[Caution: this post contains mild spoilers about The Politician; read at your own risk.]
By now, people who watch Ryan Murphy dramas know to expect some hallmarks: heightened reality, visual decadence, poignant commentary, juicy drama, juicy melodrama, sick humor, and wicked fun. To describe shows from Murphy and his gang of cool-kid producers — Alexis Martin Woodall, Nina Jacobson, Tim Minear, and Gwyneth Paltrow's boo Brad Falchuk, who created The Politician with Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan — as all-over-the-place is not shade; Ryan Murphy shows are all over the place in the best possible way, like a playlist that goes from rock to pop to rap to show tunes without apology.
With that in mind, is Murphy's latest, The Politician, a thoughtful examination of our political climate, a zany comedy that lampoons our culture, a soap opera, a musical, or a dark high school drama? Yes! Yes it is. Trying to define The Politician seems useless because, like so many Murphy shows, it shuns convention and delights in a singular type of organized chaos. What matters most is this: Will you like it if you watch it? Yes. Yes you will.
On the surface, The Politician is about an unbridled quest of a young man named Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) to become President of the United States one day, and his pursuit of the high school presidency right now. Really though, The Politician examines what it takes to become president: what types of values, traits, characteristics, and goals a presidential person is made of. That's not a novel idea of course; it's been explored in Veep and House of Cards and dozens of other road-to-the-White-House tales. But few have started from the very beginning showing everything it takes to actually become POTUS.
The Politician's sausage factory takes place in fancy Santa Barbara, where Hobart's loaded family includes mother Georgina (Paltrow), his aloof dad (played by Bob Balaban), and douchey twin brothers Martin and Luther (Trevor and Trey Eason). Payton, who is adopted, is painted as a black sheep in contrast to his ultra-white, right-leaning bros, and it's understood that a sense of unbelonging, a loathing of injustice, and the nurturing grace of his worldly mom fuel his ambition. Privileged, calculated, and jittery, Payton spends all his time thinking about becoming president, and, at school, he enlists an even more calculated and obsessive campaign staff to ensure his crafted persona gets the results they desire.
Snags and hiccups occur though, beginning with his friend-with-benefits tutor and popular boy River deciding to run against him. What follows next is a kaleidoscope of crazy. Something dreadful happens that forever alters the election, which in turn pits Payton against foes he thought were friends, and then crashes him into a sick young woman named Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch) and her wild grandma Dusty Jackson (Jessica Lange), who has poor Infinity in a Munchausen syndrome by proxy situation. From there, The Politician's narrative gets even more frenzied. Allegiances change, murder plots get exposed and Payton becomes more and more undone on the road to victory.
There are points in The Politician where viewers will ask themselves what the hell is happening — like, say, when an antique commode becomes part of a story device and Ben Platt starts signing. (Platt sings exceptionally well, mind you, but out of nowhere.) To be sure, The Politician requires some suspension of disbelief, preferably at the outset, when it's clear 25-year-old Platt and his co-stars look way too old to be in high school. Still, even when it's at its most absurd (Gwyneth Paltrow's self-parodying moments as a prime example), The Politician is immensely enjoyable and tethered to a provocative philosophical question.
Early on, Payton expresses that he can't seem to feel and worries that he is fundamentally unable of sincerity and authenticity because he basically doesn't believe in anything other than his own ascension. Again, not a new idea in political drama, but Patyon seems anguished by his detachment, a political Pinocchio who'd like very much to connect with people because it's the right thing to do instead of the savvy thing to do. Platt wears that conflict well, and though dizzying developments spin him (and the audience) around in a dryer, all that happens is no less insane than what we read about every single day. Is a cussin' grandma who has made Payton's running mate believe she's sick any more unbelievable than a candidate with an aide whose spouse got caught sending dick pics to underage girls? Not really, and while The Politician's loopy turns can sometimes make it feel like the marriage of a live-action cartoon and a Wes Anderson movie, it's never dull and always comes back to the same question: What do you have to be made of to be president today?
By the end of the first season (The Politician will be a pseudo anthology following the varying elections Payton is involved in as he ascends the political pyramid), it turns out Payton has no idea — the things he thought it took may not be the most important at all. It's in that last episode, when Judith Light and Bette Midler appear, where The Politician hints that the actual start of Payton's true journey towards his destiny will soon commence. If that makes Season 1 a prerequisite for a sharper-told story to come that's fine, but the first iteration will still stand on its own as the most fun anyone's had examining politics for a long time.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
The Politician premieres Friday, Sept. 27 on Netflix. It has already been renewed for a second season.