Netflix’s The Politician, the first series in showrunner Ryan Murphy’s gargantuan $300 million deal with the streaming service, immediately sets out to be provocative. It opens with a trigger warning, stating that it’s a “comedy about moxie, ambition, and getting what you want at all costs” and that “some elements may be disturbing” for those who struggle with mental health. The pilot of the eight-episode series delivers on its promise, darkly establishing the cynical world of rich white teenager Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) and his all-encompassing ambition to first become president of his Santa Barbara high school, and then make his way to President of the United States. The plan for the show is to have each season follow Hobart’s political rise, honing in each consecutive campaign in his life. But like its protagonist, whose sheer drive for success is his only defining trait, it’s unclear what the show actually believes in.
We learn from the pilot’s first line that Hobart’s dream of becoming the most powerful man in the world started when he was seven years old. He spent his childhood plotting his ascent and mapping out his trajectory, reading countless presidential biographies to figure out what works and taking Mandarin to get ahead. The adopted son of an ultra-wealthy couple (Gwyneth Paltrow and Bob Babalan), he plans to get into Harvard on merits alone despite already being a rich white guy. Winking at the college admissions scandal, The Politician reveals that Hobart’s parents paid for their handsome, sociopathic, and quite dumb biological twin sons’ admission into the Ivy League school. Despite his lofty goals, Platt’s Hobart is kind of a blank slate: he’s calculated and charismatic but he’s insecure, rightly worrying that the only thing he truly cares about is his own ruthless drive for success. He’s not particularly inspiring nor is he outright villainous, which bodes well for his political prospects.
Flanked by his enabling student body campaign staff James (Theo Germaine), McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), and girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), Hobart will stop at nothing to win. Murphy and his writing team take pains to raise the stakes of their Santa Barbara high school’s election. MacAfee and James check polls (in a high school election!) that somehow exist immediately after every twist and turn in the election. They take their campaign cosplaying to West Wing levels of ridiculousness, as if any normal teenager is this invested. The campaign’s easy path to victory is disrupted when River (David Corenswet) announces his candidacy. He is Hobart’s former Mandarin tutor and romantic fling, a depressed lacrosse-playing Henry Cavill lookalike who’s encouraged to run by his callous girlfriend Astrid (Lucy Boynton).
This isn’t the feel-good high school exploits of Glee, the first collaboration between Murphy and his Politician co-creators Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk. Here, there’s suicide and suicide attempts, conniving campaign tricks, several assassination plots, craven political grandstanding, and a horrifying plotline where a grandmother (played with perfect flamboyance by Jessica Lange) exploits her granddaughter’s illness for free things. The casual way the show highlights its characters’ inherent depravity is unrelentingly depressing. However, much of it is offset by its clever, if-Sorkin-had-a-Tumblr dialogue and its grand set and costume designs, which take equal cues from the excess of Baz Luhrman and the meticulousness of Wes Anderson.
The Politician works when it’s really fun to watch and look at, which is often. Though it skewers the wealth and excess of its characters, the Santa Barbara mansions, country clubs, and luxury cars are stunning world-building tools. The cast is also wonderful and full of chemistry. Paltrow (who’s married to showrunner Falchuk) is especially excellent as Hobart’s supportive mother, and she lends a grace and kindness that’s a welcome salve from the endless manipulation and plotting of the entire ensemble. With the lead role, Platt (who, in addition to roles in Pitch Perfect, also starred in the original cast of Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen) plays Hobart’s ambiguous sociopathy with equal parts nuance and theatrics. Particularly dark and funny moments come when Hobart’s character breaks out into song for plot-driven purposes, singing selections from Joni Mitchell and Billy Joel, among others.
The show’s satire can be so brutal to point of being unfocused. It sometimes revels in the cruelty of its characters for shock over substance. Early in the season, Platt searches for a running mate to soften his image and attempts to convince a student with Down syndrome, and later a student with a cancer diagnosis, Infinity (Zoey Deustch), to join his campaign. It’s not particularly heartwarming stuff, especially when it seems like there’s something more nefarious going on behind Infinity’s tragic backstory. And for all its skewering of the one-percent, with its casual take on the college admissions scandal, it’s not particularly kind to its very few poor and middle class characters. The ones they showcase, however briefly, are either portrayed as scheming rubes who love eating at the Olive Garden and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company or apathetic losers who can’t stop jerking off.
It’s unclear who The Politician is for or what it’s trying to say. For a show taking on the political process and social issues in the United States, there’s no mention or even any representation of any Trump-supporting conservatives throughout the entire show. If this is a Trump-era satire, there’s no bite or substance to its skewering of the privilege of the California liberals it portrays. The vast majority of characters in the show are sexually fluid, hyper-well-versed in the so-called “woke” positions of day, and constantly trying to appear as progressive as possible. Just pointing out hypocrisy isn’t that interesting and doesn’t say much about the world. If ambition is the only thing driving namesake in The Politician, there’s no way it’s already in-the-works second season won’t feel like a grueling election season.
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