There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
Election, a 1999 political satire directed by Alexander Payne and co-written by Payne and Jim Taylor, adapting Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name. Set in an Omaha, Nebraska high school, the film stars Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, an energetic overachiever who irritates her smugly idealistic history teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) with her aggressive self-promotion.
“Mr. M” sees Tracy as emblematic of a strain of prissy privilege, deleterious to the great American experiment. Chris Klein plays affable, dim jock Paul Metzler, whom McAllister encourages to enter the race for class president against Flick. Jessica Campbell plays Paul’s lesbian sister Tammy, who becomes the spoiler. Election examines the simmering desperation of one middle-aged Middle American teacher, while also commenting on how even the least important political campaigns can devolve into shallow posturing and mudslinging.
Why watch now?
Because the Election-esque series The Politician is now available on Netflix.
Co-created by Glee producers Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk, and Ryan Murphy — a team that’s worked in various combinations on the TV series Scream Queens, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Pose, Popular, and Nip/Tuck, among others — The Politician stars Tony-winning Broadway actor Ben Blatt as Payton Hobart, an upper-class Santa Barbara teen hoping to use a high school election as a springboard toward his larger political goals. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Payton’s doting mother Georgina, while Zoey Deutch is Infinity Jackson, a sickly classmate Payton names as his running mate, to court a sympathy vote.
The Politician is the first project Ryan Murphy has produced under a lucrative multiyear deal with Netflix. Before the first season even went into production, it had been greenlit for season 2. On the continuum of Murphy’s shows, The Politician has more in common with Scream Queens and Glee than Pose or American Crime Story. The series comments on the superficiality of modern politics, but in a way that’s colorful and cartoonish, with a broadly comic take on privilege and popularity, not bogged down by wonky real-world details.
Election isn’t exactly a docudrama either, but while its characters are also comical (and rooted in stereotypes), the movie is predominantly about the daily grind of middle-class existence. Payne and Taylor let each of their main characters tell their part of the story via overlapping narration to illustrate the distance between their self-image and their actual behavior and also to mitigate the bitter undertones of McAllister and Flick’s voices with the relative sweetness of the Metzler siblings.
This story, though, is mainly about Mr. M, who teaches the same tedious facts every year, then goes home to his wife’s bland dinners and his secret stash of pornography. McAllister has a lot of options about morality and ethics, but his firmly held convictions don’t keep him from inviting his wife’s best friend to sleep with him — and at an American Family Inn, no less. Payne and Taylor are simultaneously empathetic toward and critical of a man who overestimates his own importance, interfering with a meaningless election in hopes of saving the world from Tracy Flick.
Broderick gives a wonderfully nebbishy performance, and the filmmakers do a fine job of using visual cues to define the smallness of his world — like the recurring image of his automatic seat belt, slowly wrapping tightly around his body every time he gets into his car.
Who it’s for
Political junkies and Reese Witherspoon fans.
Witherspoon had a strong start to her career, giving a handful of well-received performances when she was still in her teens and early 20s. Election showed off her knack for comedy and for playing larger-than-life, often unapologetically brash characters. Her ferocious Tracy (whose printed last name, “FLICK,” looks pointedly rude in certain typefaces) is a lonely soul with a megalomaniacal bent, for whom the American education system is less about accumulating knowledge and more about running up the score on her transcript.
Payne and Taylor, meanwhile, have fun mocking the drudgery of high school and the pointlessness of high school elections. Mr. M imagines the ritual as an exercise in democracy: it’s the freedom to choose between apples and oranges, he says, as he draws both fruits on a chalkboard as featureless circles. When Paul then astutely notes that his fondness for either apples or oranges varies depending on the day, that’s a funny, pointed metaphor for the fickleness of the American electorate.
Where to see it
Tubi and Vudu are both currently streaming Election for free (with commercials). It’s also worth seeking out Payne and Taylor’s 1996 debut feature, Citizen Ruth, which satirizes the abortion debate via the story of a wastrel (hilariously played by Laura Dern) who becomes a national cause célèbre after she gets pregnant. It’s not available through any of the subscription or ad-supported streaming services, but most digital retailers offer it to rent or buy.