'The Politician' Season 2: TV Review

The Politicians -Season 2 - Publicity still - H 2020
Netflix
A terrific cast is stranded in a political satire with nothing to say about modern politics.
6/19/2020

Netflix's comedy from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan returns for a second season that follows up on last year's Judith Light-Bette Midler finale.

The first season of Netflix's The Politician was seven episodes of bland, meandering satire, capped off by a surprisingly engaging finale that set up a second season featuring the always-welcome Judith Light and Bette Midler. That left me in the very peculiar position of really looking forward to the second season of a show after strongly disliking the first.

So does season two of The Politician live up to the potential of the appealing teaser?

No. It does not.

Perhaps even more than the disappointing first season, the second season of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan's Netflix comedy is a hollow and perplexingly stale glimpse into American politics. At seven episodes, several running under 40 minutes, The Politician is neither effective escapism in a moment of general cultural discomfort, nor does it have anything vaguely insightful to say about our electoral process — a basically unforgivable sin for a show airing in an election year.

The season picks up with a month to go in Payton Hobart's (Ben Platt) run for the New York Senate seat occupied by long-time incumbent Dede Standish (Light). Payton is 10 points down in the polls, but his dogged team — including occasional girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), power trio McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), James (Theo Germaine) and Skye (Rahne Jones), plus the inexplicably present Astrid (Lucy Boynton) — believes they can make up the gap if Payton pushes an environmental message he may or may not actually believe in.

For their part, Dede and chief of Staff Hadassah Gold (Midler) just want to get past this election so that Dede can be tapped as Beto O'Rourke-esque Tino McCutcheon's (Sam Jaeger) vice presidential running mate — all of which assumes that the media doesn't find out that Dede is in a polyamorous relationship with Marcus (Joe Morton) and William (Teddy Sears).

For fans of the first season, several familiar faces also have loosely connected roles in the action. Zoey Deutch may have a busy movie career, but she appears in a few episodes as an Infinity Jackson who has no real resemblance to the character we met previously. And Gwyneth Paltrow has an extended arc as Payton's mother, Georgina, who is in the midst of a run for California's governorship, allowing the show to actually double down on implausible elections it clearly doesn't care about.

The first season of The Politician was all about Payton attempting to find his authentic self, a difficult task since as the show's opening credits constantly remind us, Payton is something of an automaton: a synthetic or robotic construction driven by ambition and little more. The second season repeats the exact same beats and the exact same narrative arc as, once again, Payton is forced to find his aforementioned authentic self.

The problem is that Payton is annoying and fairly awful and the show has never found any way to illustrate why his peers have dedicated themselves to him so thoroughly. Though I guess it's easy to understand why his election team includes nobody he didn't go to high school with, because there'd be almost no way of understanding why his generic environmental message would resonate with anybody, or why anybody would buy that this was a platform suitable for a random state Senate candidate. The "Young people don't vote, but young people care about the environment" subtext feels gleaned from a headline to an article nobody read.

Other than one mention of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, The Politician doesn't really exist in our current political reality at all, perhaps because the time jump accelerating Payton from teenage high-school president candidate to 20-something state Senate candidate puts us sometime in a nebulous future.

It's really all nebulous, and The Politician continues to be the first Ryan Murphy production — though Murphy directed no episodes this season and only co-wrote the premiere — with no appreciable connection to the zeitgeist. An episode trying to mock "cancel culture" and politicians getting caught having done blackface is also a year behind the curve. The show's bizarre pride in saying "throuple" over and over again, as if they'd tapped into the latest in outré sexuality, is straight-up sad given the creators' track record. And it's a mystery why the wrinkles in Payton's sexuality have been smoothed out entirely, and why the show's LGBTQ+ characters have become the most marginalized in the season two narrative.

The real world is coming apart at the seams, and The Politician dedicates an astonishing amount of its limited time to debating the rules and strategy of rock-paper-scissors. And here's the thing: That subplot is the best part of the season. That's how edgy The Politician has become. Even the visuals, despite a roster of directors grounded in the Murphy-verse, don't pop in the stylish way the first season sometimes did.

The cast remains a reason — probably the only reason — to watch The Politician. Light is smooth, convincing and, unlike Platt with Payton, makes her character feel like one you can almost imagine both existing in the real world and being elected to office. Midler tries hard to get laughs out of flimsy material; she occasionally succeeds and occasionally just flails. Throw in an under-utilized Jackie Hoffman as Dede's grouchy receptionist and there's a 9 to 5-style series about women of a certain age trying to remain relevant in politics that I'd greatly prefer to this one.

Platt is still a conundrum for me. I don't remember the last time I saw a show treat its leading man so poorly, making Payton sweaty and unlikable in ways that are only intentional some of the time. The actor comes to life when Payton gets to sing, but the season pushes his only two songs to the finale. The same musical favor hasn't been done for Platt's Dear Evan Hanson co-star Dreyfuss, but McAfee has the season's funniest showcase episode as she revolts against her toxic proximity to Skye and James with an ill-fated date. Boynton has razor-sharp delivery and with peak Murphy/Falchuk/Brennan dialogue, I think she'd be spectacular. But the team behind Sue Sylvester and too many trenchant Emma Roberts characters to count somehow can't give Astrid anything biting to say.

These seven episodes of The Politician border on formless, making no persuasive effort to chart the momentum of this state Senate campaign to its silly conclusion. Other than the cast — seriously, Light and Midler and Hoffman are always a treat to watch at work — the only thing that let me get to the end was terror that the finale would, again, skip forward in time to tease an enticing third season. Fortunately, it does not. There's no evidence that anybody involved is particularly interested in such a thing. I know I'm not.

Cast: Ben Platt, Judith Light, Bette Midler, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lucy Boynton, Theo Germaine, Julia Schlaepfer, Laura Dreyfuss, Rahne Jones

Creators: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan

Premieres Friday, June 19, on Netflix.