The Politician is Ryan Murphy’s first show to land on Netflix since he struck a landmark $300 million, five-year deal with the streaming platform. It follows Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) from Santa Barbara, California, as he pursues a career in politics, and the plan is for each season of the show to see him run in a different election over the course of his life.
This initial season opens on Payton in a Harvard admissions interview, calmly stating that he is one day going to be President of the United States. The interviewer responds that “it does seem to be the hot new job everyone aspires to nowadays”, but Payton assures him this isn’t some sort of phase. He’s had his sights set on the presidency from the age of seven and has even studied the lives of former presidents, hoping that he can replicate their paths to glory. Thus he intends to spend his final year of high school getting accepted to Harvard, because it has produced more presidents than any other university, and then getting elected as his school’s student body president.
However, Payton’s confident facade begins to fall away when he is questioned about what really makes him tick. The last time he cried, Payton says, was at Christmas watching It’s a Wonderful Life, but his interviewer wonders whether he cried because he was moved or because he felt like he was supposed to. “Does it matter?” is Payton’s baffled response.
Much is made of authenticity in The Politician. It’s something Payton struggles with throughout his school election campaign, as he says all the right things but is polished to an extent that alienates him from the voters. He starts “sweating like Nixon” during a debate in which his opponent shows real vulnerability and admits to attempting suicide. At one point, he even confides in his mother, Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow), that he’s worried he might be wired differently to everyone else and can only pretend to feel things.
Although they may despise each other, Payton’s nemesis, Astrid (a masterfully glacial Lucy Boynton), also struggles with authenticity. When we first see her, she’s promising her boyfriend that she will try to “appear more authentic” the next time they have sex, after he requests that she stop being so fake and presentational. And when Payton attempts to soften his image and appear more authentic to the voters by enlisting classmate with cancer Infinity Jackson (Zoe Deutch) to be his VP, it soon emerges that she may have some dark secrets of her own.
One slight stumbling block, however, is that this running theme of authenticity seems at odds with the rest of the show. The Politician has the sort of heightened, hyperrealistic tone, melodramatic plot points and striking visuals that we have come to expect from self-described “maximalist” Ryan Murphy. Combine this with the relatively low stakes of a high school election and a cast of exaggerated, uber-wealthy characters – Payton’s family are so rich they reportedly have three lesser Picassos in their housekeeper’s room – and it’s easy to come away from The Politician feeling entertained but not particularly invested.
Furthermore, it often doesn’t feel clear whether the writers want us to be rooting for Payton to succeed or willing him to fail – a problem that also afflicted the super-ambitious Rachel Berry at the centre of Murphy’s Glee. Every decision our protagonist makes is ultimately dictated by his long-term plan. He is determined to get into Harvard on merit alone, rather than having his parents buy his way in, like they did with his idiot brothers. However, Payton doesn’t have this resolve because it’s the right way to do things, but because such a transaction could be used against him in his future political career. Similarly, when he catches his girlfriend cheating on him, he’s less annoyed at the betrayal itself than at the fact it has potentially ruined the story of his high school sweetheart becoming his First Lady. As his life spirals further and further out of control, it becomes clear that he’s heading towards some sort of meltdown that will teach him a lesson, but it’s difficult to tell how much we’re supposed to care.
If you’re already on board with Murphy’s style, there is plenty to enjoy in The Politician, from its lavish sets and memorable looks to its stellar cast. Paltrow gets a lot of the best one-liners (“My mother was very cold – at least that’s what my babysitter told me… she wasn’t really around enough for me to get a sense of her”) and one subplot features a horse trainer played inexplicably by Martina Navratilova, while Jessica Lange gives an unsurprisingly brilliant performance as Infinity’s money-hungry nana.
The Politician’s final episode sets things up nicely for Season 2 (which seems likely to happen, given Murphy’s Netflix deal) with a time jump, a change of setting and new cast members, including Judith Light as a senator with a potentially career-damaging secret and a show-stealing Bette Midler as her no-nonsense campaign manager. Taking Payton and his allies away from high school and into the adult world of real-life politics, it looks like the stakes will be significantly higher the next time round, and the show will hopefully be all the better for it.
The Politician is available on Netflix UK.