By Medha Sarin
Growing up, I was never really a political person. I was in elementary school when Barack Obama took office, and I spent the entirety of his administration consumed in my own world. I went to school, did homework and played sports, only ever climbing out of my bubble to see who’d won the 2012 presidential election.
But all of a sudden, 2016 happened. As it did for many other people, that year sparked my interest in politics; I wanted to understand how a person who didn’t know much more about government than I did was now running the country. It still feels like a mystery to me, and with the 2020 elections fast approaching, I find myself asking, what is going on politics? More specifically: what does it mean to be a politician?
“The Politician,” written by acclaimed screenwriter Ryan Murphy and featuring many renowned actors, provides an answer through satire and comedy. The first season of the show follows Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) on his quest to win the presidential election at his high school. Payton aspires to eventually become president of the United States, and sees his high school’s government as the first step in his journey. In the beginning, he runs against River Barkely (David Corenswet), who’s kind, genuine and infinitely more popular. Payton is actually in love with River, which heightens the importance of the election for Payton. However, River is currently in a relationship with Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton).
Shortly into the first episode, River, who had been dealing with suicidal thoughts, commits suicide. Sloan takes advantage of the sympathy she’s receiving and declares her own candidacy. This ensues a ridiculous and wild battle for the presidency involving the picking, dismissing and repicking of vice presidents, as well as political scandals. Throughout, Payton plays tug-of-war with his personality, trying to be an authentic, good-hearted candidate but also quite willing to play dirty if it means achieving his political goals.
It’s already strange to come across a high school drama about politics, but “The Politician” is more than appropriate, considering the current political atmosphere in the United States. The election of Donald Trump was simply unprecedented, at least in modern-day politics. “The Politician” was released on Netflix in Sept. 2019, at a perfect time when Americans just needed to look at the country’s political situation and reflect.
What furthers the mockery of America’s political system is that every character in the show fits some sort of political stereotype or trope. The two members of Payton’s campaign staff are his experts, his right hand man and woman. Payton’s girlfriend, Alice Charles (Julia Schlaepfer), is his supportive First Lady. His female opponent, Astrid, and her first pick for vice president, a gender non-conforming African-American named Skye Leighton (Rahne Jones), are part of the tiny bit of gender diversity that exists in real-world politics. And at the center of it all is Payton, a true embodiment of a politician: ambitious, scheming, saying anything people want to hear (but not necessarily believing in it).
However, there is some depth to these characters beneath the surface that is explored throughout the show, namely Payton’s struggle to be more empathetic, Astrid’s negative relationship with her father and the effects of River’s death on Payton and Astrid. River is a constant in the show; Payton often thinks of him and his good samaritan personality, which helps Payton as he tries to be a more honest and considerate person. Payton’s desire to be more sincere is an interesting moral dilemma; I still can’t decide whether I wish he were less political, or if he is just fine as he is. In any case, the characters’ stereotypicality actually makes them very relatable to me; I can admire or laugh at their characteristics because I’m familiar with them, having seen their mirrors in real life political figures.
Unfortunately, the characters, while intriguing, felt underdeveloped at times. Mainly, the characters’ dialogues undermined an important point the show tried to make about how there’s a lack of diversity in places of leadership. Occasionally, the characters would give Ted Talk-like presentations about minority representation; they spoke on the issue so many times that their words blended together and they began to sound the same. In fact, when it was Skye’s turn to present this speech, I remember thinking, it sounds just like when Payton said it, which is especially strange because as a white man, a monologue from Payton about diversity should sound different than one from Skye, right? Eventually, instead of thinking, yes, that’s right, in response to these “speeches,” I was thinking, okay, I get it.
Despite this, “The Politician” touches on a variety of societal issues, such as corruption in universities, problematic familial relationships and gender bias. The show also has a romantic angle, exploring Payton and Astrid’s relationships with River and Skye’s relationship with one of the people on Payton’s campaign staff, along with others.
“The Politician” has other captivating qualities, beyond the comedic angle. For example, the main characters all live in elegant, beautiful and expensive mansions, which simultaneously feed into their stereotypes and remove a little bit of their humanity. Frankly, the show is quite weird; it balances the absurdity and melodrama of high-stakes politics with the relatability of high school in a way that I really appreciate. But this strangeness translates to freshness in my mind, and I definitely think it was worth it sticking it out through the first season. “The Politician” also released a second season last month, and has a third season in the works.
Overall, “The Politician” is a fantastic show blending comedy, drama, romance and satire into a wonderful, politically-charged mix. The screenwriting has flaws, specifically when analyzing the topic of minority representation, but otherwise, the characters are interesting, and I enjoyed watching their stories play out. If your head is spinning from all the political craziness in the world right now, give “The Politician” a try. You may need the laugh.
Contact Medha Sarin at medhasarin1 ‘at’ gmail.com.