Netflix UK TV review: The Politician Season 2
Sophie Davies | On 05, Jul 2020
Has there ever been a character as frustrating as Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) at the centre of a TV show? In Season 1 of The Politician, we followed the relentlessly ambitious high schooler’s campaign to become student body president, with assassination attempts, suspected kidnappings and fake cases of cancer along the way. The season finale unexpectedly took us ahead to a 20-something-year-old Payton deciding to run for state senate in New York, and so Season 2 follows this significantly higher stakes campaign, which sees him challenge an established politician with a scandalous secret. The show’s intention, if it continues, is to accompany Payton on political campaigns in different stages of his life (another is teased in the Season 2 finale), all likely building up to him one day running for president.
The problem, however, is that Payton is such an uninspiring lead character that it’s difficult to feel invested in his journey. He’s neither sympathetic enough to like, nor ruthless enough to take pleasure in despising. His primary source of inner conflict is that he doesn’t know if he can be “authentic”, but he leads such a privileged life that it’s almost impossible to care about that. The show’s creators had a similar issue in Glee with the ambitious Rachel Berry – in the case of both characters, it’s hard to tell if we’re supposed to be rooting for them to succeed or fail. But whereas Rachel frequently blew us away with her vocal performances, Payton has no equivalent talent in politics to make us understand why he’s considered special by so many. Incidentally, Payton does occasionally get to belt out a song (one per season seems to be the rule), but this is more to do with referencing Ben Platt’s musical theatre background than with advancing his character in the show.
Given his ambiguous personality, it’s confusing that Payton has a campaign team made up of devoted followers from high school, some of which were his sworn enemies in Season 1. They’re a diverse bunch and have the potential to be more interesting than Payton, but they aren’t really given much to do beyond worshipping the ground he walks on. One of Season 2’s most fun episodes involves McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), James (Theo Germaine) and Skye (Rahne Jones) taking a rare night off from the campaign, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of them away from Payton.
If The Politician had some biting, original satire to offer on modern politics, it might be able to get away with having such a weak character at its core, but unfortunately it doesn’t provide much in this arena either. The closest it gets to making a real point is in The Voters, an episode that takes place on election day and avoids the politicians to focus on a middle-aged woman who’s a lifelong supporter of Payton’s opponent and her daughter who’s campaigning for Payton. It feels somewhat refreshing that rather than mocking millennials and Gen Z (which older TV writers are wont to do), the show comes down firmly on one side, with the mother eventually deciding to vote for Payton and acknowledging that the younger generation are not naive but actually more informed than ever before, thanks to them growing up with a supercomputer in their pocket.
As was the case in Season 1, twists (such as characters backstabbing each other) occur so frequently that they have little impact, and everything is so fast-paced that it’s easy to completely forget that certain subplots even happened. During the Season 1 finale and the Season 2 opener, much is made of the fact that Payton’s opponent, Dede Standish (Judith Light), is in a throuple with two men. If the public were to find out about it, we’re told, Standish could lose votes. However, rather than drawing out this secret for some tension, by Episode 4 the throuple has already broken up (twice) and Dede has revealed all to the public. Oh, and Payton also enters into a throuple at one point, presumably so that Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and Astrid (the criminally underused Lucy Boynton) can have something to do.
The saving grace of The Politician’s second season is undoubtedly its newer additions to the cast, Judith Light and Bette Midler, who make a compelling double act as Payton’s rivals. Midler is particularly fun as Standish’s chief of staff, stealing every scene she’s in and providing one of the season’s most quotable moments when she’s on a mission to track down “spicy lube” (don’t ask). Gwyneth Paltrow also makes some memorable appearances as Payton’s ethereal mother, who is bizarrely running to be governor of California this time around.
After a mixed first season, there was some hope that The Politician would improve in its second outing. However, in moving away from high school and into real world politics, it somehow manages to feel even more frivolous than before. If you’re in the mood for some sharp satire of American politics, you’re better off watching Veep. If you want to revel in the uber-rich behaving badly, you’re better off watching Succession. If you’d like to take in a vastly superior Ryan Murphy show, try American Crime Story or Pose.
The Politician is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.