‘The Politician’ is cool and cynical

Hank Stuever

THE WASHINGTON POST – What some folks wouldn’t give to have the instincts – to say nothing of the timing – of television impresario Ryan Murphy.

His knack for anticipating the zeitgeist is matched by an entertaining talent for owning the obvious – horror-movie tropes, picked-over scandals, sinister sororities or even the showy emotions that provide the fantasy fuel for dance competitions and knives-out glee club concerts.

All Murphy has to do these days is merely confirm his next big project and the world halts briefly on its axis to again admire his moxie. (Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky in the next American Crime Story – why, it’s brilliant already, and no one will even see it for another year. Insert a row of exclamation points here. Heck, insert another row.)

His secret, I think, is just to let go and let the idea run wild, roughshod if necessary, with whatever borrowed styles and pop-cultural references will get the job done.

Let other producers and writers rooms fret about whether an idea is too pat or too over the top. In Murphy’s world, the audience and critics will either eventually come around or, at minimum, applaud the effort.

That’s why it’s such a big deal that Murphy and his collaborators have moved operations to Netflix, pushing their new ideas forward while still tending to the valuable franchises (American Horror Story, 9-1-1) they created at FX and Fox.

Ben Platt stars as Payton Hobart in ‘The Politician’. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
ABOVE & BELOW: Photos show scenes from the series

The Politician, a darkly comic, eight-episode drama about a kid (Ben Platt) convinced of his destiny to become United States (US) President, firmly plants Murphy’s flag on Netflix’s moneyed turf.

Co-created by two of Murphy’s most trusted collaborators (Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan), the series is a deeply cynical and unfortunately supercilious restating of an old Washington cliche, that politics is really just high school and vice versa.

The tone and look of the series feel at first like a heavy aping, bordering on theft, of Film Director Wes Anderson’s fascination with preternaturally gifted teen ambition, a la Rushmore, and one-percenter ennui, a la The Royal Tenenbaums. (For an echo effect, Murphy has roped one of those Tenenbaums, Gwyneth Paltrow, into playing the young politician’s doting mother.)

A dog-piling of other influences seem to come and go: Heathers, Clueless, Election, one or two Bret Easton Ellis novels, the original version of House of Cards and the callousness of Veep, for starters. Somehow, it’s all in here, a mash-up of deadpan vibes and manic melodrama made brighter and prettier: all the best parts, underlined to death. The result is both irritating and fun, a feeling that has become something of a Murphy hallmark.

Which also means that The Politician is exceedingly watchable, precisely what Netflix wants and what Murphy and his gang so ably deliver. Once again, uncanny timing and instinct prevail: Who else lands a romp about the inherent soullessness of politics right as a Democratic-led House of Representatives launches an impeachment investigation against America’s most willfully reprobate president?

The Politician arrives just when viewer appetites for a fancily framed swamp-wallow will range from ravenous to repulsed. It’s not exactly escapist TV.

Platt plays Payton Hobart, deep into his campaign for president of the student council at St Sebastian, a hyper-elite private high school in Santa Barbara, California, where elections come with all the trappings of high-stakes politics.

Payton is guided by a pair of comically devoted top advisers (Laura Dreyfuss and Theo Germaine), who hope to accompany him all the way to the White House and rely on polling data so intense that it accounts for ethnic demographics as narrow as a single student of Haitian descent.

“You see, gentlemen, I’m going to be President of the US,” Payton told two aghast but pliant Harvard officials who are considering his early admission and salivating at his parents’ wealth. “I don’t say that to impress you or to seem terribly precocious. I’m merely stating it as a fact. I will be president someday because I will stop at nothing.”

A more pressing campaign crisis is the absence of a perfect, thoroughly vetted running mate who can bring in the student voters Payton isn’t reaching. The search leads to Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), a sweet but terminally ill girl who is a lock on the sympathy vote and lives with her exploitative, no-good grandmother, Dusty. (Chalk up another scene-stealing role for Jessica Lange, Murphy’s most reliable house player.)

I know Murphy gets testy when critics call his shows campy, but c’mon. Near the end, he throws in equally delectable roles for Judith Light and Bette Midler on top of Paltrow’s tongue-in-cheek send-up of New Age daffiness. What are we supposed to call it? A hoot?

Episodes progress with proportionally enlarged themes that are presented as fresh political insights and hot takes: Payton’s campaign is jeopardised by secrets and lies.

There are assassination attempts, accusations of voter fraud, provisional ballots, campaign finance violations and private hurts endured on behalf of the public face. It will all seem quite clever to those viewers who either haven’t watched or simply forgot an entire canon of political satire that came before The Politician.

Everyone else may find it predictably, even tediously, cynical.

The only episode that seems to locate a new vein of humour is devoted to a pimply loner (Russell Posner as The Voter) who vexes St Sebastian’s eager pollsters and every get-out-the-vote effort with his deep lack of interest in or awareness of the candidates or their platforms.

He just doesn’t care and, as such, is typically American.

As the story plods on, The Politician’s atmospherics do wear thin – the precise lampooning of extreme wealth; the machine-like efficiency of these budding operatives and the degree to which they’ll sell their souls for a chance at victory.

Platt, who is beloved for his stage presence (especially in the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen), is less engaging on the binge screen, even when given the opportunity to sing.

As with any Murphy production, there’s a wayward sub-plot or two (or four), one of which has Payton joining the cast of the school musical, which can’t fix a real problem throughout: You just don’t believe in Platt’s character – not as a teenager, not as a politician, not as anything but an overwhelmed actor in a show that struggles to maintain its artistic discipline.

Things improve near the end. Without giving away key details, life doesn’t always go Payton’s way, which gives us a hint of the second season Netflix has eagerly preordered.

Payton’s journey may not follow the path he envisioned, but the lure of politics is impossible to resist – “born to be in it”, as Beto O’Rourke said.

In other words, I guess we’re stuck with him.