‘The Politician’ Season 2 Hits the Campaign Trail With Humorous Flare

Netflix’s “The Politician” is one of the quirkiest productions by TV maverick Ryan Murphy. First starting off in seaon one as a bizarre yet entertaining high school opus about political ambition, its second season takes place within the adult world of campaigns and cutthroat public personas. Oddly, it never becomes cutthroat enough to tango with its own characters, but nonetheless you can never label it a bore.

Hyper go-getter and NYU student Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) is now fully entrenched in his campaign for the New York Senate. He remains ten points behind incumbent Dede Standish (Judith Light). Payton has brought along his old high school political team to help him out including Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), James (Theo Germaine) and Skye (Rahne Jones). Dede is slewing Payton in the debates as a young candidate deluded by his bag of millennial-friendly ideas and environmental obsessions. But there are counter operations afoot as well. Payton’s old nemesis Andrew Cashman (Ryan J. Haddad) shows up at the campaign offices and offers his services, including the idea of infiltrating the Standish campaign. Standish’s own campaign head, Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler) has the same idea in mind in reverse when she approaches Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton) to be a mole and pass along info to the Standish camp. It will soon turn out both candidates have their own dicey lifestyle choices to hide or risk ruin. Meanwhile, Payton’s wealthy mother Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow) is running her own campaign for California governor, but has even bigger ambitions in store.

The first season of “The Politician” succeeded despite some clunky choices because of its setting of high school as an arena for ravenous political ambition. It had a bit of the spirit of movies like “Election,” where the satire hints at how today’s cynical suits in power began forming as early as the classroom and puberty. Now that Payton finds himself truly facing off with the grown-ups, season two should have gone further. Instead the satire remains low-key and never very hard-hitting. Sometimes the show can feel like it is trying to find space for every character to get a decent moment or two. There are flashes of great humor, like Andrew demanding his services be repaid by finally getting a date with Infinity (It must be an immense challenge right now to be on the writing staff of a political comedy. Since 2016 the headlines have been a surreal parade of occurrences nearly hard to believe. And so in this year of 2020, which barely half-way through has already topped everything before it, Netflix drops the second season of “The Politician.” It is one of the quirkiest productions by TV maverick Ryan Murphy in his major deal with the streaming giant. First starting off as a bizarre yet entertaining high school opus about political ambition, in its second season it takes place only within the grown-up world of campaigns and cutthroat public personas. Oddly it never becomes cutthroat enough to tango with its own characters, but nonetheless you can never completely label it a bore. Deutch) or Georgina during a gubernatorial debate openly calling for California to secede from the United States. Little gags have some charm as when Andrew tries to use golden lucky cats to spy on the Standish campaign. Some of the scandals that ensue do indeed feel true to life, like someone leaking to the press photos of Payton dressed semi-nude in Native American gear, or Standish being accused of having a polyamorous relationship with Marcus (Joe Morton) and William (Teddy Sears). These storylines touch on the usual Ryan Murphy style of using television to openly explore themes of sexuality. But the joke or satire never seems to land hard enough. They just lead to light humor, like Payton having to apologize publicly or Hadassah trying to deflect attention to her candidate by claiming to be Williams’s actual girlfriend. Sex becomes curiously absent this season, even when threesomes and other activities become potential hot fodder in the dueling campaigns’ arsenals. McAfee has some of the steamier moments when she looks for hook-ups to relieve campaign stress. It must be noted Murphy did not direct a single episode this time around and only co-wrote the first chapter. 

It’s a brilliant cast of course, beautifully framed and lit with the trademark Murphy taste for melodramatic colors. A flaw is still that Payton never seems truly strong-willed enough. He doesn’t have the hard gaze of a born political firebrand and looks a tad too nervous when he should look inflamed to hit harder. Judith Light does have the necessary presence as does Paltrow with her calm, cold and intelligent demeanor. Naturally Bette Midler should be the one running for office. She’s the best of the whole crew with her Steve Bannon-like scheming, just look at how she seems to corner poor Astrid with just her gaze when enticing her to come over to the dark side. Other funny side characters like Payton’s cruel, bratty twin brothers barely make appearances (even when it turns out they were responsible for a major leak). Instead of driving the whole campaign theme to a riveting conclusion, it all comes to a literal game of rock-paper-scissors. And one politician’s tactical, iron heart is changed by simply walking into a bar and hearing Payton sing, in what is actually his best moment in the entire season. 

As in any political arena the main goal is even higher office. Standish is actually hoping to be tapped as the running mate for Tino McCutcheon (Sam Jaeger), one of those candidates who uses words like “hope” as if they were a copyrighted brand. By the season finale it also becomes obvious that Georgina is bored by the idea of moving to Sacramento, she wants the White House. What about Payton? Fatherhood comes calling by the finale and we are left a bit more aloof as to what this guy is all about. His own team looks disappointed when he does not look as if he’s considered the idea of running for any higher office than state senate. When a former rival makes the ultimate offer to Payton, the scene closes fittingly on a very confused face. 

Because Ryan Murphy and regular collaborator Brad Falchuk are pros at making colorful entertainment, “The Politician” never feels like a slow watch. Any critique of its faults comes precisely from how all the talent involved is so good we can just feel the real, explosive satire hiding beneath the surface of what amounts to a pleasantly funny comedy of quirks. But then we switch to the news and realize the real politicians running the show are not so pleasant, and their quirks are actually quite deadly. We are waiting for Murphy and co. to truly bring out the knives.

The Politician” season two begins streaming June 19 on Netflix.