Note: As we continue to see a lull in material related to pseudo-archaeology due to current events and the widespread shutdown in TV production and the slowdown in publishing, and I continue to be holed up at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ll be treated to more TV reviews. Please note that my posts will be irregular this week as I take some time off to work on book-related projects.
It’s been a disappointing month for returning Netflix shows. First, 13 Reasons Why gave us many more reasons that it was and would always be a trash fire. Then The Order revealed that the true secret of its titular order was a neo-fascist agenda. Now The Politician has returned with a bonkers cartoon of a second season that undercuts any justification the flawed first season offered for the show’s existence. I am especially disappointed that I wasted so much time and effort finding redeeming value in these imperfect shows only to have them betray my optimism and my faith that there is something worth keeping in disposable pop products. The Politician was the show I most expected to collapse into incoherence, but I didn’t expect that it would choose this particular path toward self-annihilation.
It takes a lot for a TV show to actually offend me. Subject matter doesn’t usually do it unless it is so repulsive that I can’t watch it. The recent AMC broadcast of last year’s Creepshow was often cheerfully gross, and sometimes nauseating, but so incompetent that it rarely raised a real eyebrow. Most of the time, I am indifferent to bad shows. I could probably formulate a few thoughts on Snowpiercer, but it’s so manifestly middlebrow and uninspired that it never really makes a case that it has any layers beyond the surface. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is pretty bad all around, despite the accidental timeliness of its story of race and police brutality. But its b-story about a racist and closeted politician falling in love with the Nazi who literally killed the man’s sexual partner in front of him is played for laughs and might have warranted a few thoughts if it seemed like anyone was actually trying to tell a real story there.
No, to be offensive a show has to betray the covenant it made with the viewer. I would argue that The Politician did that, turning what would otherwise be a poor-quality retread of the worst parts of Glee into something that left a sour taste in my mouth.
The second season of The Politician picks up more or less where the first left off, but Ryan Murphy and his longtime collaborators Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, begin retroactively reconfiguring the story. The first change is subtle enough that you don’t really notice at first. At the end of season one, our protagonist, college student Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), announced his candidacy for the New York State Senate on a platform of infrastructure and transportation issues. Except for a one-line hand-wave at the end of season two, this disappears, replaced with climate change. It’s not an important point mostly, but it presages the bigger changes that undermine the story The Politician first promised it was telling.
At the level of pure story, the second season is a thematically confused mess—just like all of Ryan Murphy’s continuing series. It doesn’t understand politics, New York State government or elections, or the voting public. It’s also not too sure what real human beings would look, act, or sound like. To say it is unrealistic would be an insult to imagination since this fantasy holds so little connection to reality that the characters could start casting magic spells and flying and I don’t think it would cause me to bat an eye. It would be better as a sitcom, but that would require a better understanding of comedy.
I’ll leave aside the ridiculousness of the story and instead look to the overarching narrative that was supposed to have played out over many seasons. Originally, the idea was that we would follow Payton from high school to the White House, watching as he sold off parts of his soul little by little, trading his humanity for power. Well, that flew out the window. Not only does the series decide this year that Payton never had any humanity to sell off but that he doesn’t really need to work very hard to achieve his goals. He’s just a privileged white boy who gets handed everything he wants with almost no effort because the people around him, who should know better, keep imagining him exceptional. Forgive me the mild spoiler here, but we are asked to celebrate Payton’s triumph as the state senate’s most effective senator in history and his impending rise to the White House as though he earned it on his merits and not because his mother—again, with no effort at all!—won a nearly unanimous election as California governor and then the presidency. With NO EFFORT. It’s certainly easy to end up in power when you are the scion of power and toadies need to curry favor. The show doesn’t realize that.
Nor do Murphy, Brennan (who wrote all of the episodes alone or in collaboration), and Falchuk seem to realize that by giving Payton’s mother an obstacle-free path straight to the White House they undercut the whole purpose of The Politician. We aren’t watching Payton make compromises for power anymore because the show doesn’t actually believe in that kind of democracy. Instead, we are watching a petulant asshat scheming pointlessly. Who needs retail politics or hard-fought campaigns when mommy and mommy’s best buddies can just make it all go away? Why watch Payton rebuild himself into a creature of politics when we see that a spacey celebrity can shortcut the whole process? Even Donald Trump actually had to do some work to eke out an electoral victory. A story that is supposed to be comic relief undermines the entire raison d’être of the show. Payton is wasting his time, and ours.
If The Politician doesn’t care about politics, what does it care about? Here is where it starts to go from incompetent to uncomfortable. Putatively, the theme of this short season (seven episodes, some scarcely half an hour) is sexual freedom. Both Payton and his opponent (played by Judith Light) are in “throuples,” the trendy term for polygamy, and ostensibly we are asked to respect their sexual choices and to believe that the voting public not only wouldn’t care but would celebrate liberation from Victorian prudery. But the narrative cuts against it, breaking up the polygamous threesomes and causing all of the characters to realize that they happiest either in heterosexual monogamy or celibate. It’s a very strange theme to push given the first season’s heavy emphasis on sexual diversity and the painful choices nonconforming individuals had to make between personal freedom and public acceptance. Here, the text says polygamy is awesome, but the subtext is that people are only happy in committed heterosexual pairings.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the show’s most disturbing retcon. The first season was a sloppy mess, but what worked was the emotional grounding that kept Payton on the human side of cartoonish. Last year, he was in love with his rival, River Barkely (David Corenswet). They had a sweetly tentative romance, which ended in tragedy when the mentally unwell River confessed his love to Payton and then killed himself in front of him. The show never truly dealt with the trauma something like that would cause to a real person, but River’s death was nevertheless a double tragedy—it killed off Payton’s one true love and also symbolized the death of the human side he sacrificed for power.
So, this year—yeah, fuck all that. This year, in an ill-conceived scene in the second episode, written by Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, Payton says that he thought River was going to butt-fuck him while they were in bed together during a failed threesome with Astrid, but when he didn’t, Payton realized River “wasn’t gay either. I don’t even think he was bisexual.” “I knew he wasn’t gay,” Astrid agrees, saying River just wanted to be “close” to people. There was no penetration, so no gay! He was just really friendly. He was just friendly. Implying that a man who is in love with another man isn’t gay or “even” bi without anal sex is just offensive.
In the most generous reading, we could pretend Payton was purposely rewriting his past to serve his needs, but that’s not what the writing tells us, since the scene is set up as Payton’s one moment of deep honesty this season. Astrid even agrees that River was straight. I think we’re supposed to believe this since it’s against her interests at this point to admit it. Payton adds that he wasn’t even attracted to River in “that way.” “I just wanted to be close to him,” he says, as really good friends. (Somehow this is 2020 by way of 1955.) Remember, River literally confessed his undying love for Payton before blasting his head off and Payton spent last year fantasizing about River and replaying their romance in his mind. This season, they drop Payton’s bisexual tendencies altogether, and he is now so virile and hetero that he impregnates every girl he fucks. Another pointless spoiler alert: The season ends with Payton married to woman and raising a toddler son. River’s ghost shows up a couple of times, but no longer as Payton’s caring fantasy of his lost former love, as he was last year. This year he’s a kind of creepy Mephistopheles urging Payton to embrace a Nietzschean Will to Power.
Now, finding your real self and realizing your true desires is one thing. If the show had done the work of showing that Payton’s emotional journey led him to a traditional family, that would be great. If I genuinely thought that Payton was trying to delude himself into erasing his own past in service of political ends, I could buy it. But the show doesn’t do the work to establish any of this, and the other characters seem to go along with the surface reading of the new narrative. That leaves only an uncomfortable rewriting of history and a show gaslighting us into thinking we didn’t see what we saw. Ripping the emotional heart out of your series and pretending that the boy who literally killed himself confessing his love for your protagonist was just a really good friend is offensive.
Sure, they might walk it back again next year. But it won’t be because of some master plan. It will only be because of narrative convenience. I get that the first season was an unsatisfactory mess. I said so myself. Something had to change. But this… My viewing of the show deserves a retcon so I can pretend I never liked it and that it’s just some acquaintance I passed by on the Netflix cue that one time.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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