When Netflix signed a mammoth production deal with Ryan Murphy, one natural question was: Which one of him would they get? The big-hearted storyteller of ‘Pose’? The gore-splashing fabulist of ‘American Horror Story’ and ‘9-1-1’? The drawn-from-life dramatist of ‘Feud’ and ‘American Crime Story’?
Judging by Murphy’s teeming to-do list — series about Andy Warhol and Marlene Dietrich, a film of ‘The Boys in the Band,’ documentaries — they’re apt to get all of those and then some.
But what they got first was ‘The Politician,’ out now, which recalls the Ryan Murphy of ‘Glee.’ Like that high school musical, to which ‘The Politician’ is the jaded richer sibling, it’s an acerbic Technicolor sketch of The Way Teens Live Now that gets lost in its hairpin story turns.
‘The Politician’ is not a musical, though it stars Ben Platt (‘Dear Evan Hansen’) as the electorally ambitious teen Payton Hobart and is sensible enough to give him the occasional excuse to sing. But like ‘Glee,’ (“Nowadays, being anonymous is worse than being poor”), it opens with a clear thesis statement. “People like to think of their presidents as characters we see on TV,” Payton says.
Payton, ambitious and tightly wound, has his character arc meticulously planned: Become student body president of his palatial private school in Santa Barbara, California, attend Harvard, yada yada yada, serve two terms in the White House. First, that means defeating River (David Corenswet), a friend turned intimate rival; negotiating the politics — sexual, racial and otherwise — of his privileged peers; and confronting the possibility that he may just be a sociopath.
Murphy, working again with his ‘Glee’ partners, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, has always made first-class pilots. ‘The Politician’ pops off the screen immediately; it’s sumptuously appointed in production values and cast. (Gwyneth Paltrow plays Payton’s nurturing adoptive mom, whose portrayal of a billionaire earth mother seems to play wryly off Paltrow’s own wellness-entrepreneur career. Bette Midler and Judith Light materialise late in the season.)
Like ‘Glee’ and last year’s ill-fated adaptation of ‘Heathers,’ the series plays fast and cheeky with identity issues. Payton and his rivals — for the most part, rich and white — cynically play the diversity card. Payton’s advisers push him to choose a “differently abled” running mate. He settles on Infinity (Zoey Deutch), a working-class student, whose exploitative grandmother (Jessica Lange) oversees her cancer treatments in a storyline not a little reminiscent of Hulu’s ‘The Act.’
As a production, ‘The Politician’ is an heirloom apple: crisp, tart and expensive looking. But something feels unconvincing in the details, and not just because many of the actors seem to have aged out of high school years ago. The students still receive college notices by envelope and not by email. The pop culture references include Britney Spears. The student body election has more constant and granular polling than the current Democratic primary.
More important, the show’s send-up of elections as bloodless, staged theatre, run by overprepared, bland candidates scripted within an inch of their young lives, feels quaint at a time when national politics has become a chaotic non sequitur production of ‘Last Insult Comic Standing.’ (The barest reference to our current situation comes in the title sequence, in which a row of presidential biographies follows ‘Barack Obama’ with ‘Idiot’s Guide to Clowning.’)
Of course, that’s if you take ‘The Politician’ as a satire of politics, which in the end it may not be. What it captures most evocatively and viciously is the culture of overstressed, Ivy-besotted student achievers and dumb money.
Some of its teens are arrogant and cosseted by riches; in an age of college admissions cheating scandals, they can afford to buy their way in the old-fashioned way. Others, surrounded by the evidence of a mind-boggling wealth gap, are so determined to land on the right side of it that they burn out before they have a chance to glow.
Payton wants an assured path to his future, and the unpredictability of reality stresses him so hard he practically hums. We find him unwinding by watching episodes of ‘Dr Pimple Popper’ because, he says: “I just like that it has a really clear narrative. Bad things are excised, happy ending every time.”
Platt almost sells it. His arc as an anxious teen getting in over his head from the desire to make the world love him so resembles his most famous role, you could call this ‘Vote Evan Hansen.’
But ‘The Politician’ seems to grow quickly bored with itself, shifting tones and adding so many twists it starts to feel like improv. It asks you to take its characters seriously while pitching them into caricature. The plot moves constantly, but it doesn’t really advance. By the last episode of the eight-episode season, which upends and resets itself for season two, I was less certain what this show is about than when I started watching it.
For all the confusion, there are plenty of ideas here. Often there seems to be nothing but ideas, raised and dispensed with, elbowing aside character, emotional momentum and story coherence.
The series has enough wit and visual style, though, that it’s a pleasure to watch in the moment — just as long as you don’t think beyond the moment. ‘The Politician’ is a bright and talented student of a show, eager to pad out its resume with extracurriculars. It, and its audience, might be happier if it finds its focus.
Don’t miss it!
‘The Politician’ is now streaming on Netflix.