When Muddy Waters recorded Forty Days and Forty Nights in the long-ago, he wasn’t thinking about a Canadian election. He was probably thinking of the Christian hymn of the same title. Or of the bible, which has multiple references to “40 days,” including Moses being on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights.
Well, in this neck of the woods we’ve had 40 days and nights of politicians blathering at us on a Biblical scale, plus play-acting and more high dudgeon and accusatory remarks than any decent Canadian can put up with. It’s just an election campaign, albeit an especially churlish one, and we should be grateful that it’s only 40 days. But every election raises a pertinent question: Who wants to be a politician?
Who are these people and what drives them? The end of an election campaign can make some people conclude that they’re all posturing charlatans desperate for approval or for power. A person might well be reminded of a quip from Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, “The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever becoming one.”
The Politician (streaming on Netflix) is fiction that takes the question seriously. Oh, it’s satirical, strange and wades into all sorts of personal and political shenanigans, but it’s about the most basic element of politics – getting elected that first time. All the tricks, the contrivances, the sales job and the honing of sincerity about myriad issues are tackled.
The series is the creation of Ryan Murphy (with his usual collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan) and his first for Netflix. Similar to his masterworks Glee, The People vs. O.J. Simpson and Feud, The Politician is cynical but canny about the faking of human emotions to construct a person and a larger societal narrative. It tends toward overstrung acid humour but is always focused on the mercurial gap between authenticity and practised phoniness.
It’s about a young man, Payton (Ben Platt, star of Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway) who has decided at the age of 7 that he wants to be president of the United States. Since that moment, everything in his young life is about achieving that. He’s perfectly sincere in his belief that the job is his destiny. He’s not aiming for fame and money or even power. He just wants the job.
Payton has to start somewhere on this journey. The start is running to become president of the student body at his posh school in Santa Barbara, Calif. (The idea behind Murphy’s series is that each season will feature an election process on the road to the presidential election.) And Payton is presented as a kind of floating-atom figure. That is, he’s rich and privileged, being the adopted son of a super-rich couple (played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Bob Balaban), but also separate from that privilege, in a way, by being the child of a waitress who gave him up for adoption. The thing about Payton is that he can speak passionately, emotionally, and with apparent sincerity, about his fitness for office. But he doesn’t actually feel anything that’s real.
The core of the show’s theme is presented in the first episode. Payton is lobbying to get into Harvard. A Harvard Dean tells him he’s a great candidate but he can’t see the “real” Payton. He asks him about the last time he cried. Payton says he cried at the end of the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. The Dean asks him if he cried because he was genuinely moved or if he felt he was supposed to cry at that moment. Payton doesn’t really have an answer.
There are scenes and episodes that grasp with unerring satiric zeal the construction of a political contender – there is a darkly hilarious sub-plot about choosing a running mate to validate Payton’s candidacy. And a running joke, about the ups and downs of the candidate’s popularity based on the whimsy of voters, never gets tired.
One of the strongest episodes is the fifth, which focuses almost entirely on a young man at Payton’s school who might be the last undecided voter. He’s a bit depressed, angry and not interested in much except video games and ogling young women. The frantic attempts to get his vote are both depressingly realistic and comically rueful. Everything is seen from the voter’s perspective and that’s where The Politician, as a series, comes close to being a work of genius.
What it says is that a person’s character is their fate, and that character can be faked in the political game. But the skeptical, uncommitted voter, faced with the sales-pitch from the phony, the sincere or the grasping, can often tell the difference between an ideological position and deep, personal belief. Often, but not always. Even after 40 days of a campaign, some voters will suddenly be aware that there is no valid answer to the question, “Who wants to be a politician?” It’s best to keep a skeptical scrutiny and satirical gaze on all of them.
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