Between Black Lives Matter protests, coronavirus and the constant sense of impending doom, it’s easy to forget that 2020 is a presidential election year. But over on Ryan Murphy’s comedy The Politician, which returns to Netflix on Friday, an even bigger political battle is taking place: who will win the Albany state senate elections?
After a first season that saw spoilt Santa Barbara teen Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) elected student body president, the show picks up three years later as he attempts to become state senator. In moving to the big(ger) leagues, The Politician’s second season deals with the criticisms it faced in its first outing – namely that it never justified its price tag and that the cast were clearly closer to 30 than 18 – and expands the show’s world for the better.
Payton is no longer an obnoxious fish in a small pond, but a 22-year-old upstart taking on established liberal candidate Dede Standish (Judith Light) in the seat she’s held for more than 30 years. Payton is continuously underestimated by Dede and her right-hand woman Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler), but sees things swing his way as, like an excessively privileged AOC, he inspires young people to register to vote for the first time.
It’s a smart move that opens The Politician up to another world and breathes new life into old characters, with Payton’s friends no longer his lackeys, but people with their own motivations. And then there’s Light and Midler, who are a delight. While we watch Payton tiptoe around trying to prove that Dede’s views are “outdated” without being accused of ageism towards a woman in her seventies, they’re having threesomes, scheming and playing with “spicy lube”, frequently outshining Platt in what should be his story.
These are some of the series’s strongest moments. The show has always excelled at satirising people who exploit “woke” culture for their own personal gain, with cultural appropriation, zero-waste living and sex positivity all flitting between being Payton’s campaign platform and his biggest downfall. But these concepts are never mocked with actual cruelty. Sure, it’s a bit ridiculous to always carry around a glass bottle to avoid using plastic packaging and yes, cancelling an adult for a fancy dress costume they wore when they were six might be a bit OTT, but the big ideas they represent are presented in a positive, respectful light.
As Payton moves up in the world, old friends are naturally given less to work with, which is a shame in the case of his high-school running mate Infinity (Zoey Deutch). I don’t feel the same loss when it comes to Payton’s always oddly underwritten mother Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow), but suspect she will come to the fore again in the third and final series.
After his revisionist history Hollywood was met with a lukewarm reception, it’s good to see Ryan Murphy back at what he does best, garish colours, obnoxious characters, power suits and all.
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