TV review: The Politician – Season 2

Payton Hobart is back.

Having licked his wounds after the bruising San Sebastian High School presidential battle, the ruthlessly ambitious Hobart (Ben Platt) now sets his sights on one of New York’s State senate seats for what will be his first real grownup political campaign. Incumbent State senator Dede Standish (Judith Light) initially seems secure, but her re-election campaign is soon threatened by rumours of the middle-aged veteran politician’s “throuple” polyamorous relationship with both her husband and boyfriend.

Hobart, now supported by most of his allies and a few rivals from his earlier campaign, soon appears to be making headway, despite the potential risk of exposure over his own three-way relationship with his girlfriend, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and his former rival, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton). Ruthlessly exploiting the environment issue in a bid to establish a foothold among younger voters, Hobart soon becomes engaged in a protracted dirty tricks campaign waged against and also by, his more experienced political opponent, Standish.

More sustained than the first season which began promising much, but imploded fairly quickly, The Politician – Season 2 is enlivened by an enjoyable turn by Bette Midler as Standish’s passionate campaign manager. Hadassah Gold. Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), one of the most memorable characters in the first season is back too (although doesn’t do a lot), while Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Hobart’s mother, herself engaged in a somewhat far-fetched campaign to become Governor of California driven by a plan to lead the state out of the USA entirely.

While Season 1 was almost wrecked completely by the terrible sixth episode The Voter, the sixth episode here (The Voters) deploys similar tactics to look at a mother and daughter’s separate experiences of Election Day. Thankfully, this time, it works. While as its Season 1 equivalent was derailed by its determination to show the unusual vices of its drug, sex and violence-obsessed subject, this time the tensions between the two more rounded characters provide us with a more valuable insight into the generational battles surrounding the campaign.

Ben Platt is good as before as the charismatic, scheming Payton Hobart, a sort of younger, better looking Richard Nixon for the 21st century. No less self-serving and paranoid than the disgraced 37th US president, Pitch Perfect’s Platt’s potential president is certainly a better singer than Nixon ever was and slightly better on the piano.

A fine series then, if perhaps not a great one. Not quite a full Obama but better than a Ford, this is a welcome escape from the real life horrors of the Trump era.

And the title sequence is still great.

TV review: Spooks Series 1 (2002)

Spooks first appeared amidst a blaze of publicity on BBC One in April 2002. Promoted with the catchy slogan, “It’s M-I5, not 9 to 5,” the show was an instant success and with it’s exciting, edgy story-lines and watchable performances, it’s not hard to see why. Eighteen years on, it’s three original stars, Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo are all still a regular presence on our screens . Macfadyen, who married his co-star Keeley Hawes in 2004, was indeed, briefly seen as the favourite to succeed Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, before Daniel Craig got the part instead.

Spooks introduces us to the world of spies. In the US, where the word ‘Spooks’ is sometimes used as a racial insult, the show was simply called ‘M-I5.’ Although nobody ever actually says, “it’s M-15, not 9 to 5″ in the show, this phrase aptly sums up the central dilemma experienced by Tom Quinn (Macfadyen) as he tries to juggle his demanding but secret career with his developing relationship with single mother Ellie (Esther Hall) and her young daughter. Quinn is initially known to the family as ‘Matthew,” of course, the actor’s actual first name.

Broadcast only a few months after the 2001 September 11th attacks, these first six episodes appeared at a time of heightened tension with story-lines including a bomb attack in Britain by a Far Right US anti-abortion group, a siege at the Turkish consulate by Kurdish rebels, some shenanigans involving the late Tim Pigott-Smith as a Jonathan Aitken-like disgraced minister and Anthony Head playing a veteran M- I5 agent who goes rogue while attempting to infiltrate a group planning to disrupt a visit to Britain by unpopular US President George W. Bush.

Veteran actress Jenny Agutter (now also known for Call The Midwife) also appears as does Hugh Laurie in a role which bridges the gap between the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster comedy roles he was then best known for and the more serious parts in House MD and The Night Manager which lay ahead of him. Future celebrity chef Lisa Faulkner also makes a flash in the pan appearance as agent Helen Flynn.

Much of the technology in the early days of Spooks now seems almost laughably dated with the characters relying heavily on CD-ROM discs, old-fashioned looking mobile phones and very slow downloads in a number of scenes. Macfadyen recently starred in Quiz, a dramatisation of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire cheating scandal and ironically the title sequence and music to Spooks, while presumably seen as flashy and hi-tech at the time, now feel very much like that of a daytime quiz show.

That is not to say Spooks – Series One is only now entertaining for its unintentional comedy value. Far from it. With this and all nine subsequent series now available on the BBC iPlayer (the show ended in 2011, later spawning a moderately successful film version Spooks: The Greater Good in 2015), this is the perfect opportunity to enjoy or enjoy again the opening episodes of a long-running British spy series which essentially got off to an excellent start.

Begin your own surveillance campaign immediately.

TV review: The Stranger

2020. Available on Netflix.

Seemingly happily married with a nice house and two children, Adam Price (Richard Armitage) has a good life. Or at least, he thinks he does. That’s until ‘the stranger’ (Hannah John-Kamen) turns up.

One day, while he’s watching one of his kids play football, a young woman in a baseball cap approaches him and starts to make troubling and damaging accusations about his wife (Dervla Kirwan). Upsetting though this is, the stranger’s allegations cannot be easily dismissed. She clearly has insider knowledge and her claims seem to have the ring of truth about them. What should Adam do?

This is just the starting point for Netflix’s British-set crime drama, The Stranger which is based on US author Harlan Coben’s 2015 novel. And while never hard to follow, there’s a lot going on in this intensely plotted, incredibly gripping thriller.

Coben isn’t Albert Camus but his story certainly raises lots of interesting questions. Should Adam confront his wife or leave things be? Who is the stranger anyway? How does she know so much? Is she a force for good or evil? Does Adam have any skeletons in his own closet? Furthermore, what exactly happened at the wild teenage party Adam’s son attended? Why did a teenage boy end up running naked through the woods? Can Adam save ex-cop Stephen Rea’s house from destruction? And, most bizarre of all, why did someone decapitate an alpaca in the street?

Totally compelling from beginning to end, The Stranger also features a rare straight role for Jennifer Saunders.

TV review: The Politician – Season 1

Payton Hobart really wants to be president. He really, really wants it, in fact. He seems to have planned out every detail of his two terms in the White House already. And he is only seventeen years old. He seems to the living example of why anyone who wants to be president enough to successfully go through the process of being successfully elected is probably precisely the wrong person to be doing the job.

Netflix’s new comedy drama begins with Peyton (Ben Platt) launching his campaign for election to the position of student body president of his Santa Barbara high school. This proves to be a surprisingly big deal fought with almost all of the intensity of the actual presidential elections, Hobart imagines one day fighting himself. Indeed, that’s the plan for the series too: future seasons of The Politician aim to focus on different political campaigns occurring throughout Peyton’s life. The brilliant opening title sequence (which uses the excellent 2005 song, Chicago, by Sufjan Stevens) depicts Peyton the politician being created by a Frankenstein-like process of alchemy, before offering his hand to greet the viewer.

The opening episodes of Ryan Murphy’s series are very twisty and bubble over with exciting story possibilities. Imagine Tracy Flick (Reece Witherspoon) in 1999’s film Election magnified by ten. Peyton is slick and like Kennedy, Bush and Trump before him has been born rich. He seems to inspire a phenomenal amount of loyalty in both his girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and his campaign team (played by Laura Dreyfuss and Theo Germaine). But he also seems erratic and clearly has skeletons in his cupboard. What is his exact relationship with his handsome rival, River (David Corenswet)? Are they gay or bisexual?  In fact, this probably isn’t a problem: everyone seems to be bisexual here. The whole thing is a bit like a 1980s Bret Easton Ellis novel at times.

There are other intriguing elements notably potential running mate, Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch: daughter of Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson), an apparently sweet-natured character dominated by her horrendous, gold-digging grandmother (an excellent Jessica Lange). Peyton himself is dominated by his own bohemian Lady MacBeth-like mother (Gwyneth Paltrow, another Oscar winner, like Lange and also great here). River’s girlfriend, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton) also seems like a potentially interesting character, at least at first. The fine actor Bob Balaban also gets a high billing here as Peyton’s step-dad, but is barely in it.

Sadly, like a morally bankrupt politician, the series does not live up to its early promise. Perhaps that’s the problem with planning several seasons in advance like this: the creators seem to have lost interest in this story and started setting up the next series a few episodes before the end. The election story-line fizzles out. The mid-season episode, ‘The Voter’ depicts an apathetic student totally ignoring the election day events occurring around him. This is an interesting idea which might have provided a fresh new perspective on events: not everyone at Peyton’s school (or in society generally) is obsessed with politics, after all. But the voter (played by Russell Posner) is clearly anything but typical. He is far more drug-obsessed, girl-obsessed (a point over emphasised with far too many shots of him checking girls out) and violent than anyone around him. The episode is a complete dud.

Despite these flaws and too many irrelevant musical interludes from the talented Platt, however, The Politician is still well-acted and compelling enough to make it worth viewing. But as Peyton himself is once cruelly described, this is more Gerald Ford than Barack Obama.

The Politician is on Netflix now.