In the first episode of “The Politician” Season 2, Gwyneth Paltrow’s divorcée-turned-activist-turned-politician, Georgina Hobart, announces her plan for California to secede from the union. Done in the middle of a gubernatorial debate airing live on CNN, the pronouncement is exactly the kind of over-the-top bedlam that could shape an intriguing season-long arc of a melodramatic political satire. Our country is divided! There’s no turning back! Gwyneth Paltrow — who once argued water has feelings — take us to the promised land, oh great leader! Unlike Paltrow, the idea is still grounded in reality. Rather than focusing on conservatives dreaming of independence from gays, minorities, and more people who only want to save their lives, the second season of Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series pitches a perspective tailor-made for its audience of liberal drama-hounds.
Except it’s not a pitch. Secession is scarcely mentioned after the premiere. There are no alarmist articles flooding the internet, nor are the cable news talking heads going apeshit over the race’s frontrunner outlining a plan to form a new country. There’s no real follow-up at all; only a boost in the polls for Georgina, in a race she was already dominating. The announcement isn’t an announcement — it’s hot air, which fills “The Politician” like a discarded party balloon. Repeating and exacerbating the first season’s most aggravating sin, “The Politician” is nothing but talking points that sound important but never lead anywhere. The show still isn’t interested in politics. It’s barely interested in anything, as writers Brad Falchuk, Ian Brennan, and Murphy lean on predictable twists, bloodless backstabbing, and redundant schemes to make up for having nothing to say about the character shells we’re meant to care about, let alone the actual country we supposedly share.
Clocking in at seven episodes that average less than 40 minutes each, Season 2 can’t end fast enough, and it kindly starts at breakneck speed by launching into its actual A-plot: the New York State Senate campaign between challenger Payton Hobart (Ben Platt, who sings less this year, but still gets told he “should be on Broadway”), and long-time incumbent Dede Standish (Judith Light, whose three Tonys go unacknowledged). With months to go before election day, Dede has a huge lead in the polls. Not only do people know her and like her, but Payton is still a student at NYU and his mother is overshadowing him in the media. (The argument around “too many Hobarts” is crazy, but the idea that a state senate race would suck up this much attention — national news, front page of the Times, etc. — looks all the more ill-informed given the current crises dominating headlines.)
So Baby Hobart goes to see Mama Hobart, thinking if he can convince her to drop out, then he’ll stand a better chance at success. Setting aside the destructive, self-serving logic of asking a popular liberal to forgo her governor’s seat so an NYU junior can maybe win a state senate race, this early choice exemplifies the problem with Payton. Still haunted by his dead friend (played by David Corenswet) and constantly unsure of his moral compass, he’s supposed to be searching for his true self (same as Season 1): Does he really believe in a greater good, or does he only believe in himself? Is he passionate about issues or just about winning? Are dirty tricks and mudslinging a sign of toxic gamesmanship, or simply what it takes to thrive in modern politics? And worst of all: Is the fact that he’s worrying about these things in the first place hurting his campaign?
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Considering how many times Payton pivots from one belief to the next, it’s clear “The Politician” doesn’t really care about answers. His immaturity and indecisiveness may be believable given his age, but it does nothing for our investment in him, and by the time it’s all said and done, we certainly don’t know who Payton really is any more than at the onset. “I’m a politician. I have no self,” he tells his mom in the premiere. “People don’t believe you because you don’t believe you,” Georgina counters. “It’s about authenticity, Payton.”
Apply that advice to the series, and it’s easy to see “The Politician” as a hollow, superficial, con job. There were plenty of warning signs in Season 1, and “a watchable but shallow story of teen detachment” becomes a barely memorable but wholly meaningless story about, well, nothing. I can’t say it’s about the characters, because none of them change or develop in any believable way. I can’t say it’s about soapy drama, because that would require emotional investment and/or earned attachment. I can’t say it’s about politics, because the politics shown here have no bearing on reality. Even if you can see Georgina as the liberal Trump — a candidate can say and do whatever nutty thing she wants without losing support — the race between Dede and Payton pivots on everything, be it as trivial or critical as the plot requires. (Pretty sure the election comes down to Payton signing up 500 new voters and Dede being exposed for not being part of a throuple.)
What matters here is speed. These episodes are so short and move so rapidly it’s clear they’ve beed edited down to the bare minimum to constitute a story. They’re designed to keep you from thinking too hard about anything that happens. If you did, you’d undoubtedly realize that Season 2 circles around four different threesomes, without ever cracking a joke about the proliferation of polyamory (or, God forbid, saying something meaningful about multiple partnerships). The lack of acknowledgement points to lazy writing — as if writers Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan didn’t realize they had written the exact same idea four different ways — which would be bad enough given this cast, but it’s not the only red flag.
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Each three-way is only there to look woke while creating love triangles, quadrangles, and, most of all, campaign controversy. “The Politician” still doesn’t care about ideas, their practicality, or the modern state of politics. Episode 5, which frames its story from a mother and daughter campaigning for Dede and Payton, respectively, comes closest to having something to say about candidates built on talking points and liberals working together for a better future — but, again, any potential for substance is thrown out the door in favor of a neat and tidy resolution (one that’s surprisingly agist, much like the rest of Season 2). Just when you think “The Politician” has stumbled into a purpose, those hopes are quickly and soundly dashed, reminding you that the speed at which these seven episodes fly by isn’t a credit to efficiency; it’s a signal that even those making the show have stopped caring about it.
Oh, I’m sorry, you just want to know who wins? After a tie (that’s later disproven), Dede concedes to her opponent (rather than play rock-paper-scissors for the Senate seat), and Payton wins. After another time jump, Season 2 ends on Dede asking Payton to be her vice presidential running mate, setting up another, bigger campaign for Season 3. But how did Dede get to the White House? She made her way on Georgina’s ticket, of course, and President Paltrow is already “bored” enough to promise she’ll only be there one term. She’s also too bored, it turns out, to follow through on her secession plans for California — just one more false promise from a politician, and one more empty tease from a show built on air.
“The Politician” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.