This The Politician review contains no spoilers.
Carried forward by performances you correctly assume will be stellar and a visual aesthetic, The Politician is in many ways a return to Ryan Murphy’s roots: twenty- and thirty-somethings playing high schoolers, questions of class that are far more interested in the 1% than anything else, and the kind of frenetic ping-ponging plot that’s free of historical accuracy. The Politician has its moments, but it’s not exactly the Tracy Flick-meets-gay-Wes-Anderson the trailer promises.
Payton Hobarth (Ben Platt, who obviously sings) is a disturbingly self-assured high school senior, adopted by ultra-rich parents (Gwyneth Paltrow and Bob Balaban). He knows he’ll be president, the way so many white men do, and he’s already assembled the staff of shrewd friends (Laura Dreyfuss in an enviable array of pantsuits and Theo Germaine) and girlfriend/future first lady (Julia Schlaepfer) and the life plan to help him achieve it. During the world’s most elaborate student council election, he campaigns to become president and eagerly awaits a decision from Harvard, both of which form the first two steps on his road to the White House.
Zoey Deutch’s Infinity Jackson is a naïve girl with an ill-defined illness and Payton’s running mate, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. Lucy Boynton’s Astrid is similarly magnetic, though too often saddled with acidly over the top moves, though January Jones is perfectly cast as her mother and Dylan McDermott is such a precise kind of rich creep that it’s unnerving to watch.
The Politician is more successful when it’s a comedic parable on ambition than when it’s a manic fever-dream of increasingly absurd occurrences. The zany melodrama of The Politician is never as biting or deliciously camp as the dramatic moments are genuinely moving, when they’re allowed room to breathe. Somehow it manages to feel slow even as it frantically careens along, like a car that’s spinning its wheels but not moving anywhere all that quickly. The streaming structure of longer episodes with no at breaks don’t help, and several episodes are bogged down in the middle before throwing in a cliffhanger right at the end to perk the audience up for the next one.
The first couple of episodes in particular are a jumble of characters and plot, throwing non-stop nonstarters at the audience in a deluge that makes it difficult to pick out what information, characters, and storylines will actually matter. A pointed back and forth about Payton’s birth mother, a cocktail waitress from Laconia, New Hampshire, for example, is never revisited. The entire affair takes a hard left turn into musical theatre at the end that feels like another excuse to get Ben Platt singing, and sadly slows down the plot even further.
Gwyneth Paltrow swans around in glorious caftans as Payton’s adoptive mother. She’s at her best when she shares the screen with Platt – otherwise, she can easily be read as an older, more cypher-like version of Margo Tenenbaum. Or, more cruelly, like a portrait of the queen of Goop herself. The whole endeavor is stacked with smaller roles like Judith Light and Bette Middler’s brief but pitch-perfect appearances, and it’s hard to picture anyone but Jessica Lange as Infinity’s grifting grandmother Dusty.
Only Ryan Murphy would try to play three suicide attempts and one death by suicide for laughs and then be surprised by the middling results. The truly wild thing is, he mostly pulls it off on the attempts, but there’s no way to be zippy about a death that you’re also hoping will ground your series in dramatic gravitas. This attempt to play both sides up the middle makes for emotional whiplash as The Politician continually fails in an ill-advised attempt at a tonal high-wire act.
The show improves the farther away it gets from that death, and the more it allows its lead to explore the emotional implications, away from attempts to use the death in soapy, backstabbing ploys. Ben Platt dexterously makes the most of everything he’s given, but it’s more interesting to watch his small, subtle tells of vulnerability (the only subtle things about this show) than his bombastic shows of hyper-competence. Some of Platt’s best moments come when Payton doesn’t know how to handle a situation or has lost his way, and I’d like to see more of that character, the one who comes out more around David Corenswet’s disarming River.
Still, it’s hard not to feel like The Politician’s choice to punt on exploring Payton’s sexuality was a cop-out, opting instead to bury a (closeted?) gay (queer? Bi? Who knows! The Politician certainly doesn’t) instead of seeing what would happen between two living queer kids. In some interviews it’s been stated that everybody on the show is a little bit queer, and it’s insinuated that it’s more modern and progressive to not make a thing of it. While there’s an argument for that in many contexts, given Payton’s political ambitions and the way a straight-passing relationship is a cornerstone of those ambitions, how race and Sky’s (Rahne Jones) gender non-conforming identity are used in the show, and even the way the fluidity of other characters is handled, it feels odd not to explore the obvious secrecy with which Payton handles this one specific, pivotal relationship in his life.
The Politician is, like far too many of its namesakes, all panache with sadly little substance. There’s plenty of talent here, both old and new, and it’s certainly beautiful to look at – the title sequence alone, my god! – but Ryan Murphy’s typical season 2 problems seem to have come early for this series.
The Politician is available now on Netflix.