It’s been a while since Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan looked to high school for television inspiration, but it’s easy to draw a line from 2009’s Glee to The Politician, the first series to come from Murphy’s lucrative deal with Netflix. He has always been intrigued with the notion of ambition, and particularly ambitious teenagers—Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) is the best example, though you can trace it back even to Popular—so The Politician is extremely Murphy-esque, for better and worse.
The dark comedy, which has already been renewed for a second season, is something of an anthology series where each season revolves around a different fictitious political race. Each race involves Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a wealthy, driven high schooler who thinks—knows—that he’s going to one day become the President of the United States. The first season follows Payton running for student body president, bringing big-scale politics to the already-tricky world of high school. Oddly, The Politician doesn’t have much interest in real-world politics, which is something of a relief because of how inescapable our nightmare world has become, but also a disappointment because the results are dull and scattered…a story about a politician that eschews politics.
The Politician, then, is more about hyperbolic high school drama and the sinister side of ambition—the side that rewards playing dirty, conniving plans, harmful lies and attempted murder (yes, per the Rules of Ryan Murphy, The Politician quickly goes off the rails). The first season kicks off when popular jock River (David Corenswet), who has a connection to Payton, joins the student body race and upends our titular politician’s plans.
Payton, surrounded and aided by precocious and equally-driven campaign strategists—McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss) and James (Theo Germaine)—ramps up his campaign, namely by choosing Infinity (Zoey Deutch), a cancer-stricken classmate, to be his veep. Also thrown into the mix are Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), Payton’s girlfriend who has her eyes on someday becoming First Lady, and Astrid (Lucy Boynton) as River’s scheming girlfriend who eventually takes a bigger role in the race. The parents (who range from robotically detached, to too-invested to the point of detriment, to downright demented) are played by a handful of familiar, talented actors such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Dylan McDermott, January Jones and Jessica Lange.
As Infinity’s mother Dusty, Lange (a Murphy favorite) has fun ramping it up, even as her storyline becomes increasingly unhinged and unnecessary; the question of whether or not Infinity actually has cancer is introduced early, making much of The Politician seem like a pale imitation of Hulu’s The Act, which told the real-life story of Gypsy Rose. It somehow seems both haphazardly thrown in and too dominating. And this is all before getting to the scandals, the infidelity, the multiple criminal acts and side plots involving some of the parents.
Needless to say, there is a lot happening during the eight episodes of The Politician (I’ve watched them all), creating a convoluted and messy narrative that fails to ever fully come together or say anything of importance. The gist of the series is to show us how a politician becomes a politician, tracing it back to teenage years. This is apparent in the Politician’s eerie and wonderfully-done opening title sequence (though the song choice is pretty silly) that shows the creation of Payton; it’s just unfortunate that this is rarely seen anywhere else in the actual show.
That said, The Politician is compulsively watchable, a series that I eagerly devoured without really deciding whether or not I actually liked it (which, personally, is how a lot of Murphy’s shows go). It’s enjoyable to watch, if only cosmetically and at a distance, and it’s incredibly aesthetically pleasing—though much of that is due to the episodes where Falchuk’s directing borrows heavily from Wes Anderson’s twee sensibilities and mise-en-scene. (The casting of Paltrow and Bob Balaban only further invites comparisons.) The acting is generally impressive, especially from Ben Platt (and yes, he does sing) but it still left me feeling cold and unconvinced. I still don’t understand why Payton’s group endlessly support him, and I still don’t buy that I’m supposed to care about his political aspirations. But at the same time, the finale does set up the second season nicely, and perhaps it’ll become stronger once everyone’s out of the cafeteria, so I’ll eagerly watch it—and hope it’s far less hollow.