Comedic shows about politics have been made before, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ highly successful Veep. But just like the dramas, they have had a hard time competing with the absurdities of the Trump administration; with real life government being so outlandish, how can anything truly shock or surprise the populace anymore?
It appears that Ryan Murphy tried to rise to the occasion with The Politician, by attempting to reach a level of ridiculousness that even the White House cannot compete with. Plot points from the first season included a sexual relationship between candidates, a running mate’s illness being discovered as fake, and an attempted murder.
But what truly makes the show so ridiculous is that it all revolves around low stakes positions. As opposed to President of the United States, Ben Platt’s Payton Hobart was competing to be student body president of his high school. While this scenario helped the show surpass the roadblocks the current administration had placed in its way, the concept made it difficult to keep the show centered on the election itself, leading to a lack of focus that hurt its initial launch.
What works much better in Season 2 is the slightly higher stakes of Payton campaigning to be a State Senator in New York. It’s just serious enough to give the show a good amount of material, while still making efforts to secure victory equally ridiculous. The result is a far more cohesive story that manages to generate far more laughs than its initial season.
Still, I can’t help but feel the show would lose the marks it gained if it were not for the fantastic, utterly hilarious performances of Judith Light and Bette Midler. These roles were perfectly crafted for the veteran actresses and the two look like they are having the time of their lives. There is one particular scene revolving around the two attempting to learn the psychological aspects of Rock, Paper, Scissors that is absolutely hysterical.
It’s the characters that roll over from Season 1 that feel out of place here. Much of Payton’s classmates from his high school campaign now work for his State Senate campaign, but their character development is stunted. They are there to provide occasional comedic relief and go behind Payton’s back, which they already did in the previous season. The constant need for the series to surprise also means that the cast make completely out of character decisions, creating a fog as to who anyone really is at their core.
Even so, the main conflict between Payton, the young progressive, and Light’s Dede Standish, the experienced incumbent, perfectly depicts the battle within the Democratic Party in 2020. The show gives both sides their due, depicting how complicated the tension truly is.
Without getting into spoilers, the ending, which sets up what Payton will be campaigning for in a potential Season 3, does seem to go a little overboard. It’s too big of a jump for where his character currently is, regardless of how much political stardom he achieved in the highly publicized race. This is likely because Murphy wants the series to only last about one season more, but it undercuts the small shred of realism the show has for the political sphere.
The Politician does manage to give the most interesting introspective into the moral complications of campaigning and being an elected official I’ve seen in a while. For that reason, along with the stellar performances of Light and Middler, this series does enough to be a worthwhile watch for anyone who isn’t completely sick of politics at this point.
Progressives Are Right, But It’s More Complicated
“Ever since AOC, no incumbent is safe,” says Standish, who has just been surprised by an amazingly tight race with Payton. Murphy was very smart to make this the crux of season 2, as it’s true. Ever since 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat incumbent Joe Crowley, who had served 10-years, more progressives have started to challenge, and defeat, political veterans.
How do they do this? Payton campaigns on Standish being out of touch with the modern generation. He explicitly takes up the issue of climate change, pointing out the urgency of the situation and galvanizing young people to turn out to vote. He champions how the older politicians have let them down by failing to address an issue that will have devastating consequences in years to come.
This succeeds in making Payton the champion of young voters, the likes of which are often going to the polls for the first time in their lives. A quite brilliant episode, appropriately titled “The Voters,” explores the generational shift through the relationship of a mother and daughter. The mother strongly supports Standish, perceiving her as a powerful, feminist icon, while the daughter supports Payton, arguing that Standish hasn’t done enough and is part of the establishment.
They fight about this on the morning of the election, before going their separate ways and interacting with their respective idols. The mother’s time with Standish leaves the impression that the current Majority Leader actually doesn’t care or understand the drive of young voters. The daughter, on the other hand, sees Payton doesn’t care as much about the environment as his campaign would make her believe.
The episode ends with the mother eventually being won over by Payton’s inspirational speech at a rally, while the daughter, still voting for Payton, understands that the politics that appeal to her are more ingenuine than she previously believed.
The two candidates later have a conversation about how the younger generation forgets how today’s incumbents used to be viewed as progressives when fighting for issues like civil rights, but are now seen as part of the system that fails to fix systemic problems. Ultimately, the message is that the older generation did fail to continue to address the next generation’s concerns, but that doesn’t mean their contributions should be forgotten.
Ambition Clouds Moral Purity
I have often seen politicians change policy stances or agree to support a law they had previously stated was wrong. It’s happened so many times that it can be hard to believe there are any genuine politicians who have a strong moral compass.
The purpose of Payton Hobart appears to be to explore how politicians end up making these decisions and justify them. To his credit, Payton would prefer to not run a dirty campaign. He wants to win because he inspires the most people and makes them believe he can do the job the best. When things don’t go his way, however, he begins to go back on those promises.
His reasoning is that, because he knows he can make the world a better place, he has to win. And, if he has to win, then no measure is too compromising or extreme. Even when his actions hurt the people around him, set back causes, or undermine democracy itself, Payton keeps pushing because he is the person that has to achieve victory.
What this reveals is that Payton is driven not by a duty to the country or his fellow neighbor, but by his ambition and ego. It is merely through convincing himself that he is doing the right thing that he is able to feel decent enough to continue pursuing his aspirations in the way he does.
It is a snapshot into why Republicans back Trump, even if they disagree with him. They have to stay elected in order to enact conservative policies to make the world a better place. To stay elected, they have to have the support of Trump voters. Democrats do this as well, making promises they know they cannot keep once in office, telling themselves that the other side is so bad they have to use any means necessary.
Despite this, once Payton embraces that he is someone who will do whatever it takes to win, things go quite well for him. This leads me to conclude that the biggest message from The Politician is that lying to yourself is worse than accepting your flaws for what they are. Attempting to fool yourself only hurts you in the long run.