Ryan Murphy’s first show for Netflix throws everything at the wall, and not all of it sticks.
In the opening scene of The Politician, a dean for Harvard asks Payton Hobart (Ben Platt, Run This Town) about the last time he cried. His answer? Watching It’s A Wonderful Life. When asked if he cried because he felt moved to or if it’s because that’s what everyone does, he asks if it matters. From the beginning, series producer Ryan Murphy, wants to explore the authenticity of the one percent’s quest for political power, and whether or not goodness is innate or simply the result of good actions.
The Netflix original series, which is committed for two seasons, chronicles the life and ambitions of Payton, the adopted son of the billionaire Hobart family, who has dreamt of the presidency since he was a young boy. This season explores the first part of this plan: winning the role of senior class president for his prep school, Saint Sebastian.
The desire for the presidency has consumed every waking moment of Payton’s life, to the point where he has convinced his friends of the inevitability of his greatness. His girlfriend, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer, Charlie Says) pins her destiny on someday being his first lady and his best friends James (Theo Germaine, Work In Progress) and McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss, After Party) act as campaign managers. All are convinced that they will work together from high school up until Payton’s presidency.
Payton’s election seems set when his opponent, River (David Corenswet, Affairs of State), kills himself — until River’s girlfriend, Astrid (Lucy Boynton, Bohemian Rhapsody) takes his place in the race. Desperate for a sympathetic vote, Payton chooses cancer patient Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch, Buffaloed), as vice president. However, Infinity has a secret that can ruin not only the election but Payton’s life if it gets out.
It would be easy for the conniving and cynical Payton to be played as an antagonistic force, however, the series still manages to keep him sympathetic. Platt’s portrayal is multifaceted, and he is unafraid to delve into Payton’s more egocentric urges. At the same time, Platt gives the character vulnerability, especially in his scenes with his mother Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow, Avengers: Endgame). The pair have a great mother/son chemistry, Paltrow expertly portraying a mother who both loves her son but is scared by his ambition.
Aside from his relationship with Georgina, the other heart of the story is Payton’s relationship with River. Before deciding to run, River was Payton’s Mandarin tutor, and the pair had a brief fling, which leads to Astrid’s disdain for Payton. After his suicide, River shows up as hallucinations, trying to help Payton get in touch with his feelings.
Ryan Murphy wants to explore the authenticity of the one percent’s quest for political power, and whether or not goodness is innate or simply the result of good actions.
Also helping humanize Payton is the surrounding cast. While he is consumed by blind ambition, the presidential hopeful lacks any real malevolence. The same can’t be said about the people around him: his brothers (Trey and Trevor Eason) are portrayed as garden-variety rich jerks; Astrid is spoiled and only runs against Payton for revenge; and Infinity’s grandmother, Dusty (Jessica Lange, American Horror Story), uses Infinity’s illness so she can get free stuff. Payton may not exactly be a good person, but against these people, it’s easy to root for him despite some of the more questionable things he does.
Payton’s likability helps keep the show grounded, even as the plot veers into soap opera territory. The show has a very tenuous connection to reality, especially in regards to a student body election. It’s hard to believe that any school election, even one for an elite private school, would have sophisticated voter polling and campaigns that are more well-funded and staffed than many local government campaigns.
The subplots also stretch believability, with a school election bringing out rivalries, scandals, and even multiple murder attempts. While the twists and turns will keep you tuning in to the next episode, the season begins to run out of steam after the elections are done. It’s like Murphy doesn’t really know what to do with Payton when he’s not campaigning. Fortunately, the final episode sets the stage for the next season, which looks more promising than the first.
Many will see The Politician as a satire of the Trump era, and there is some validity to that interpretation. Granted, Payton’s calculated demeanor seems antithetical to our current president’s crude candidness, but behind the surface differences, the pair can be seen as similar. Liberals and leftists generally view Trump as a son of privilege whose political aspirations are not out of passion for the issues, but for adulation and power.
This is also an apt way to view Payton. Despite the countless times his supporters say he’s going to do good in the world, we are never shown his actual beliefs. True, he says he supports bans on guns and plastic straws, as well as supporting the “Me Too” movement, but it’s shown that almost everything he does is a calculated effort to become president, so it’s easy to conclude that he’s just trying to appeal to his left-leaning school.
Throughout his campaign, Payton tries to push himself as a voice for common people, even though he grew up in one of the wealthiest families in America. In many ways, it’s easy to view Payton as a Trump-like figure who will relate to ‘woke’ Democrats: educated, well-spoken, socially and environmentally conscious, and rich but aware of his privilege. However, the show makes it clear that this isn’t a Trump issue (the president isn’t even mentioned in the series), but one endemic to politics itself. In many episodes, Payton is described as a ‘politician’ as opposed to a ‘person’, and makes it clear that his selfishness is a product of his ambition.
Indeed, it is The Politician’s skepticism towards those involved in governing that makes it so fascinating. Even though the show’s cinematography is often a love-letter to the opulence of wealth, it is critical of those who obtained it. That criticism, as well as a stellar cast, makes me excited for the second season.
The Politician stumps for your vote on Netflix September 27.