If you want to fix your show, a great first step is to feature Judith Light in a starring role.
If you can, it is highly recommended to pair her with Bette Midler, preferably in scenes that have them extolling the virtues of romantic throuples for women over 50, or celebrating the discovery of “spicy lube.”
If Gwyneth Paltrow is already in your show as a somnambulant Santa Barbara socialite, both self-aware of her own privilege and unbothered by the entitled attitude it fosters, please continue to script her swanning around in kaftans—and also, sure, why not have her run for governor of California on a platform of seceding from the Union?
If you must have a bisexual ghost, yes, he should be played by David Corneswet and brought back almost exclusively to shoot a threesome sex scene.
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Everything we can’t stop loving, hating, and thinking about this week in pop culture.
The first season of Ryan Murphy’s The Politician on Netflix was a very expensive, very pretty, very confusing mess: a garish mishmash of tones, confusing performances from actors who all seemed to think they’re in different shows, and a kitchen sink of larger cultural points soiled by sticky, tawdry subplots.
The debut outing out of Murphy’s jaw-dropping $300 million deal with the streamer, and the first project to come out of the slew of similar deals made with megawatt creator-showrunners (Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris, and more), the series was the fascinating test case for how these celebrated auteurs, all graduates of network and cable TV, would seize the Netflix freedom of boundless budgets and no content constraints.
The maximalism of The Politician didn’t exactly inspire bundles of confidence, except for one major thing.
After a season of following a vaguely campy, vaguely morose, vaguely ludicrous plot in which ambitious teen Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) campaigns to win his school’s student body presidential election at all costs, the final episode flashed forward to show Payton living in New York City and deciding to run for state senator against a veteran politician played by Light, whose bulldog chief of staff was played by Midler.
Payton sees his youth as his advantage, arguing that Light’s Dede Standish is out of touch with her district’s young constituents. More, his friends discover their power play: Dede is secretly in a bisexual throuple. The episode ends with Payton declaring his candidacy, his high school friends joining him as campaign staff.
The finale crackled with an energy and element of surprise that was sorely missing from the rest of the first season. Suddenly I, as well as many critics, were excited to watch season two. It’s not typical to be so underwhelmed by a series but also so hyped to watch more of it, but that’s the power of Bette Midler and Judith Light.
That power is even more formidable in the second season of The Politician, which premiered Friday on Netflix. While hardly a masterpiece, it is a massive improvement over the first season—possibly one of the biggest season two glow-ups of the streaming era.
It can’t be said enough how much of that is owed to Midler and Light, delivering dual dynamo performances.
Midler’s Hadassah Gold is one of those Ryan Murphyverse specialties, in which he serves a showcase role to a veteran actress, sprinkles the scenery with some salt, and gives her carte blanche to make a meal out of it, trusting their experience to know how to do so responsibly. Delightfully, yes. But responsibly.
Midler is great when she’s on a short fuse, exasperated to be kept in the dark about her lifelong partner’s secret throuple relationship. She is great when she is vicious, dressing down the meddling kids in Payton’s campaign who threaten her tunnel-vision goal: Getting Dede to the White House as the vice presidential candidate on a Beto O’Rourke-esque ticket headed by Sam Jaegar’s Tino McCutcheon.
She is great when the story is outlandish, and she is forced to spend several episodes in a state of post-coital bliss following a night with a younger man and some “spicy lube.” And she is great when she is asked to bring real gravitas and grounding to a woman watching her personal life and career spiral out of control.
It helps that her most frequent scene partner is Light, who has made a career out of being among the finest and most captivating actors on TV, but could possibly be crowned this last decade’s reliable MVP. While having the more ludicrous storyline on the surface—see, for the umpteenth time: throuple—her role requires more harnessing of the outsized emotions surrounding her Senate seat being threatened by Payton and her secret love life exposed.
She’s clearly having a blast in a playground painted with more saturated colors than we’re used to seeing her perform in. But especially near the end of the season, her delicate touch is what keeps the show from going off the rails.
That risk is precarious throughout the whole season, no matter how elevated it is compared to last year. The show is still patently ridiculous, but it’s finally focused.
Platt’s lead performance as Payton isn’t split between mourning a dead friend, at-home family drama, a tangle in a Munchausen-by-proxy plot, several poisonings, and an identity crisis amid an election. Here, we’re just given the election-fueled identity ennui, tethered to the war against Dede and Hadassah to keep from unfurling too insufferably.
Don’t be fooled. There are still silly twists and unnecessary tangents. (We counted four throuples depicted onscreen?)
“But the show also is finally having fun with itself. That’s evident not only in every scene Midler and Light share, but, unexpectedly, in Paltrow’s scenes most of all. ”
But the pacing, a bumble-bee buzzing cadence pleasantly reminiscent of Glee, has finally settled into an addicting clip. The tone wisely leans more towards soapy cheekiness and frothy snark than the last go-round, and when it does melt into more earnest moments towards the end of the season, they feel earned.
As for the point of it all? It’s far easier to discern one this time, too. If the broad theme of season one was ambition, the show got lost in it. Now grander points are sharper and more acute, even if they make you roll your eyes.
The amount of air given to young voters caring about climate change and old voters being out of touch…yes, we get it. And an episode actually titled “Cancel Culture” is great when it’s satirizing the concept’s outrageousness—Payton apologizes for a racially insensitive costume he wore when he was six—but exhausting when it introduces added layers of muddled wokeness.
But the show also is finally having fun with itself. That’s evident not only in every scene Midler and Light share, but, unexpectedly, in Paltrow’s scenes most of all.
Her own foray into politics is unjustified lunacy on every level, but the self-seriousness that Paltrow’s celebrity inherently carries with it convinces you to just go with it, like she’s a Marianne Williamson with feet more firmly planted on earth. Hell, there’s even an episode titled “Conscious Unthroupling”—co-written by Paltrow’s real-life husband Brad Falchuk, no less.
Is there still a fatal flaw in the fact that Payton is, by and large, too irritating for anyone to believe that this troop of intelligent friends continue to rally around him? Yes. Am I envious of his impeccably stylish wardrobe in the series anyway? Yes. Could I pull any of it off? Absolutely not, but that’s something I’m going to have to live with. In the meantime, Platt looks great in it, and is an engaging, captivating performer who wrings as much as he can out of his off-putting role.
There’s also the fact that, like many of Murphy’s productions, there’s an aggressive and impressive effort to be inclusive in casting and make pointed statements about relevant social issues. Yet it’s the beefing up of storylines for two veteran entertainers that are the show’s saving grace, while the diverse supporting cast still spins its wheels.
The season two finale, like the finale before it, sets up the next phase of Payton’s political career. The Politician’s polling numbers on the upswing. The redemption narrative is looking good.