Ryan Murphy's The Politician struggles to stay on message
In the opening credits of The Politician, we watch as a series of items — anxiety pills, debate team medals, a stack of presidential biographies, a participation trophy — are placed into wooden compartments. The boxes are then revealed to be inside a life-sized statue of a man, which then transforms into the titular striver, a clean-cut young man and aspiring student body president named Payton Hobart (Ben Platt).
The sequence perfectly encapsulates the eight-episode dramedy, the first fruits of Netflix’s multi-million-dollar deal with Ryan Murphy, who co-created the show along with Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. But as The Politician wrestles with its central question — is Payton a man or a construct? — it struggles to keep its own ideas contained, and the result sometimes feels more like a junk drawer cluttered with the creative detritus of Murphy’s mind.
Ever since he was 7 years old, Payton Hobart wanted to be president. Now a senior at Santa Barbara’s posh St. Sebastian High, he’s certain his path to the White House begins with a term as student body president. And in the world of The Politician, it does: This is a reality where teenagers make each other sign non-disclosure agreements over past indiscretions and say things like “This isn’t your ‘I didn’t inhale,’ it’s your Chappaquiddick.” With the help of help of his ruthless political operatives James (Theo Germaine), a master data cruncher, and McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), a canny campaign strategist, Payton seems to have the election in hand — until his opponent, the handsome and popular River (David Corenswet) exits the race unexpectedly. River’s girlfriend Astrid (Lucy Boynton), who also happens to be Payton’s nemesis, announces she’s running in his place.
The Politician suffers from a combination of Netflix bloat and Murphy’s own tendency to overreach for the hell of it. The first few episodes are focused, offering an arch and amusing satire of our corrupt political system and the predictability of liberal guilt: Payton enlists the lower-middle-class, cancer-stricken student Infinity (Zoey Deutch) as his running mate in hopes that she’ll make him seem more “authentic,” while River counters by recruiting a gender non-conforming African-American named Skye (Rahne Jones) as his veep. The campaigns scramble to dig up dirt on each other — Infinity’s grandmother, the manipulative Dusty Jackson (Jessica Lange), has a secret that looms large — and pander with impunity. (Payton buys up all the guns at a local firearms store and has them melted down so a student artist can create “an abstract art piece about America’s gun-violence epidemic.”)
But scattered subplots abound: Astrid explores her rich-girl isolation during a kidnapping scandal involving Infinity’s dimwitted boyfriend Ricardo (Benjamin Barrett); Ricardo also gets duped by Dusty into a scheme to take Payton down; Payton plays the role of John Hinkley in the school’s production of Assassins. (That’s one of many ways The Politician contrives to allow the Tony-winning Platt to sing, even though it doesn’t quite make sense for his character.)
The Politician tells us time and again that Payton is an extraordinary individual. “You are the front man of my favorite rock band. You are the star of my favorite movie,” gushes Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), his loyal girlfriend and presumptive First Lady. “You are my king of kings.” But Payton is also quite clearly a mess, consumed by internal pressures and despondent over River, with whom he had a secret love affair. Platt, a natural and nuanced actor, is excellent at pulling off the cyclone of turmoil swirling under Payton’s polished exterior, but he simply isn’t convincing as a charismatic leader who would inspire such slavish devotion.
For a show about high schoolers, it’s the adults who seem to be having the most fun. Dylan McDermott and January Jones trade icy barbs as Theo and Lizbeth Sloan, Astrid’s flippantly cruel parents, while Lange, sporting off-the-shoulder sweaters and teased blonde hair, is thoroughly enjoyable as another one of Murphy’s brassy, tippling dames. Gwyneth Paltrow gives a captivating and slyly funny performance as Payton’s mother Georgina, a woo-woo artist and philanthropist whose affair with a horse trainer named Brigette (played by tennis legend/master of deadpan Martina Navratilova) threatens her son’s future.
With all of this said, it is absolutely maddening to report that the finale sets up a season 2 that looks utterly fantastic. Out of nowhere we’re introduced to New York politician Dede Standish (Judith Light) and her chief of staff, Hadasa Gold (Bette Midler). It’s a spoiler to say how their storyline intersects with Payton’s, but after one episode of watching these stellar actresses exchanging fast-paced banter with effortless panache, I desperately wanted more. Surely Netflix can give Murphy one more season for this high-concept oddity, if only so Light and Midler have the chance to make The Politician great again. B-
The Politician premieres Friday, Sept. 27 on Netflix