Four episodes in, I finally decided I really didn’t like The Politician (Netflix). Initially, I thought I might because there was lots of advertising assuring me how good and culturally important it was going to be. Also, it’s made by the same creative team responsible for Glee, that slick but likable and quite moreish series about an American high school glee club where an impeccably diverse class of gay and disabled people keeps bursting into implausibly accomplished cover versions of classic pop songs.
But no. The Politician leaves you with the same unpleasant, dirty, life-just-wasted feeling I imagine you’d get from watching Japanese hentai porn. Superficially, yes, it’s weird, stylized, different, niche, curiosity-stimulating. After a while, though, you realize it’s telling you nothing of value about life, the world or anything else, except maybe about what a perverse, barbaric, messed-up generation the millennials are.
The premise is this: our protagonist Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) has known since the age of seven that it is his destiny to become the president. Happily, his adoptive parents are obscenely rich and he is superficially attractive, intelligent, quick-witted and blessed with the superpower of having no emotions whatsoever: his every passion and belief are entirely fake. All that remains is for us to watch the ensuing seasons as Payton makes his way, almost effortlessly, to the top.
Obviously there will be setbacks along the way. But these are all confected setbacks, offering just enough drama to prevent us switching off but resolved easily enough by convenient plot twists. For example (spoiler alert, though you won’t care), Payton’s better-looking, more charming and principled rival in the high school presidential election, a vital early stage in his game plan, handily and more or less randomly blows his brains out.
Payton is cold, affectless and cynical, but then so is pretty much everyone else: his electoral advisers; his doting mother (Gwyneth Paltrow); his vile twin brothers; his icy blonde opponent; his running mate with pretend cancer; the admissions board at Harvard where, of course he absolutely has to go because it’s the surest academic route for any aspiring president. There’s really not a character we care for except possibly the black lesbian running mate and the token Haitian, who, if this were South Park, would get ripped mercilessly just like everyone else, but who in this cozy liberal fantasy appears to be off-limits.
The Politician is like a more grown-up version (with added sex and references to things like anilingus) of that similarly vile and pointless Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events. It presents an arch, supersaturated and blackly comical universe full of incident but devoid of the emotional underpinning that might make you give the slightest damn about anyone or anything.
Or, if you prefer, it’s the anti-O.C. The O.C. depicted a similar world of almost pornographically observed California privilege — gorgeous houses, fast cars, beautiful kids — only with the massive difference that it found a way of making you care for these spoiled, superficial, moneyed brats.
What’s left is satire. But what, exactly, is its satirical point? The notion that politics is shallow, trivial and insincere was a cliché even in 1726, when Jonathan Swift mocked how the Lilliputians capered and rope-danced for political supremacy in Gulliver’s Travels. As for its notion that all you need to rise to the top of US politics is money and white male privilege, this looks woefully off the mark in the age of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, both of whom, it almost goes without saying, would have made infinitely more interesting satirical targets.
Sure, Trump is white, rich and male, but he’s also the antithesis of the kind of Establishment greasy-pole climber represented by Payton. Trump’s shtick is authenticity and telling it like it is; Payton’s isn’t.
But it surprises me not one jot that the creatives behind The Politician are so tone deaf to these subtleties. It’s fairly obvious from the cloying, people-of-all-colors-and-creeds-holding-hands-under-a-rainbow PC of Glee that they’re all unthinking liberals.
So that means they won’t have noticed either the populist revolution currently sweeping the US or the utter lunacy of the race-baiting, Green-New-Deal-touting, look-at-me-dancing-cutely-on-YouTube chancers, liars and airheads who have hijacked the Democrats’ side of the political argument. And if you’re going to do satire, isn’t close observation, funny-because-it’s-true, and not pulling your punches sorta, kinda the whole damned point?
This article is in The Spectator’s December 2019 US edition.