HomeTelevision'The Politician' Review: Netflix Won't Change Ryan Murphy's Habits, Good or Bad

‘The Politician’ Review: Netflix Won’t Change Ryan Murphy’s Habits, Good or Bad

The Politician Netflix
Photo Credit: Adam Rose

Machiavellian manipulation and the theatricality of politics has inspired storytellers throughout the ages but, like many of our most prolific writers, Ryan Murphy was clearly inspired by the events of the 2016 election. In that time he’s became a crucial ally behind the scenes, using his position in Hollywood to elevate marginalized voices who wanted to tell stories of their own. But when it comes to telling his own stories, The Politician seems like his first attempt at working through these trying times. This is an attempt to learn what makes the power-hungry tick and the result, like many of his projects, is a mixed bag. Your mileage will vary based on how much patience you have for his idiosyncrasies.

As one might expect, this is the story of an election – a student government election, to be precise. Tony winner Ben Platt invades the growing television landscape as Payton Hobart, a high school senior obsessed with becoming the president of his school, the necessary first step in his plan to eventually becoming President of the United States. He’s desperate to win, racing around school with his best friends/political strategists (Laura Drefuss, Theo Germaine) and his equally ambitious girlfriend (Julia Schlaepfer), promising to bring them with him to the White House if they support him now. But he doesn’t count on the incredibly popular Astrid (Lucy Bonyton) pushing her star athlete boyfriend River (David Corenswet) into the race. And that’s just the first domino that sets off a whole chain of chaotic events that makes this election (quite literally) a matter of life and death.

As fans of his many series will know, Ryan Murphy has never met a subplot he doesn’t like. The Politician has all the Election-esque social satire, yes, but it also has will they/won’t they relationships, a kidnapping, an adulterous affair with a horse trainer, and a murderous set of twins – and that’s just in the first five episodes. Murphy has clearly been keeping up with the buzzed about series from other networks too, as at least one major subplot calls to mind a plot device used in two major limited series last year. And Murphy even finds an excuse to show off Platt’s incredible singing voice – he just hopes you’ll be so taken with the song that you won’t notice how forced the scene is. Netflix, who famously gave Murphy an incredible blank check to develop projects for them, let the showrunner auteur run wild, and it almost approaches parody at certain points. The truth is that Murphy loves melodrama and has an idea of what different audiences want to see on TV, he just doesn’t know when to limit things for one specific audience. It’s never boring, but each episode has at least one or two scenes that don’t work.

But the real problem with The Politician is, weirdly, the politics of it all. Trump is never explicitly acknowledged as President and we’re never given a firm time-frame for when this story takes place, but the most obvious reading of this show is that it’s an allegory of sorts about teens growing up in this intensely political world, exploring how these events will shape their relationship with politics and power. The problem, however, is that Murphy took his Gen-Z characters and cast millennials who are talking like they’re from Generation X. This doesn’t feel like an authentic portrayal of teens, and not just because these actors are all old enough to convincingly play teachers. No, the real problem is that we’ve defined Generation Z by their political fervor; their narrative has already been written, and many are looking to them as the group of young voters who can save the country. To have them talk like disillusioned adults who are coldly navigating the world just doesn’t feel right, especially whenever Murphy tries to focus his narrative and tell an important story about the way things are right now.

The Politician is at its best when it’s a story about the value of empathy. Payton and Astrid are similar in the fact that they both feel totally void of emotion, and both desperately want to achieve success in life as a way of finding meaning and avoiding the fact that they don’t quite feel the same as their classmates and potential constituents. Do they want to do good things for other because it’ll make them more popular, or because it’s the right thing to do? If good things are being done, does it matter? These are complicated questions that aren’t always explored thoroughly or sensitively, but they are explored and they’re often compelling. As other characters deal with their tendency to feel emotions with almost too much force, the different ways we respond to the tension of 2019 becomes the principal theme and it helps make the series a bit more thought provoking than your average teen soap.

It’s as a teen soap, however, that The Politician finds the most success. Murphy knows how to make a compulsively addictive series, and his style absolutely lends itself to a bingeable model. The catty one-liners keep coming, the visual aesthetic and costumes are consistently on-point, and the twists always come at just the right time to keep the audience interested. Murphy also makes the unusual but welcome decision to make almost every major character queer, which helps create a number of possible romantic pairings that are quite fascinating. Payton finds himself in a bisexual love-quadrilateral of sorts and Platt manages to have chemistry with all of his costars, fluctuating between a romantic tenderness and a palpable sexual energy depending on what the scene asks for.

As a whole, this is a remarkable showcase for Platt and many of his young costars. Astrid is not always the most well-written character but Bayton is a complete joy in the part, while Dreyfus and Germaine have a lot of fun channeling West Wing energy, running through the halls constantly polling the other students about Payton and his opponents. As River, David Corenswet is a remarkable discovery, instilling a sensitive spirit into star athlete that feels genuine and totally lovable. It’s no wonder that Corenswet has already been cast in Murphy’s next project, Hollywood. Zoey Deutch also impresses in the very challenging role of Infinity Jackson, a cancer-stricken student from a poor family who Payton picks as his Vice President in a hope that he’ll appear more sympathetic. Deutch makes some bold choices in how to play the character, but she constantly feels in control.

But maybe the best performance in the cast belongs to the adults that are actually playing adults onscreen. Jessica Lange scores laughs as Infinity’s manipulative, fame-hungry grandmother – the closest this series has to a Sue Sylvester. But Lange can do a Murphy vehicle in her sleep at this point. The really impressive work here comes from Gwyneth Paltrow as Payton’s mother, who’s simultaneously terrified of her son’s ambitions but absolutely committed to helping him however she can. Paltrow is very funny here – her comedic timing has always worked well with Murphy’s. But there’s so much interior work going on, and whenever Paltrow stops the jokes for a serious moment, she delivers really subtle, brilliant work. This is the best performance she’s given since before she stepped into the MCU, and it’s a reminder that she’s a genuine talent.

Ryan Murphy has become a genre in and of itself – he’s dominated TV in a way that few others have and unlike the JJ Abrams of the industry he feels mostly OK with staying within the realm of television. The Politician proves that Netflix won’t change him as a storyteller, for better or worse. This show is messy and may not fully succeed in its main thesis statement. But there’s a lot that works about it, and it’s equally entertaining whether you put it on in the background or devote all your attention to the story. At this point, we know what to expect from Ryan Murphy, and audiences should know whether or not they’ll like what he has to offer. It’s mostly just about figuring out what he does well and not-so-well with each new series, and deciding if it’s worth sticking around for the long haul.

The Politician is currently streaming on Netflix.


Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.

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