Netflix's "The Politician" Is Completely Insufferable

Ben Platt's golden vocals can't redeem this show from the pits of its own self-absorption.

This review contains spoilers.

What happens when you combine Glee's high school drama, American Horror Story's propensity for random acts of violence, and an already absurd 2020 electoral cycle?

You wind up with Ryan Murphy's The Politician, and it's just as pretentious, exhausting, and addictive as you'd expect.

The Politician has a lot going for it. It has the lovable, golden-voiced Ben Platt and the sweet Zoey Deusch as its stars, as well as Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a host of other Hollywood staples. It's extremely timely and very visually pleasing.

But here's the thing: The Politician is, for the most part, totally obnoxious.

Hollywood Reporter

The show tells the story of Payton Hobart, a high school senior whose sole objective in life is to become President of the United States. It doesn't seem that he wants to achieve anything in particular with this platform, and party politics are rarely mentioned except in passing. But Payton will stop at nothing to achieve this goal, and the first step to becoming President of the United States, according to his research, is being elected president of his high school.

Like most characters on the show, Payton is exorbitantly wealthy. Though shunned by his billionaire father, he's the beloved adopted child of Georgina Hobart (Paltrow). The Hobarts might be the show's wealthiest family, but almost all the characters are part of the upper-upper class, and their lives are defined by excess and entitlement. Even one of the "low-income" students—a subject of interest because he's an undecided voter—lives in a nice house with a pool.

Hollywood Reporter

Of course, all this wealth never translates to happiness, and the characters continually try to run away from their families, from emptiness, fakeness, and the looming terror of failing to live up to their potential. One of the characters runs away from home to New York City, and after seeing homeless people on the subway, she returns with a newfound perspective on what the "real world" is like.

Certainly Murphy and his team were trying to satirize the wealth and disconnect at the heart of modern politics; after all, billions of dollars are spent each election cycle, much of it funneled through major corporate establishments. In some way, the show succeeds in doing this, highlighting the prominence of scammers and our growing frustration with them, while also commenting on the pitfalls of authenticity. Still, any message that could've been communicated effectively here is damaged by the show's many plot holes.

Then there's the fact that its characters are extremely difficult to empathize with. No one on the show seems to actually care for each other, even in the smallest way. There's endless, convoluted backstabbing, and everyone uses each other to get something else.

Perhaps the most loving, genuine relationship on the show is between Payton and his mother. Though she clearly loves her son, Georgina's love is mostly communicated through mystical, quasi-deep asides. She's his biggest champion but also the kind of mom who encourages her son's selfishness by corroborating his already inflated sense of self-worth. (Fun fact: She's married to the show's co-creator, Brad Falchuk, who said he based Georgina on Paltrow herself).

In the midst of all the relentless, pointless political competition (what school in this world has such intense elections?), there are moments of blinding tragedy. In the first few episodes, it's revealed that Payton once had a love affair with River, a sensitive, beautiful, Adonis-like lacrosse player who is running against him in the election. In an emotional speech during a debate, River speaks candidly about his prior suicide attempt and about his own feelings of crushing loneliness. An episode later, he shoots himself right in front of Payton, after saying, "I really did love you."

After that, River disappears for several episodes with few mentions, and politics as usual continues. (He eventually reappears as a ghostly manifestation of Payton's own suppressed emotions).

After River dies, his girlfriend, Astrid, decides to run in his place, and she picks one of the school's few black students as her running mate. The VP, Skye, later tries to assassinate Payton so she can take power—and while the show definitely critiques this kind of blunt, tasteless tokenization, it still takes part in it, giving its few cast members who are people of color precious little characterization and screen time.

This is just one of the many ways that the show feels removed from the modern era. It's supposed to be about Gen Z, but social media is remarkably absent from the show; political statistics are broadcast on slideshows and votes are counted with slips of paper. As many reviews have pointed out, the show feels firmly rooted in the perspective of someone in Gen X or even earlier.

The only character who seems remotely conscious is the late River, who says he feels like the world is ending in his tell-all speech. Aside from that, the show is simply a muddled approximation of teen life in 2019; it lacks any frank discussion of insecurity, fear, ennui, irony, and bitter humor that defines so much of the conversation among Gen Z, millennials, and most political discourse today. It's about politics, but its politicians stand for nothing. They protest issues like gun violence to get attention but have little to no actual connection to these things. While not all teens are politically active today, the ones that are—the Greta Thunbergs and Emma Gonzalezes—are checked in, to say the least. Everyone in this show is checked out and, other than Platt, excised of an inner life. Each character is a different kind of anxiety, shallowness, and competitiveness personified, and it gets old very quickly.

Maybe that's the point. Maybe the show's plot is a mirror of Payton's convoluted state of mind, or of the incoherence of living in the modern world. But from a viewer's perspective, the show lacks the creative vision and humor to pull itself together. Ostensibly, the entire series is about fakeness and performance, but it does as little as possible to puncture its own ballooned sense of self-importance.

If the show had the acerbic self-critical edge that shows like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia possess or the irreverence and strong characters of The Office, then it could've made for better television. Still, the narrative's downfall is its jumbled, soap-opera-like flair for the dramatic, which might also be what makes it so difficult to turn off.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there will be more seasons of The Politician, as each season supposedly will follow Payton as he runs in a different campaign. Season Two looks like it might be much more promising, as it'll leave behind the bubble of the characters' small town, focusing on Payton's race for (spoiler alert) New York state senator. If the show can leave behind its fixation on high school drama and focus more on the state of politics at large, it might actually be able to spin its jumbled plotlines into a more fulfilling whole.

Still, it's kind of a shame that Netflix would greenlight a show like this one (and give Ryan Murphy a $300 million deal) while canceling shows like The OA that actually had relevant and sincere things to say. Sure, Ben Platt's cover of Joni Mitchell's "River" is uncannily moving. But a simple Google search will take you to a treasure trove of Platt performances, and you need only to search through Goop to get your fix of Gwyneth Paltrow's character's sanitized, spiritual homemaker aesthetic.

River - Ben Platt

The show is fast-paced, attractively filmed, and difficult to look away from—Murphy makes sure of that, keeping the shock factor alive, and this review barely touches on half of the show's highlights (which include musical theatre duets, a major plotline involving a girl whose grandmother poisons her, and attempted assassinations involving rodent gallbladders). But ultimately, it's as incoherent as your average scroll through Twitter, without any of the spicy discourse or diversity of opinion.


Nazi-Chic: The Aesthetics of Fascism

Let's take a look at Nazi-inspired fashion.

Villains always have the best outfits.

From Darth Vader's polished black space armor to The Joker's snazzy purple suit, bad guys always seem to show up their protagonists in the fashion department.

Way more handsome than Batman.

But could there possibly be a real world equivalent to the type of over-the-top villain fashion often found in fiction? It would have to be sleek and imposing, austere and dangerous. Probably black.

Maybe it's him. Maybe it's fascist ideology.

Oh, right.

Let's call a spade a spade. From an aesthetic standpoint, the Nazi SS outfit is very well-designed. The long coat tied around the waist with a buckle portrays a slim, sturdy visage. The leather boots and matching cap look harsh and powerful. The emblem placements on the lapel naturally suggest rank and authority. And the red armband lends a splash of color to what would otherwise be a dark monotone. If the Nazi uniform wasn't so closely tied with the atrocities they committed during WWII, it wouldn't seem out of place at Fashion Week. Perhaps not too surprising, considering many of the uniforms were made by Hugo Boss.

Pictured: A real thing Hugo Boss did.

Of course, today, Nazi uniform aesthetics are inseparable from the human suffering doled out by their wearers. In most circles of civilized society, that's more than enough reason to avoid the garb in any and all fashion choices. But for some, that taboo isn't a hindrance at all–if anything, it's an added benefit.

As a result, we have Nazi chic, a fashion trend centered around the SS uniform and related Nazi imagery.

History of Nazi Chic

For the most part, Nazi chic is not characterized by Nazi sympathy. Rather, Nazi chic tends to be associated with counterculture movements that view the use of its taboo imagery as a form of shock value, and ironically, anti-authoritarianism.

The movement came to prominence in the British punk scene during the mid-1970s, with bands like the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees displaying swastikas on their attire alongside other provocative imagery.

Very rotten, Johnny.

Around this time, a film genre known as Nazisploitation also came to prominence amongst underground movie buffs. A subgenre of exploitation and sexploitation films, Naziploitation movies skewed towards D-grade fare, characterized by graphic sex scenes, violence, and gore. Plots typically surrounded female prisoners in concentration camps, subject to the sexual whims of evil SS officers, who eventually escaped and got their revenge. However, the most famous Nazisploitation film, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, flipped the genders.

The dorm room poster that will ensure you never get laid.

Ilsa was a female SS officer and the victims were men. She spent much of the movie wearing her Nazi uniform in various states, sexually abusing men all the while. As such, Ilsa played into dominatrix fantasies. The movie was a hit on the grindhouse circuit, inspiring multiple sequels and knock-offs and solidifying Nazi aesthetics as a part of the BDSM scene.

Since then, Nazi chic fashion has been employed by various artists, from Madonna to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, and has shown up in all sorts of places from leather clubs to character designs in video games and anime.

Lady Gaga looking SS-uper.

Nazi Chic in Asia

Nazi chic has taken on a life of its own in Asia. And unlike Western Nazi chic, which recognizes Nazism as taboo, Asian Nazi chic seems entirely detached from any underlying ideology.

A large part of this likely has to do with the way that Holocaust education differs across cultures. In the West, we learn about the Holocaust in the context of the Nazis committing horrific crimes against humanity that affected many of our own families. The Holocaust is presented as personal and closer to our current era than we might like to think. It is something we should "never forget." Whereas in Asia, where effects of the Holocaust weren't as prominent, it's simply another aspect of WWII which, in and of itself, was just another large war. In other words, Nazi regalia in Asia might be viewed as simply another historical military outfit, albeit a particularly stylish one.

In Japan, which was much more involved with WWII than any other Asian country, Nazi chic is usually (but not always) reserved for villainous representations.


That being said, J-Pop groups like Keyakizaka46 have publicly worn Nazi chic too, and the phenomena isn't limited to Japan.

In South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, Nazi imagery has shown up in various elements of youth culture, completely void of any moral context. For instance, in Indonesia, a Hitler-themed fried chicken restaurant opened in 2013. And in Korea, K-Pop groups like BTS and Pritz have been called out for propagating Nazi chic fashion. Usually such incidents are followed by public apologies, but the lack of historical understanding makes everything ring hollow.


So the question then: is Nazi chic a bad thing?

The answer is not so black and white.

On one hand, seeing Nazi chic on the fashion scene may dredge up painful memories for Holocaust survivors and those whose family histories were tainted. In this light, wearing Nazi-inspired garb, regardless of intent, seems disrespectful and antagonistic. Worse than that, it doesn't even seem like a slight against authority so much as a dig at actual victims of genocide.

But on the other hand, considering the fact that even the youngest people who were alive during WWII are edging 80, "forgetting the Holocaust" is a distinct possibility for younger generations. In that regard, perhaps anything that draws attention to what happened, even if it's simply through the lens of "this outfit should be seen as offensive," might not be entirely bad. This, compounded by the fact that Nazi chic is not commonly associated with actual Nazi or nationalistic sentiments, might be enough to sway some people–not necessarily to wear, like, or even appreciate its aesthetics, but rather to understand its place within counterculture.

Ultimately, one's views on Nazi chic likely come down to their own personal taste and sensibilities. For some, Nazi chic is just a style, an aesthetic preference for something that happens to be mired in historical horror. For others, the shadow of atrocity simply hangs too strong.


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