Netflix’s The Politician is the Best Trick Ryan Murphy’s Ever Played on Viewers
Ryan Murphy—the madman behind Glee, American Horror Story, and Pose—understands what makes for a good guilty pleasure. With Glee, he rested firmly on the side of camp to deliver the show’s charm. For American Horror Story, it was his willingness to push the envelope with what levels of horror were deemed acceptable on television. In Pose, a continuous escalation of reality-based drama made for must-binge viewing.
When the trailer for his latest show, The Politician, debuted, it was clear that he—along with co-creators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan—were going to be banking on satire to hook audiences in. Not only were audiences going to be watching a scathing indictment of American electoral campaigns, they’d also get the satisfaction of seeing rich people being defeated by their own excesses—a guilty pleasure staple.
The series tells the story of Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a stereotypical Privileged White Male with an all-consuming ambition to one day be President of the United States of America. In order to do so, however, he needs to fulfil a checklist of qualities data suggests fit the pattern of a winning candidate: a devoted partner, entry into Harvard, and being elected class president of his high school.
It’s that last item that proves problematic, however, as far more charismatic individuals decide to run against him. It’s up to Hobart and his campaign team to win at any cost.
Platt is perfectly cast as Hobart, managing to temper the character’s duplicitousness with moments of absolute sincerity. He is, as Hobart describes himself later on in the season, a bad person who genuinely wanted to do good things. His character work bears all the nuance of an award-winning performance, though the show’s other qualities might result in an unfortunate snub.
That’s because The Politician’s heavy-handed use of satire necessitates the caricaturization of his supporting cast. Characters like McAfee and James (his two-person campaign team), Rich White Girl with Problems Astrid, and Angry Black Lesbian Skye are often seen dictating their motivations to each other, rather than allowing their actors to actually feel them.
The idea behind this is, no doubt, to play things up for comedy; satire is often at its best when the absurdity is said out loud. But the lines come too quickly and too singularly voiced that it’s sometimes hard to imagine these individuals as high school students. And with Platt’s fully realized character trying to interact with them on his level, the witty dialogue often becomes a distraction. Real people simply don’t talk that way.
Real people simply don’t act the way they do in The Politician, either. A character announces their intention to run for school president in the middle of a wake, with zero repercussions for the inappropriate act. That same character decides to poison a fellow student so they can have more say in school politics. Siblings openly discuss patricide on the way to their father’s hospital bed, within earshot of the staff.
If TV shows are meant to suspend your disbelief, this one appears to want to strangle you with it.
That’s not to say that The Politician isn’t an entertaining show, however. There’s a certain type of audacity that makes “trash television” addicting, and this show manages to channel it without sinking to the level of something like Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Again, it’s fun to watch privileged people behaving badly, and the cast of The Politician is loaded with millionaire children committing federal crimes.
In fact, The Politician would’ve been highly recommended mindless viewing had it stayed this way. There were enough moments of brilliance peppered throughout the season—especially in an episode that skewered politicians on their incompetence in handling voter apathy—to make one binge-watch it in a single day. The last two episodes, however, throw a major curveball not just in the storyline, but also in the type of show Ryan Murphy created.
The penultimate episode jumps forward to the cast’s post-college lives. Their status quos have changed tremendously, going from being big fish in California to veritable nobodies converging in New York. Hobart himself has become an alcoholic bar singer (because of course Platt, who won Best Actor at the Tonys for Dear Evan Hansen, had to sing in this series).
An unexpected series of events, however, suddenly turns the show’s conceit on its head, with the finale showing the beginnings of a youth-oriented, grassroots movement mirroring the spirit of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s inspirational campaign. The first season of The Politician, as much as the trailers make it out to be a comedy of socioeconomic excess, is in fact the origin story to a much more compelling narrative: That of have-nots rallying voters together against an out-of-touch elite class.
What could have been brushed off as a middling attempt at satire has suddenly become on-point commentary on today’s dramatic shift in politics. It’s nothing short of brilliant, and the ambition behind the switch must be commended. Sure, the writing suffers a few dips on the way there, but the finale fully cements the second season as must-watch television.
Here’s hoping, however, that The Politician is able to maintain this momentum into 2020, which is, conveniently, the year America votes for its next president.
Now, that is going to be fun to watch.
“The Politician” is currently streaming on Netflix.