It’s the run-up to the New York State Senate elections, and young politician Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) is hell-bent on unseating incumbent Senate Majority Leader Dede Standish (Judith Light). In order to beat his previously unopposed rival, however, Payton must rely on his team of former high-school pals, and not everything is going to plan.
It’s an ambitious task trying to make a show about American politics today. With media manipulation rife and policies upended in a single tweet, its chaotic nature is fascinating in a car crash sort of way, but also near-impossible to match with fiction. Season 1 of The Politician — the first of an onslaught of new shows for Netflix from (mostly) Midas showrunner Ryan Murphy — sidestepped this problem by choosing to focus mainly on campaign strategy, using wax-like protagonist Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) and his race for student body president as a condensed case study with bonus musical numbers (it helps that Platt is also a Tony-winning Broadway performer).
Season 2 sees Payton move to New York for the next phase of his projected journey towards the Presidency, and this time Murphy and co-creators Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk seem to have succumbed to the discourse. Packing the series to the gills with hot takes on everything from climate action to cultural appropriation, the writers have used Payton and his Gen Z campaign strategists as a way of opening up a broader conversation around the power that young people can wield today.
The highlight of the ensemble are Judith Light and a zesty, pantsuit-clad Bette Midler.
To some, this social commentary/call to arms will seem preachy — Zoey Deutch’s glamorous take on Greta Thunberg is especially heavy-handed — but it injects the show with a much-needed dose of vim, pushing the material beyond the relentless soap opera dramatics of Season 1 into something more provocative. As Payton, Platt continues to channel the same meticulous, somewhat sociopathic persona that even behind closed doors stays slightly glassy. Acting as more of a carefully crafted political machine than a human being makes him no less intriguing to watch, however, and when the small shreds of humanity push through — usually in the form of a show tune — Platt deftly exercises his ability to command a room.
Around him, the cast bounce off each other like pinballs, and display the same romantic approach to politics that you might find in an Aaron Sorkin script. Payton’s strategists maintain their pacy rapport, discussing everything from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the films of Nancy Meyers, while Gwyneth Paltrow as Payton’s mother — now herself a politician — continues to delight by having fun with what can only be a parody of her real-life ‘wellness’/lifestyle persona, switching last season’s kaftans and bohemian colour for pastel suits and a campaign that includes tree-hugging.
Perhaps the highlight of the ensemble, however, are Judith Light as Dede and her Chief Of Staff Hadassah, played by a zesty, pantsuit-clad Bette Midler. In spite of the relationship undergoing a myriad complications — the show’s major flaw is a tendency towards melodrama — their combined showmanship is dazzling when set against the straight-talking opposition.
With Murphy promising a season for each stage of Payton’s career, it’s unclear whether audiences already conditioned to the show’s formula of theatrical scandal and intricately devised power plays will remain entertained for much longer. For this particular chapter, at this particular time, however, Murphy and co seem to be allowing a little more of the outside world in, transforming the show into a more galvanised, reflective piece of storytelling.
Likeability has never been the currency of The Politician’s overachieving ensemble, but this season shows more promise as it taps into the spirit of young voters today, while Bette Midler and Judith Light provide serious star power.