First there was Popular, a teen drama in the 90s, then there was Nip/Tuck, then a return to teen drama with Glee. Then he wanted to do horror with the anthology American Horror Story, which bred American Crime Story and Feud. There was Scream Queens, a mash of Glee’s comedy and American Horror Story’s scary moments. Then there’s Pose, a drama of New York City in the 1980’s ballroom scene, which was the predecessor to The Politician. Ryan Murphy’s new show, and his first on Netflix, once again combines the teen drama of Glee, a blend of Scream Queens camp and the anthology of his three most critically acclaimed shows. But like most of Murphy’s creation, it loses steam early on, but not so much that it’s an easy 8-episode watch.
The Politician tells the story of Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a young, ambitious, privileged boy who wants to be President of the USA and is fast approaching his first step in his political career – running for student body captain in his senior school. And from the outset he’s got it all: a team of dedicated political masterminds, a beautiful girlfriend who is first-lady-in-waiting, wealthy parents with influence and on track to be new School Captain. But he’s also troubled with his closeted sexuality and being himself in a world of people who aren’t as committed and highly strung.
A lot happens in the Pilot, including an unexpected suicide scene that doesn’t have the emotional deft it could have had later in the show. But again, this is Payton’s world and everyone only lives in it, and this ghost continues to follow him and becomes a Manic Pixie Dream Thing to help him grasp his emotions. In fact the audience is reminded time and time again that Payton doesn’t feel like other people and that he’s acting through his life. It’s a worthy motif to consider, but it doesn’t amount to much but another trait of an increasingly frustrating character.
It’s, as everything Murphy does, an over-exaggeration, a far cry from the trampled How To Votes and non-event of school elections that the average viewer might still remember from their high school (if they even had one). There’s no doubt it’s Election on steroids. But that’s what makes it so fun. It brings the drama of office elections, one which is obviously still in the consciousness of the American people, and the pettiness of high school students, this of which are spoilt, wealthy teens with too much money and time on their hands.
Payton’s homosexuality is another sticking point. The Politician never says why he can’t come out, though it suggests because it’s not part of his wider political narrative. But equally it doesn’t seem to care about breaking this mould either. Why couldn’t he be gay and still run for high office? What about Pete Buttigieg? What does this new narrative look like? Instead we are given the story of a man repressing his sexuality, no doubt based on the life of a few current politicians – not really groundbreaking.
The best part of the season is the ending, when Payton finally has the opposition to break free of his own narrative, but unfortunately Murphy gets the better of himself with a neatly tied bow that sees characters come together for precisely no reason and it’s like everything that came before didn’t matter. I felt it ended like the first dish of a degustation. This is just Murphy’s preview, and you know the next season is where the real fun begins.
On the acting front, Ben Platt is good, playing an insufferable character with a bit of charisma so you still root for him. His henchmen McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), James (Theo Germaine) and Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) are scene stealers, his Scream Queen’s Chanels if you will, who are dedicated to him and quip sharp lines one after the other. You find yourself wanting more scenes with them. Lucy Boynton is also as good as her role lets her, as Astrid, Payton’s nemesis. Gwyneth Paltrow and Bob Balaban are both superb as Payton’s parents, really grounding the show from the teen drama elsewhere. Strangely enough is the casting of Zoey Deutch and Jessica Lange as Infinity and Dusty Jackson, respectively, as characters who should have been written out of the show entirely. Mimicking the actions of Dee Dee Blanchard and Gypsy Rose, it’s a storyline that could have been left behind and greatly depreciates the show as a witty comedy. Never mind asking why these two brilliant actresses took these roles, no doubt a deal with the devil aka Murphy in return for too many scenes that are unnecessary.
I don’t know what the point of The Politician is. Rich kids fighting over nothing at school? A boy on the spectrum with ambitious ideas and no humility? The emptiness of politics as a whole? Part of me thinks it doesn’t matter as Murphy has already planned a multi-season arc that ends with a presidential election. It’s a beautiful production with too many ideas that doesn’t explore them all as well as they could. It’s just another rote learned show by the Murphy factory and I can feel season two coming as a Feud/The Politician crossover with bigger drama and competing public figures. It’s been done and done before. If only Murphy could get out of his own head.
It’s a campy soap with ridiculous characters and moments to keep you watching. There are times it swerves into a great idea, but is never fully realised. If you loved any of Murphy’s previous stuff, this is likely to entertain you enough for 8 episodes.
No new Murphy converts will be found with this one. The Infinity/Dusty storyline was a joke gone too far and the end shows that character development isn’t always front and mind for writers when writing long-running series.
Originally published on Back Row, 20 October 2019.