Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan
Starring Ben Platt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange
One of the thrills of watching anything by Ryan Murphy is waiting to see if what you’re watching will go off the rails. Murphy swings for the fences not with the objective of hitting the fence, but because he knows it’s expected of him. These go-for-broke impulses are most in evidence when he stages the attention deficit disorder-plotting of Glee, the Grand Guignol gorefests of American Horror Story or the overcooked horror-comedy of Scream Queens, but they’re also bubbling under the surface in the Grande Dame theatrics of Feud. The odd thing is, Murphy is capable of tenderness and introspection too, but he needs co-creators with strong viewpoints or the strictures of recent history to rein him in. (Witness Murphy the passionate and respectful LGBTQ advocate of Pose, or the keenly focused social commentariat in American Crime Story.)
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Murphy is back swinging for the fences again in the first offering of the multimillion-dollar pact he signed with Netflix, an eight-episode satire titled The Politician. Ben Platt stars as Payton Hobart, the kind of ambitious, A-type teenager first resurrected for the 21st century by Reese Witherspoon in Election and brought to overripe fruition by Lea Michele in Glee. Payton has nothing less than the presidency of the United States in his sights, and he’s formulated the perfect narrative for himself to get there: Become student body president of his Southern California high school at senior year, go to Harvard for college, get elected into public service posts and follow the circuitous path through the thickets of Washington all the way to a two-term stay at the White House. (Payton has studied the lives of recent American presidents; in the metaphorical opening credit sequence scored to Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago”, a tchotchke-filled mannequin of Payton is sculpted before it is brought to life, and among the mementos are presidential biographies from Ronald Reagan on down, with Barack Obama’s followed by a tome titled “The Idiot’s Guide to Clowning”.)
The Politician seems to have been conceived to follow Payton as he ascends to his goal, with each season a chapter in that ascendancy. When we first see Payton, he is sitting down to a Harvard interview where he declares the show’s thesis statement: “People like to think of their presidents as characters we see on TV.” And everything Payton does to win his high school election reflects that cynical worldview, up to and including picking a running mate in Infinity Jackson (Set It Up’s Zoey Deutch), a student in a chemo do-rag recruited to win sympathy votes, but whose malady might be less real and more manufactured by her countrified grandmother Dusty (Murphy stalwart Jessica Lange).
Payton is surrounded by a bevy of loyal advisers who, in trademark Murphy fashion, seems plucked out of a sexual diversity demographic study. There’s non-binary pollster James (Theo Germaine), sexually experimenting strategist McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), and Payton’s cold, shockingly blonde girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), who wears a top-buttoned cardigan and string of pearls as if she’s auditioning for the role of First Lady. In a blatant callback to Alexander Payne’s Election, Payton is running against popular jock/secretly sensitive hunk River (David Corenswet) who, again in trademark Murphy fashion, is revealed to be an ex-lover of Payton’s. A twist midway through the pilot—no spoilers here—will render this competition irrelevant.
The twists are a major problem in The Politician: The show has around three or four plots chugging, each with a mandatory surprise per episode. The cumulative effect is that the characterization often gets lost in the story’s precipitous turns. James, McAfee and Alice are so engrossed in their Machiavellian schemes (and the unintended blowback) that they never stop and explain to the viewer why they’re so loyal to such a highly strung dickwad like Payton. They often tell voters that Payton wants to make a difference, but the plotting gives us rare evidence of this. Other characters, meanwhile, seem to exist only to give testimony to Payton’s submerged humanity, most notably Gwyneth Paltrow’s Georgina, Payton’s adoptive parent whose earth mother sensibilities seem to be a satirical riff on her entrepreneurial Goop persona. But, as with all the other frantic subplots in The Politician, Payton’s unambiguously close relationship to his non-biological mom and drama with his bullying siblings (twins Trevor and Trey Eason) only serve to underline what a budding sociopath he is.
The Politician also burns through so much plot, not because there’s a lot of story to tell, but because the show seems to get bored with certain narrative elements and wants to try new things out. After spending so much time securing his political aspirations, Peyton follows some spectral (don’t ask) advice and tries his hand at musical theater. (Because you don’t hire a Tony Award-winning performer like Ben Platt and not have him sing, right?) And then the writers drop this thread so they can have Payton be the object of two (!) assassination attempts, which in turn sets the stage for a plot reversal and a season-ending episode that upends the whole show and resets it for a presumed second outing.
If you can hold on through the show’s hairpin curves, you’ll eventually come to a refreshing non sequitur installment in the fifth episode, titled “The Voter”, which follows a disaffected, undecided voter (the hilarious Russell Posner) as he gets pestered by the dueling campaigns. And then there is the eighth and ultimate episode, which situates our players three years into the future where they are pitted against a real-world politician (Judith Light) with a doozy of a skeleton in her closet and a formidable chief of staff (the always welcome Bette Midler). But again, you’ll have to sit through improbable twists, head-scratching casting (almost everyone in the “teenaged” cast looks like they graduated from high school a decade ago), dubious alliances (why would you be friends with someone who you have reasonable grounds to suspect poisoned you?) and questionable motives (why would you put a wedding on hold for someone who dumped you?) to get to the promise of a humdinger second season. Ultimately, The Politician indulges Murphy’s worst impulses as a stager of spectacle…but you can sign me up for a season two.
Photographs from IMDB