[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 2 finale of The Politician, “Election Day.”]
There is something beautifully quaint about watching The Politician Season 2, a show which is all about the most pressing issue facing the world today… single-use plastics. When Netflix greenlit the dramedy by creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan for two seasons back in 2018, of course no one had no idea that the second season would be launching during an era of pandemic and civil unrest; it’s not The Politician‘s fault that it’s launching during a time when climate change has (unfortunately) become a less pressing concern for the world.
While The Politician can’t be blamed for the timing, perhaps it might have been wiser to wait on releasing the season. The logline for the series is constructed around the idea of discovering, through the political ascent of Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), what it takes to be a politician today. Like the first season, there’s a high level of energy that verges often on a level of camp that is almost reminiscent of vintage Glee episodes; there’s a lot of speechifying on the part of characters. But while at times the second season is quite watchable — 90 percent of the time thanks to its cast — the show doesn’t really know what it wants to say about, well, anything.
Season 1 largely focused on Payton’s high school career, only leaping forward to the next stage in the final two episodes, while Season 2 tracks his previously announced plan to win the New York State Senate seat currently occupied by Dede Standish (Judith Light), with both campaigns doing their best to sabotage each other with secrets and lies. Of primary concern is how the public will react to Dede being in a throuple with Marcus (Joe Morton) and William (Teddy Sears), though of course Payton is no innocent on his end. Some characters from Season 1 continue to play a prominent role, while others are dramatically scaled back; beyond Bette Midler as Dede’s campaign manager, perhaps the season’s biggest jolt of electricity is the reappearance of Infinity (Zoey Deutch), whose life has changed dramatically since her high school days.
One of the most interesting things about Ryan Murphy as a producer is that while his shows do feature a number of common elements and he tends to work, more often than not, with the same people, no one show is exactly like the others. They do however tend to fall into a few predominant buckets: Wild Ryan shows like American Horror Story and Nip/Tuck delight in pushing things to extremes, while Woke Ryan shows like Pose and Hollywood feature a strong message of inclusion and social justice, and Wise Ryan shows like American Crime Story aim for education and enlightenment.
(What bucket a show falls into, as well as its quality, is often directly connected to his collaborators — the American Crime Story limited series he’s produced are perhaps his strongest critical achievements, and it’s telling that both Versace and O.J. Simpson were driven by other writers.)
Perhaps, as a result, the most confusing thing about The Politician is how it attempts to draw from all the different types of Ryan Murphy shows that exist. This also makes it arguably the most Ryan Murphy show to ever Ryan Murphy, deeply interested in the psychology of what it means to be a politician in modern-day America and rich with inclusive casting, but also prone to things like an extended sequence where Bette Midler is desperate to get her hands on some “spicy lube.”
No, that’s not a metaphor for anything. She just really wants some spicy lube. Conceptually, the fact that Season 2 features not just Midler, but Light and Gwenyth Paltrow as women whose relative ages does not impede them from being thriving sexual beings is to be applauded. In practice, it’s just one of the elements of the season that clearly someone thought would be fun, and ends up being a massive distraction from the show actually saying anything meaningful about the world.
In fact, perhaps the most impactful episode is the one that focuses the least on the main characters: “The Voters,” Episode 5, instead introduces a mother-daughter pair played by Robin Weigert and Susannah Perkins, whose fights over their individual preferred candidates essentially boil down to a battle that contrasts millennial frustrations with the older generation’s fear that they’ve failed their children by leaving them to deal with a broken world. It’s an interesting premise for an episode, but bogged down with heavy, at times overly simplistic speeches — its heart is in the right place, though, and Weigert in particular shines.
Just looking at the runtimes of episodes in Season 2 and the show’s lack of focus becomes clear: I will never complain about a streaming show which refuses to pad out episodes to meet an arbitrary length. But the fact that Episode 1 of Season 2 is 50 minutes long and Episode 5 is 28 minutes (with the other episodes bounding around within a similar range) makes it clear that beginning with the writing, this was a messy season of television.
Never is this more clear than in the final two episodes, which build up to a dramatic climax consisting of… a rock-paper-scissors match. Make it to the end of this season, and you will learn more about the psychology and science behind rock-paper-scissors than you ever even knew existed, but then… it will ultimately mean nothing.
Season 2 ends with Payton poised to make his next big career leap, but he still feels like a hollow character, a construct rather than a human, because The Politician simply can’t settle down and live up to its title. Right now is the perfect time to try to understand the mind of a politician — not to demonize him, but to understand him, and even see in him the potential for hope. Perhaps that’s something a Season 3 might achieve. But who knows what kind of world we’ll be living in then.
The Politician Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.