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Opinion | 'The Politician' finally delivers on its promise

With this smarter, more brisk second season, 'The Politician' appears to have a clearer manifesto

Judith Light in 'The Politician'
Judith Light in 'The Politician'

An election being decided by the toss of a coin—or any game of chance—sounds like a scheme thought up by a Batman villain. Yet, as evidenced by the snappy second season of Netflix dramedy The Politician, this has happened more frequently and more recently in American politics than one might imagine. This season is about a New York state senate election, pitting the upstart Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) versus the infinitely experienced Dede Standish (Judith Light), where it all threatens to come down not to votes and promises but to a preposterously important game of Rock Paper Scissors.

Nobody makes compelling gloss quite like Ryan Murphy—the man behind shows as vapid as Glee and as powerful as The People Vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story—but the first season of The Politician was as overdone as it was oversaturated. Taking visual cues from the great Wes Anderson, it traded that director’s sentimental minimalism for an overdose of hysterics. The promising story of a well-heeled young man grooming himself with the solitary goal of becoming president, it ended up in melodramatic alleyways, its story of manipulation and counter-manipulation hijacked by hammy characters and performances. In my review last year, I had lamented the soapy heart of the show and wished the hour-long episodes were tighter.

Unlike real-world politicians, those running this show appear to have listened. This season is less farcical—though no less dramatic—and far more politically intricate, where each gambit has unexpected, intriguing repercussions. Picture a game of poker between opponents who believe they are playing chess. The episodes are half the length, with no overwrought actor unashamedly chewing the scenery as Jessica Lange did in season 1. Instead, women of various ages steal the show. With this smarter, more brisk season, The Politician appears to have a clearer manifesto.

The central conflict is youth versus experience. Those fresh out of college, talking fast enough to impress Aaron Sorkin, versus stalwarts who don’t know tech and don’t recycle. Battle lines are drawn between the old guard, those who made a mess of the world, and the green thumbs, who will have to clean the mess they inherit. In one corner, surrounded by screen-tapping cohorts, stands Hobart dreaming of the Oval Office, constantly compromising and questioning his morals. In the other, we have Senator Standish and trusted chief of staff Hadassah Gold (the incomparable Bette Midler), career politicians forced to confront their own youthful manipulations as they take on aspirants reaching for the same rungs. Game on.

Then, the wild card. Hobart’s mother (a striking Gwyneth Paltrow) is not only running for governor of California but wants the sunshine state to secede from the unworthy US—a daft idea that nonetheless gathers uproarious applause. The Politician is, therefore, fantasy, set in an America where voters care about issues and are undeterred by revelations about a senator’s sex life. An America where people actually turn out to vote. This wish-fulfilment serves to make us wistful about the world we could be living in, the politicians we could be voting for.

In the first episode, characters rattling off statistics speak of the difference between an “undecided" voter and one who has “no opinion". This seven-episode satire keeps bringing up crucially fine lines: between an ethical and a moral dilemma, between appreciation and appropriation, between hope and hype. It tells us how politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, and how the new power couple-goals are—to quote a remarkably clear-headed young lady—“a little more George and Amal, and a little less George and Martha."

Judith Light is exceptional. The veteran, recently so great in Transparent (Amazon) and Ugly Betty, takes on not only the poised glamour of scarlet pantsuits and lipstick, but also ravenous sexual appetite. At 71, Light plays a woman in a committed “throuple"—a three-person relationship—who chooses to celebrate her sexuality. Standish is sensational, and Light revels in her frankness. Her rapport with Midler is priceless, and she conveys volumes with her arched eyes, like when Midler calls a man insatiable. Exasperation is rarely this elegant. The show that made Light famous asked a question and this one answers it: She is, without a doubt, the boss.

Midler hasn’t had a part this fun since 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, and it’s a treat to watch her berate young informants and tail people as conspicuously as possible. Julia Schlaepfer is excellent as Hobart’s ever-strategizing lover, Alice, as is Laura Dreyfuss as Hobart’s long-suffering campaign manager, described as a Diane Keaton type with Gloria Steinem glasses. Paltrow, on the other hand, cannot be boxed into a type—her electrifying Georgina Hobart speaks of bedroom prowess matter-of-factly (“I work unusually hard for a woman as attractive as I am") and vanishes from the public eye before an election (“I’m pulling a Garbo"). I would vote for her.

Payton Hobart is a fascinating character, ever conflicted and torn, and Ben Platt tenderly depicts his sensitive, scruple-interrupted angst. As political stakes are heightened, we see him grapple and grow over the course of the season. Hobart wins us over when not posturing: trying to negotiate an arrangement of intimacy with two women, or sitting at the piano belting out songs so beautiful they remind us how important it is to feel charmed by a leader.

There is game theory at the heart of Rock Paper Scissors, that popular argument-settling tool. It isn’t mere chance, as you must anticipate the direction your opponent will take, for that will determine the impact you can make. Both parties draw weapons at once and you don’t know how your opponent will approach the conflict. It is a game of odd numbers, as there are no ties in politics. Each party takes turns tearing down and covering up, playing at being rocks and paper. Only one can be Caesar.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter: @rajasen

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