For a show that tries so hard to be unpredictable, we’re sure exposed to plenty of very predictable issues.
Payton Hobart is not a man of overweening ambition. Really, his goals can be summed up in two simple words: “White” and “House.”
Well, OK. Maybe that is a sign of overweening ambition, especially for someone who struggles so mightily with Mandarin Chinese. But it’s not like he’s expecting someone to just hand him the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s America’s most exclusive bit of real estate, after all. And while presidents may technically stay there rent free for, oh, four to eight years, Payton knows the real price of admission is high.
He’s willing to pay that price. Any price.
In Season 1, Payton won (stole) his high school election. Now in Season 2, the youngster has his sights set on a loftier office: the New York State Senate. But he has, it seems, two women standing in his way.
The first his is opponent: the entrenched incumbent, Dede Standish. She’s been in the senate so long that moss is growing on her desk, and she’s hardly going to be shoved aside by a little wet-behind-the-ears, one-issue candidate. Plus, Dede has her eye on other quarry: Tino McCutcheon, a handsome and ambitious senator from the great state of Texas, who is plotting a run for the presidency himself. He could use an experienced, female voice to help balance that ticket, and Dede just may be the voice of authority he’s looking for.
But Dede has a couple of weaknesses of her own. Her campaign reeks of old politics, old money and old techniques, which Payton’s team believes can be used to their advantage. And if that doesn’t work … well, hey, they could always bring up the fact that the married senator is, in fact, involved in a three-way relationship.
The other woman standing in Payton’s way? His own mother, who just happens to be running for governor in California and just might win the thing. Payton’s getting a little sick of New York journalists asking him what his mom’s up to, y’know? And if Payton knew that his mother was also in bed with good ol’ Tino McCutcheon—both literally and politically—it might just give both Payton and Dede simultaneous heart attacks.
Netflix’s The Politician is the Frankensteinian creation of Ryan Murphy, the brain behind both Fox’s one-time teen hit Glee, FX’s wildly bonkers American Horror Story and Netflix’s own revisionist miniseries Hollywood. Both Murphy and Netflix are banking on The Politician to chronicle enough of Payton’s political career to push him all the way to the White House.
Obviously, the ever-politically engaged Murphy means to lampoon modern American politics, too. Payton is a modern political machine more than he is an authentic human being—a character pieced together by algorithm and with no real principle other than power, no real emotion except the thrill of the win (and the crushing disappointment that comes with loss). But the show seeks to examine more than politics: In many ways, it cogently examines our social media society and the paradoxical isolation that comes with it—how in this day and age, image really is everything.
When Payton tells a Harvard dean that he cried watching It’s a Wonderful Life last Christmas, the dean asks him whether he cried because he was genuinely moved or simply because he was supposed to be moved.
“Does it matter?” Payton tells him. It’s clear that even he doesn’t know. And it’s not just Payton who struggles to discern between what’s real and what’s simply presentation.
But if The Politician makes some interesting points about the isolation and anxiety of 21st-century society, it embraces sexual and gender fluidity as strongly as any show I’ve seen. Few characters are strictly heterosexual, and many easily morph between attraction to one gender or another. James, one of Payton’s campaign managers, is apparently transsexual.
And the show’s hardly free of political exhortations itself. The show’s environmental messages are unmistakable, even if The Politician gently ribs the movement. Sexual and gender politics are, of course, big players here. And late in the season, one character has an abortion.
It’s also telling that the series has pushed beyond its first-season TV-14 rating into TV-MA territory—a more adult show, apparently, for its more adult character. And, given all of its gender-and-romantic indifference, sometimes sultry jaunts to the bedroom (including heterosexual, homosexual and three-partner dalliances) and f-words being tossed about like campaign flyers, that MA rating is well earned.
Viewers must also navigate the show’s other content issues, namely suicides, attempted suicides, attempted murders, death threats, bribes and countless lies. And while The Politician doesn’t condone attempted murder or most of the lying it portrays, there it is, it’s still necessary to wade through it all.
In the end, The Politician feels a lot like your standard political campaign: A little substance, a lot of scandal and a constant barrage of bluster. I know which way I’d vote: Do you?
Payton is running for the New York State Senate, facing the experienced Dede Standish for the seat. He’d like to run a campaign without mudslinging, but the fact that he knows about Dede’s “throuple” (she’s in a consensual relationship with her husband and another man) is a tantalizing bit of info that part of him would like to use. Meanwhile, Payton plants a spy in Dede’s campaign, while Payton confidante Astrid secretly works for Dede’s campaign manager, Hadessah Gold.
Hadessah is appalled when she learns that her candidate is part of a throuple, and she sputters out what she imagines the three of them do every night. We hear references to their supposed sexual activity elsewhere, too, but don’t actually see anything. We see the threesome kiss each other simultaneously and discuss their mutual love for each other. We hear that Payton was once also in a threesome.
Payton’s mother, Georgina, is running for the governorship in California, her race buoyed by her wealthy lesbian lover. She later seems to break up with her, though, and starts an affair with potential presidential candidate Tino McCutcheon. We see him step out of a shower, shirtless and wrapped in a towel, as Georgiana lounges on a bed in her bathrobe and black underwear.
Georgiana makes a joke for the media that ends with her saying that neither she nor Princess Margaret are wearing underwear. During a debate, she calls for California to secede, saying the rest of the country sees them as “pot smoking, Satan worshipping abortion doctors or something.” She also compares California’s relationship with the rest of the union to a “bad marriage. And what do you do when you’re in a bad marriage?” she asks. “You get a divorce.”
We hear that Payton’s father has converted to Orthodox Judaism and has married, in Georgiana’s words, a “lovely Jewess.” We hear mention of some largely debunked, right-leaning conspiracy theories, including rumors of a pedophile ring being run out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria and the supposed murder of a Supreme Court justice.
People drink wine at lunch and dinner. Tino serves Georgiana her favorite drink—a martini with extra olives. Georgiana uses a hookah. When Payton whines about a political setback, his would-be fiancée announces that she brought some “marijuana gummies and miniature margarita kit” to help cheer him up. (She’s also wearing “provocative undies,” she announces.)
Characters say the f-word five times, the s-word six times and someone purposefully rubs her middle finger on the side of her nose. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—,” “d–n,” “d–k” and “pr–k.” God’s name is misused four times, once with the word “d–n,” and Jesus’ name is abused once.
Payton launches his political career with a stab at becoming student body president at Saint Sebastian high school. But he freaks out when he learns that River, his one-time semi-secret lover, is running against him.
Payton threatens to expose their gay affair and announce that River’s living a lie. “I’m going to win at all costs!” He blusters. “I will not be stopped!” River doesn’t plan to stop him, apparently. Suffering from a deep sense of alienation, River kills himself with his father’s handgun as Payton stands in front of him: The screen goes dark before we hear the gunshot, but we see Payton sprayed with River’s blood later on. River’s shown with the handgun in an earlier scene, too, and in flashback, we see that he’s attempted suicide before—jumping into a swimming pool with a heavy weight tied around his ankle. “I don’t want anyone at this school to ever feel like that,” River says during a school debate. “Your lives have value, and that they’re important. That you’re important.”
River and his girlfriend, Astrid, get dressed after having sex. (We see them in their underwear.) River wonders aloud whether Astrid’s faking it when they engage in intimacy, and she admits baldly that she is: His ambitious girlfriend is all about giving him the confidence he needs to become the man she wants him to be. River and Payton kiss during a Mandarin Chinese tutoring session. When Astrid learns of the kiss later, she tells Payton that she always knew River was “fluid” and invites Payton to her house for a threesome. River selects a “gender-non-conforming” woman as his running mate. We hear references to porn.
Payton tries to recruit people with a variety of disabilities to be his running mate “I believe the proper modern vernacular for them is differently abled,” Payton’s campaign strategist says. Payton’s girlfriend, Alice, tells Payton that they should break up for political reasons. An apparent cancer victim puts on a bold face and says that her sickness is all part of “God’s plan,” but her caretaker parlays that same sickness into free concert tickets and meals.
Payton’s twin older brothers go shirtless around a pool and shoot arrows at a fake deer as they talk about their sexual conquests. They tell Payton that he should come along on a hunting trip with them so “we could accidentally shoot you in the back.” (They look down on Payton because he was apparently adopted, and Payton harbors some insecurities on that point, too—even though his adoptive mother tells him she always loved him the best.) Payton denies that he has any homosexual leanings and harbors a lingering grudge against someone who called him a crude name referencing his supposed sexuality.
We hear people say “b–ch,” “d–n,” “g-dd–n,” “h—” and “f-g.” God’s and Jesus’ names are misused a half-dozen times each.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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