Television

Running Scared

Ryan Murphy’s The Politician tries something new for the brand name showrunner but falls back on old tricks.

Gwyneth Paltrow in The Politician.
Gwyneth Paltrow in The Politician.
Netflix

Like its protagonist, The Politician is misleadingly polished. The first series in prolific TV-maker Ryan Murphy’s gargantuan overall deal with Netflix focuses on the political education of the frighteningly ambitious 17-year-old Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), who, to be reductivist, is a total Tracy Flick. Payton is on a mission to be president, something he knows, he just knows, will happen—and so, it should be said, does the show: Murphy envisions a five-season run, each dedicated to an election, the last being the presidential. Payton already has a detailed road map of his route to the White House, worked out with his bizarrely devoted teen advisers, and it all hinges on winning his high school presidential election, which he approaches with the intensity, scheming, and, apparently, polling capabilities of a professional outfit.

Self-obsessed, mercenary, uptight, Payton is also hardworking, smart, and devoted. He’s not, by his own estimation, a good person; he may even be slightly sociopathic, knowing how he should feel, rather than feeling it. But he does, genuinely, want to do good things. He’s the living embodiment of the tension between sincerity and authenticity. He’s so intensely inauthentic because he is so exceedingly sincere, his every move purposeful, polled, and practiced. In a country so enamored of authenticity that we chose a tell-it-like-it-is Demogorgon over a political rival often disparaged for being too calculating, The Politician pokes around the intricacies presented by an overbearing but passionately prepared candidate whose most off-putting quality is that he seems to want it too much.

Or, anyway, that’s one of the interesting ideas flitting through the show, ideas that are largely obscured by the show itself, a baroquely yet dully overstuffed series that hides what makes it genuinely new for Murphy—the focus on a single character—in a familiar-for-him form: a histrionic teen melodrama. Like all of Murphy’s work, The Politician is a slick and gleaming production, with tons of whirring parts, gonzo plot points, woke politics, and alleged high school students speaking with crackly and bitchy incisiveness. It will be very familiar to anyone who has seen Murphy’s Glee, Popular, American Horror Story: Coven, or Scream Queens. But the Murphy playbook here feels exhausting, counterproductively unrealistic, and even downright fearful. Before it can go somewhere new, it restages the same old.

This being Murphy, the same old is a lot. The first four episodes of The Politician are a kind of frenetic all-you-can-eat buffet of insanity, which like many all-you-can-eat buffets is less thrilling if you’ve been there before and know it gives you a stomachache. The series starts with sudden, tragic suicide and then spills over into more lighthearted craziness. Desperate to boost his polling numbers with a compelling VP pick, Payton drafts Infinity (Zoey Deutch), a less rich cancer patient, who is a kind of off-color, jokey sendup of the real-life woman upon whom Hulu’s The Act was based. Infinity has a sweet way about her, a juvenile delinquent boyfriend with a sleazy mustache, and a protective, bologna cup–serving grandmother played by Murphy regular Jessica Lange. The boyfriend gets tangled up with Astrid (Lucy Boynton), Payton’s icy rival, who is neither sincere nor authentic but, having taken over the campaign of her dead boyfriend, stands a chance. She selects Skye (Rahne Jones), an impassioned black lesbian, as her running mate, and the election really heats up.

Meanwhile, Payton, the adopted child of billionaires, is caught up in family drama. Favored by his loving mother, Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow)—herself embroiled in a love affair with an equestrian played by Martina Navratilova—and despised by his father, played by Bob Balaban, and his odiously entitled twin brothers, his domestic side storyline nonetheless involves another suicide attempt, disinheritance, Harvard’s admissions process, and the first of what will be numerous murder attempts. (I was extra confounded by the show’s—admittedly minor—insistence that Platt, with his “big Jewish” eyes, looks like he could not possibly be the biological spawn of Paltrow and Balaban, three quarters Jewish between them, while the tanned lotharios cast as his twin brothers could be. There’s some kind of Jews-can’t-possibly-look-as-glam-as-Gwyneth dig hiding in there.)

If all of this feels rote Murphy, the frenzy felt to me distractingly beside the point, instead of the too-entertaining whole shebang. It’s partially because of Platt, who occasionally levitates into another, better show. Platt created the title role in the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, in which he played a similarly high-strung, vulnerable, yet morally questionable, beta kind of antihero. He is an actor with an uncanny, almost exquisite access to his own vulnerability, able to access a wellspring of self-doubt and self-loathing as effortlessly as a regular person rubs their face. Platt is extremely game for the absurd stuff, but the show is not infrequently punctuated by his emotional breakdowns, be they about grief or shame at his own deeds and gnarly ambition, and when they arrive, they feel like they come from a still-heightened, but much more moving and thoughtful adult show—one about a real person, not a mannered cartoon of one.

When the show veers from the depths of Payton’s character and leans into high school rococo, it feels like Ryan Murphy 101—but it’s even worse when it attempts to get into explicit political metaphor. A midseason episode, only 30 minutes long, devoted to an “undecided voter,” is self-satisfied and simplistic. The undecided voter (Russell Posner) is a dolt, a brainless masturbator and video game player, with nothing on his mind but junk food and boobs, a more boring Beavis and Butt-Head. Both Astrid and Payton’s campaigns harass him incessantly into voting—he’s one of the few members of the student body on the fence—which he ultimately refuses to do, because it doesn’t matter. The show shows the candidates condescending to him, but then it condescends to him itself, judging his “it doesn’t matter” opinion, even though in the context of an incredibly overheated election between two rich high school students looking to advance their future careers … it actually doesn’t matter.

In the last of the season’s eight episodes, the show jumps forward in time and takes a big swerve to set up Payton’s next election and a second season. Based on Episode 8, which is more intriguing than anything that came before, Season 2 will be a politically inflected exploration of Murphy’s other favorite genre, grandes dames vamping (see: Feud, Pose). As I watched the episode, I realized that Season 1 of The Politician had another Murphy trademark: The whole thing was way too long. The first seven episodes should have been compressed into one or two, a short blast of hysterical high school stuff, instead of a slogging throwback campaign.