Season two of Netflix’s “The Politician” belongs, like a Ralph Lauren cologne ad or a Nancy Meyers film, to the culturally confused yet well-worn aesthetic of WASPy Jewishness. And somehow, even after all the decades of Jews having country clubs and garden parties of their own, it still feels transgressive.
As Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), adopted son of a well-heeled family, graduates from a race for school president to an upstart candidacy for state senate in New York, he finds himself and his convictions. But developing the courage to be himself means acknowledging that from top to toe he is, as the show’s build-a-boy opening credits suggest, more product than person: A Jew raised by WASPs who can’t return from his initial code switch, even as those around him find purpose in his traditions.
Hobart’s ethnic dilemma is nothing new. In the show’s pilot, his adoptive mother, Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow), described the infant Hobart as a kind of changeling with “funny, dark Jewish hair.” He’s regarded as a black sheep by his sweater-mantled twin brothers and cold, crisis-prone father, Keaton (Bob Balaban), who is absent from this season, having forged a new path as an Orthodox Jew. Keaton is finally happy in his embrace of ritual, Georgina says, a notion that prompts the following exchange about political authenticity in Hobart’s campaign to unseat incumbent Senator Dede Standish (Judith Light):
“I’m this big bright star shining right next to the sun in broad daylight,” Hobart tells Georgina in episode one of the new season, lamenting that her madcap run for California governor on the platform of secession might pull focus. “I’ve tried everything.”
“You haven’t tried being yourself,” Georgina says. But, in fact, he has — the only way he knows how to.
From his chinos to his turtlenecks to his proposed policies, Hobart has curated his entire personality to be politically expedient: he’s slick and unnatural as a Kraft Singles slice. Having spent his entire life alienated from his family and the culture he was born into, he took on the default look and ideals of preppiness. Still, his background gains dimension with the series’ move from a southern California setting to one saturated with New York Yiddishkeit. When he is given chances to play his lapsed Jew card, he opts out. Needing the support of a rabbi, he agrees to go to Sukkot services, only to bail last minute citing “some shiksa waitress” who served him bread with gluten.
“Serves me right for being born Ashkenazi,” Hobart tells the rabbi over the phone. While recited as a joke, the line can be read as sincere, coming from someone whose life holds regular reminders of his differentness. His Ashkenazi origins appears to have given nothing more than baggage.
The suggestion looms that Hobart’s only covenant is with himself. He worships at the altar of political biographies and poll numbers. He won’t show up to shul — an instance of fibbing that leads to a breakup — and he won’t stump on his own Jewish past for fear it may expose him. Yet how Hobart emerged as a wholesale political animal, calibrated for electability, has everything to do with that backstory.
Born to a poor cocktail waitress, Hobart was brought up with his Jewishness tokenized by Georgina, who describes her ex’s new wife as a “lovely Jewess with a wig.” While Georgina dotes on him, her special treatment calls more attention to the ways in which he doesn’t quite fit.
His method of coping and seeking approval? Organizing his life around literal popularity contests, previously within his high school, and now at the state level. But in putting that approval above all else, it’s become the only thing that defines him save for his own humble — and never to be publicly acknowledged — past.
That biographical blank slate contrasts with the character of Standish’s riotously named chief of staff Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler), who, revels in her good Jewish girl from Paramus image while her boss speaks movingly of her single mother upbringing in Harlem. While Hobart is an unknown in New York, we never see him tell his story on the campaign trail, as he opts instead to identify as a eco-concerned Gen-Z everyman, a voice of a generation without a voice of his own.
The angst of his latest run for office is contrasted with Georgina’s parallel bid for governor of California, a vanity candidacy that she appears to have given little thought to. While Hobart is hyper aware of how he is perceived and plans his every move like a game of three-dimensional chess, his mother simply wings it with the self-assurance that only comes with a Mayflower pedigree. Try as he might, concerted as he is, Hobart’s faking it — and he knows it.
Yet what’s remarkable is that he really doesn’t need to. At every corner, the second season’s sharp writing indicates that a degree of assimilation has elevated certain Jews to a privileged strata that need have no identity politics at all. The characters attend a Broadway musical based on Studs Terkel’s lefty labor writing; a character is described as wearing “Gloria Steinem” glasses; everyone makes copious references to the oeuvre of Nancy Meyers; a secular political debate at the 92nd Street Y is a centerpiece of the campaign. The irony, and the cause of all of Hobart’s turmoil, is that he’s incapable of finding that same easy comfort, doomed to feel like an impostor while passing as a member of the elite. He had to leave his Jewishness behind to play the WASP. Now, it’s the only role he knows how to play.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at email@example.com