While reviews for Netflix’s new series The Politician are focussing on its star cast and exaggerated plot, there’s one aspect that deserves a lot more praise, says Alicia Lutes
The Politician – Netflix’s much-hyped new show starring Ben Platt, Lucy Boynton and Gwyneth Paltrow – is many things, but it is certainly not prudish about sex and identity. Ryan Murphy’s first series for the streaming behemoth sees him reuniting with his Glee co-creators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan to create a soapy, Gen-Z take on The West Wing set in a high school full of more drama than any musical put on at William McKinley High School.
One thing the series does not dramatise, however, is the myriad ways in which its characters are unapologetically sexually fluid and complex. And it’s all the better for it. Which is why it’s surprising more news outlets aren’t mentioning it as they review and critique the mad-cap series.
It would have been extremely easy for The Politician to continually pat itself on the back throughout its 8-episode run for the ways in which its characters simply exist in their own sexual nuances rather than dissect and insist on codifying them. We see this both with lead character Payton (Platt) and his adoptive mother, Georgina (Paltrow). Though Payton is in a relationship with Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), he also has strong feelings for River (David Corenswet), but never once is there a conversation about “So what does this mean? Are you gay or straight or bi or pan or …?” Payton can just exist, and his connections and intimate relationships with people don’t have to be analysed or questioned.
As can Alice, a cisgendered woman who carries on an affair with Payton’s best friend, played by trans actor Theo Germaine. That Germaine’s sexuality or gender are never once used as a plot point feels like a refreshing step forward in our society’s own acceptance of each other as more than our gender or what stereotypes we put on those, full stop.
The series truly shines in its normalisation and representation of sexual fluidity. Most of these characters are queer in some way, but it doesn’t become a bow-wrapped “Thing” or central focus of anyone’s journey during its first season (season two is already commissioned). ”Love is love is love”, as Lin-Manuel Miranda stated during his 2016 Tony Awards speech, and this series endears itself to audiences with a vision of the world not often seen on TV: one where people are not defined by their sexual preferences or interests or journey to discover “what it all means.” Because the series insists without insisting anything that attraction is a far more nuanced response in all of us than we’ve previously let it be, and we should all just accept it and move on.
It’s particularly delightful to see play out with the older characters, like Georgina, who – though in a largely loveless marriage of convenience – falls in love with her horse trainer, played by tennis legend Martina Navratilova, herself a pioneer and activist for the LGBTQ+ community. Throughout the series, Georgina makes plain that she has fallen for – or been the object of affection for – paramours of many genders, and none of it is there to scandalise or titillate. It’s just a fact of her life.
This may change in season two, as (look away now if you haven’t watched all of season one yet) the final episode finds actors Judith Light, Bette Midler, and Joe Morton introduced in order to reset the table in a way that feels sure to dive into these ideas further. Because Light’s Dede Standish (a beloved, longstanding local New York politician) and her husband (Morton) are in a thruple with another, younger man. Though played slightly for shock value in its revelation, how it will expand – in context to Payton and his friends’ own sexual fluidity – feels inevitably tied to the dissection of these norms. Will Payton use the knowledge of this relationship to ruin Dede’s career and further his own? Hypocrisy is often a cornerstone of campaigning, after all, and he’s more ambition than man when in politician mode. Season two seems primed for that discussion.
Labels can often be helpful for people, and are an important aspect of queer culture. Investigating them and letting people who identify with those labels tell their stories on the screen should be done more. But there’s also something that feels evolved in Murphy’s approach: to create a series that operates without any need to categorise, dissect, or label someone’s sexuality makes everything feel that much more human, inherent, and logical.
In some ways, it feels like queerness may actually be the norm, rather than the exception. Because if everything in our world exists on a spectrum, wouldn’t the capacity for love and attraction be all-encompassing? We’ve codified sex and gender and all of these intimate, nuanced parts of ourselves to coincide with what we feel is the “right” way to perform them, thanks to social cues and inferences that are human-made constructs and not necessarily inherent to our nature, just ingrained over millennia. But because we’ve existed within their confines for so long, it’s all we know and not something often questioned. We decided that human sexuality looks like this, and gender looks like this, and that is that.
The Politician, on the other hand, is not interested in all of that. It doesn’t need or want to point out the fact it’s showing and expressing sexuality in this way – it just allows these characters to exist in it as normal. These are the sort of things we humans –and especially young people – need to see. To show the shades of grey that are our existential reality. Too many assumptions are placed on people based on the way they present themselves in the world, in the context of what that presentation means to communities and society at large. If nothing else, The Politician is one of the first series to really push us to look at these things in a radically normal new light.