We live in a scary political climate, so we get that a show titled The Politician might not sound like the type of TV you turn to after a long day. However, the new Netflix original is less Brexit mayhem, more Glee-esque drama, with a view to teach you some valuable lessons about society…
There’s something powerful about watching shows that hold up a mirror to society. Shows that drench you in a feeling of familiarity despite never being there, experiencing that or meeting them. It can be confronting, but it’s essential to taking on new ideas, opinions and empathy.
The Politician, Netflix’s new high school-based drama, manages to place that uncomfortable awareness within a playful bundle of joy. Produced by the brains behind Glee (Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan), the series has shades of the same heightened sense of drama. But given the times we are living in, the overly emotional politics feels scarily close to home.
So, you know it’s good. But what is it? The plot follows Payton, an overly ambitious student who dreams of being President one day. To get there, he truly believes he has to win the preliminary role of student body president at his Santa Barbara High School. It’s Californian glamour meets Washington grit meets your teenage years. And it’s a microcosm of our world.
Not so long ago, TV was divided into teenage shows and adult shows. If you wanted to be a serious adult, you didn’t watch anything based in a sixth form. But over the past year, we’ve seen teenagers become the canvas for important storytelling. The Politician follows in the footsteps of Netflix alumni Sex Education and Sky’s Euphoria by putting young people centre stage – and the timing isn’t accidental. Real life Gen Z are currently taking charge to shape and create the world they want to live in, from Greta Thunberg’s protest for climate change to the Girl Guides’ pact for better representation and mental health.
While yes, we laugh at some of the melodrama only high schoolers could face (the whole show is based on a very out of proportion experience of a student election, after all), we see these characters deal with mental health, death and money and watch them figuring out the world and themselves.
For lack of a better word, it’s a journey – and we’ve all been on it.
By giving time to the voices of young people, even in fiction, it gives weight to their experiences. That means the rest of us have our feelings justified, and even more importantly it means that when teenagers like Thunberg stick their head above the parapet, they have a better chance of being taken seriously.
Politics and power
“Your ambition frightens me,” Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow) tells her son, Payton, as he declares his need to become president. And the lack of recognition when things go too far is terrifying. There’s no such thing as too much determination, too much success, in the lives of Saint Sebastian High pupils, meaning they will destroy anything that gets in their way. That ranges from using terminal illness to establish and utilise social power to create the life you desire à la Infinity (Zoey Deutch), to Payton’s twin brother’s desire for money regardless if it means he also has to confront death and loneliness.
Does this burning need for power remind you of anything? Because to me it’s scarily reminiscent of today’s political landscape: Boris shutting down parliament to get Brexit through. Trump asking Ukraine for help to boost his political power.
It is clear that these characters have been raised in a privileged world in which success equals power and power is attained through corruption. The point of showing that within the suspended setting of a high school makes it less painful but shockingly reflective all the same.
Identity and social media
Here’s the thing: we know that social media is a lie, yet we all still spend so much time curating our lives on it in order to appear as who we want to be. More often than not, people believe us, too. But the fake authentic self we produce means we now have standards to live up to, and no one can see us sweat.
Astrid (Lucy Boynton) becomes a caricature of herself as she tries to be tough and impressive at all times. When her boyfriend questions her performance in the bedroom, she tells him that she will try to “act more authentic”, an oxymoron of the finest sorts. For Payton, it’s about being a put-together, trusted leader. No one must know that his dad is in hospital, that his mum is considering divorce, that he is struggling with his sexuality. Instead, he posts pictures posing as a do-gooder and standing on a stage, offering words of condolences, when he is the one who needs consoling.
The tension comes from wanting to be authentically curated: how can you make people think you’re perfect, but also be real? No other TV show deals with such a niche reality in the same way, because it is a feeling most of us face yet can’t articulate. Watching it in their lives doesn’t just highlight the ridiculousness of it all, but does make you question whether the people we know are the true version of themselves or just the true version of the person they’ve invented.
Representation and diversity
There’s a lot to say about representation. White privilege is parodied while wokeness is shown as a political checkbox rather than genuine desire. Sexuality is fluid in a way that represents the conversations of today but is rarely shown in the media. And, while women are empowered, it’s clear that they face shackles – like Georgina’s inability to leave her marriage, or Payton’s girlfriend sacrificing their relationship for his career.
The Politician has become a Stop. Look. Listen show. One that is hilarious, gripping post-work viewing, but leaves you with questions, confusion and, sometimes, cynicism about the world we live in. A little microcosm of today’s world inside the showy, glamorous lives of Californian teenagers.
The Politician is now available to stream on Netflix.