Look, Ma! A Manipulative Politician! Right There On TV! What a Concept!
When he’s not tethered to a real-life story, Ryan Murphy loves to send his dramas and his characters on sudden quirky turns.
That produces charming moments and jarring moments, both of which recur often in The Politician, Murphy’s much-anticipated satiric drama that becomes available Friday on Netflix.
Ben Platt plays Payton Hobart, a wealthy California kid who has focused his life on getting himself elected president of the United States.
Payton sees this as a methodical scientific exercise. He has studied all presidents, he explains, to understand what they did to put them on the path that led to their election, and he tailors his life to replicate the traits and behaviors that worked.
“All presidents,” by the way, means every president since Ronald Reagan, since anyone before that doesn’t matter. Reagan, Payton explains, developed the prototype for the modern president: a TV star that no one really thinks about seeing in real life, but embraces on a television screen.
It’s not a new observation. It’s still clever and it explains the persona Payton has spent his life honing.
In keeping with the anthology style with which Murphy has become ridiculously successful, The Politician will spend each season following a different Payton political campaign.
The first season tracks his run for president of St. Sebastian High School. Platt would have to have been held back for a dozen years to still credibly be a high school student, but then, age-appropriate casting was never an issue on Murphy’s breakthrough Glee, so it’s presumably not an issue here.
The St. Sebastian campaign matters because it presumably will set the template for Payton’s future approach and style.
You get no points for figuring out that this will involve deceit, treachery, mendacity and insincerity, leavened with an occasional burst of outright cruelty.
It doesn’t always add up to a coherent character, something that also has never bothered Murphy, who clearly doesn’t see people as linear and consistent in their behavior and attitudes.
The Politician has drawn an impressive cast of performers, notably including Gwyneth Paltrow as Payton’s mother Georgina. She’s a rich, artsy liberal who tells Payton that even though he’s adopted, she loves him more than her two biological sons, who are crude, thoughtless, entitled meatheads. They’re awful, but it’s reassuring to see them, since what Murphy show would be complete without them?
Murphy also has an affinity for blue-collar white folks from economically disadvantaged circumstances, who in less sensitive times might have been called “trailer park trash.”
Here that’s Dusty Jackson, played by Murphy regular Jessica Lange. She drove from Kentucky to California in search of a better life, and we see immediately that you can’t always take backwoods Kentucky out of the girl.
The Jackson who’s most intriguing is Dusty’s daughter Infinity (Zoey Deutsch), whose life gets blended right in with Payton’s through circumstances both clumsy and amusing. In some contrast to Payton, she turns out to be quite different from what she at first seems.
Payton also has a rival as the election begins: River Barkley (David Corenswet), who seems to have everything and naturally does not. He does have a backstory with Payton, involving Mandarin Chinese. That’s not a serious spoiler.
If River isn’t what he seems at first glance, neither is his girlfriend Astrid (Lucy Boynton). By this point in Murphy’s career, it seems safe to speculate that he trusts hardly any high school students to be as kind or honest as they’d like others to believe they are.
We don’t even necessarily get a full immediate fix on Payton, despite spending most of our time with him, because just when we think we know what he will do next, sometimes he does something else.
That’s a smart dramatic move, leaving more options open as we move into subsequent stages of his political career. In the short term it makes the show a bit more jarring, which is mission accomplished for Murphy.
The Politician joins a long line of dramas, written and cinematic, that poke into the invariably unpleasant backstories of people who get elected to high office. Or any office.
As the Reagan premise suggests, this one attempts to modernize the genre by focusing on the contemporary skillset that Payton has attempted to quantify and to which he aspires.
It has high points, including an unexpected scene in which Payton sings a song and for a few moments we can see how in another life we could maybe almost sort of like him. But that also reminds us The Politician is uneven, and it’s unclear whether one high school election can sustain a whole season without having to wander into some tangential side plots.
Hey, it’s a Ryan Murphy show. We get the full package.