candidate winning an election by aggressively targeting young and marginalized people while pushing a progressive agenda that will ultimately better the world yet still be completely soulless?
All of the different politicians that we see are heartless in their own right, in their own way. Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) is moralless, egotistical and more ambitious than he is human. He’s the perfect candidate. His mother Georgina Hobart (Gwenyth Paltrow), the perfect picture of serenity, is constantly juxtaposed with him. She lacks his deadly drive, replacing it with compassion. She is the warm ray of sunshine to contrast his icy winter day. It’s no surprise that Georgina wins her election in California while Payton struggles for his in New York; she’s magnetic, oozing with charisma and sincerity. Her only problem is that she falls out of love—with people, jobs ideas—as quickly as she falls in. Dede Standish (Judith Light), the incumbent that Payton runs against, has the most heart of any of the candidates, though she has no qualms about destroying the career of her twenty-something year old opponent. She only pulls back after hearing an impassioned, drunken speech by Payton in a bar.
The cruelty of the politicians is not surprising. “The Politician” points out the bitter truth of politics: politicians are inherently bad. They may have high morals and values, but at the end of the day, they will cling to what will get them re-elected. Payton himself acknowledges this phenomenon. He goes on rant after rant about climate change, even taking a cold shower in the middle of New York and then making coffee with the water he used, but he admits that though he cares deeply about this issue, he wouldn’t push it nearly as hard if he didn’t think he would grab voters.
How Payton still manages to attain such popularity amongst voters is incredible, especially considering that his entire staff is made up of people just as cold-hearted as himself. Payton’s advisors and confidants often encourage him to make the decision that will earn him voters rather than doing what is right. McAfee Westbrook (Laura Dreyfuss) is Payton’s second-in-command. She admits, explicitly, that she is more machine than man, categorizing people based on how likely they are to vote for Payton. She is often willing to play dirty. She draws the line at leaking their opponent Standish’s personal affairs to the public, only pushing back because she thinks the plan will have negative repercussions for Payton in future campaigns—and she doesn’t even know about the secret throuple that Payton is in with Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton) and Alice Charles (Julia Schlaepfer).
McAfee and Payton aren’t two sides of the same coin, they’re the same side of different coins. The difference is that McAfee is able to find something in life that makes her want to do good: her friends. She genuinely cares about her friends more than she cares about any laws or rules or norms. Payton tries to find his values throughout the season and comes up rather empty handed. His complete lack of humanity is what makes him so fascinating, what makes the show intoxicatingly good. Each character is worse than the last, but some terrible part of me wants to root for them all. I want to see both Payton and Dede thrive in government; I want to see both Alice and Astrid happy; I want to see McAfee toned down and the rest of Payton’s staff not having to constantly be on his case. Most of all, I want to watch them all manipulate their way to the top. I want season three.
Right before I watched “The Politician,” I watched all six seasons of “Glee.” I sat through constant melodrama, tears and performances of “Don’t Stop Believing.” I can’t believe that Ryan Murphy could create something as terrible as “Glee,” but then write something as delicious as “The Politician” just a few years later. Although, maybe I can, considering the unsatisfying and underwhelming season finale.
Murphy has been able to accurately identify problem after problem with American politics and reflect every vice through a funhouse mirror. “The Politician” makes for both a fascinating show and a remarkable and unapologetically liberal statement against our current system of government officials and their crooked politics. This show is radically different and radicalizing at the same time.