In the introduction of The Politician, Sufjan Stevens' “Chicago” hums over a montage of a wooden body being constructed. That’s a key word—constructed. The body is wooden and hollowed out, a Trojan horse containing the refuse of a privileged, hyper–ambitious life. There’s a purple heart curdling in a vat of steaming black sludge. There are books—biographies of presidents, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” And eventually, after the body is sewn into a bespoke, jewel–toned suit, we see our main character.
The show starts after a cold open of Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) in a stilted Harvard interview, wearing a blue suit in contrast to the title sequence's purple one. It then cuts to manic–pixie–dream–boy River (a dimpled David Corenswet) and his ice–queen girlfriend Astrid (a delightfully restrained Lucy Boynton). She’s reassuring him that she will “do better at appearing more authentic from now on.” He thinks of authenticity as paramount; she can’t see the difference between appearing to be something and actually being it.
Though the show pairs him with dreamboat River, Payton is Astrid’s natural counterpart in this authenticity crisis. He, too, can’t decide if pretending to feel something and feeling it are any different. His identity as "a winner" is not so much borne from identity as it is action. You get the sense that he’s never lost.
The Politician is a show about authenticity, a look at Ryan Murphy’s first foray into Netflix (though it was produced in partnership with Fox21 and not as a Netflix exclusive), and the dollars and creative freedom that brings. Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, the team behind Glee and Scream Queens, executive produce. And The Politician takes on some of the DNA of its predecessors—young adults in schools that vaguely resemble reality, only with more singing and higher stakes.
It’s daring in some ways and a hot mess in others, but it really shines when it's dealing with emotions and repressions, not trying to convince us to care about a high school presidential election. And even though some of the characterization leans on caricature, it's a promising start for a satirical show that, at its core, is so sweet it's almost painful.
The treatment of feeling and the attempts to parse authentic and pretended emotion come to a head quickly in the first episode. River, the only character who seems to never have an ulterior motive, dies by suicide. In the series’ seventh episode, we learn why: he just feels too much.
There are quite a few scenes of Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow), Payton’s mother, worrying about her son's capacity to feel. “Your ambition frightens me,” she whispers, as Platt angles his face in the crook of her elbow.
But it's hard to see where she's coming from, because emotion writes itself across Platt’s face. He’s a vulnerable performer, sure, but it’s clear that Payton feels everything, deeply, and tries to dam his emotions. His repression is the most interesting emotional thread in the show. The question becomes less about whether he has feelings and more about if he’ll be able to manage and express them.
The set dressing and characters are pure Ryan Murphy. Not quite camp, not quite verisimilitude, but with laugh–out–loud touches that reward repeat viewing. It seems only natural that Gwyneth Paltrow's character would oil–paint portraits of Syrian children on her veranda. And of course, there are Menendez–esque patricidal twin brothers named Martin and Luther. The WASPiness is palpable.
The show is also richly intertextual, referencing itself and a shared cultural lexicon that situates it firmly in 2019. It’s particularly apparent in episode 4, “Gone Girl,” a clear reference to David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s domestic neo–noir. But the most egregious misstep—both as a reference and on a purely plot level—is the Munchausen by proxy subplot. Whether intentional or not, it’s a clear callback to The Act (and, to a lesser extent, Sharp Objects).
Any Munchausen storyline in 2019 is going to feel derivative. Casting Jessica Lange as the scheming grandmother in a role that’s essentially parody is a waste of her talents, though the panache she brings to the leopard–leggings–wearing Southern belle grandmother is worth a watch anyway.
Episodically, there are some interesting touches. The structure lends itself to a stream–and–binge model: some episodes clock in at 30–some minutes and others easily clear an hour. The overall arc finds a turning point in “The Voter.” In an inspired choice that’s uncomfortable to watch, the show switches angles and follows a day in the life of Elliot Beachman (Russell Posner), one of the school's few remaining undecided voters.
His aggressively normal life, normal house, and normal family stand in contrast to the 0.01% machinations that make up the rest of the show. Instead of a million–dollar commode, we get toilet stalls. Instead of threesomes and political marriages, we get a lot of masturbation. Elliot only cares about the central plot as it relates to him. At the end, he doesn’t vote. Because, as he says in the episode's last line, his vote “doesn’t matter anyway.”
For those watching the show for wealth porn and Heathers–esque high school drama, it’s jarring. The line and the episode implicate you. They make you wonder how, and why, you’ve gotten so sucked into a television show that's essentially about a high school presidential election. Until it’s not.
Because The Politician's first season is essentially just one season and another season's premiere, the narrative arcs—high school, Infinity’s “illness”—wrap up by the seventh episode. Its finale feels more like a premiere.
In the eighth episode, a time jump lands us in West Village institution Marie’s Crisis Café (it’s a set—the real Marie’s Crisis would never be able to fit the full backing band that Platt uses). Payton, now an NYU student, belts Billy Joel’s “Vienna” and makes eye contact with old nemesis Skye Leighton, who tried to poison him in the last episode, and Infinity Jackson, whose Munchausen by Proxy he kept a secret.
Skye and Infinity visiting Payton is a bit of a twist that speaks to the question of Payton’s identity. In casting off the idea of himself as a politician, he loses the entourage that came with it and moves towards Infinity, whose identity has shifted dramatically, and Skye, who seems to have mellowed out at—of course—Vassar.
This episode's plot hinges around Payton reuniting his former friends to mount a campaign against Dede Standish (Judith Light), who's in a throuple with Olivia Pope's dad from Scandal and some guy who looks like a knockoff version of the President from Scandal. She and her campaign manager, Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler), represent an old guard that Payton leverages his youth to topple. If that sounds a little convoluted, that's because it is, but standout performances from Light and Midler, who are clearly having so much fun with this, give hope for the next season.
For fans of Ryan Murphy and pop culture obsessives, The Politician is worth watching for casting alone. There’s January Jones as a pill–addled ex–hooker married to a spray–tanned Dylan McDermott, screaming: “he wants to have sex with our daughter!” to a cop. There’s Ben Platt, emotion palpable on his face, belting out Joni Mitchell and Stephen Sondheim. There’s Bette Midler, digs at Andrew Lloyd Weber, and Goop in increasingly ridiculous caftans.
And it's also notable in that just about every character displays queer tendencies, and it's barely remarked upon—it's just woven into the fabric of the show in a way that's both comforting and lived–in.
Structurally, it would make sense for The Politician to follow Payton and Co. on every campaign they mount, up until the highest office in the land. It might not always be a smooth ride, but it'll definitely be a fun one to watch.
It might be hard to stay invested beyond the spectacle, though, because there’s a fundamental flatness to the characters. On some level, it’s hard to really care about them because they’re either one–dimensional caricatures like Infinity or inconsistently characterized like Payton.
The Politician soars when it’s tackling big themes of identity, construction, and emotion. The sets, costumes, and performances stick in your mind, and you’ll probably never forget Ben Platt’s rendition of “River.” But everything in between just falls flat.