The first show to be released under Ryan Murphy’s $300 million deal with Netflix, “The Politician” follows Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) in his quest to become President of the United States, an ambition he’s held since he was seven years old.
Yet first up on Payton’s road to the presidency is becoming class president at his high school. Winning the election, however, is far from simple. Each episode is stuffed with an overabundance of plot, the first episode alone featuring an affair, suicide, a break-up and Gwyneth Paltrow wearing the fanciest gardening outfit in existence. While the fast pacing and huge cast means the show never gets dull, it does mean the show never reaches the greatness it has the potential to reach.
The character of Astrid (Lucy Boynton) is the best example of this. After the death of her boyfriend River (David Corenswet), she takes his place as Payton’s opponent for class president. We’re told from the outset that Astrid is Payton’s “arch-nemesis,” yet we don’t get a lot of backstory on how this came to be. Considering the season revolves around the pair competing against each other, it’s bizarre that the two have few scenes alone together. While Astrid is a fun character to watch (one episode including a pretty great “Gone Girl” parody), her character is inconsistent. Astrid is presented as a stone-cold political manipulator, yet ends up making pretty stupid mistakes for someone we’re told is a worthy competitor. The show tries to frame this as a result of Astrid’s disinterest in the campaign and ultimately her privileged lifestyle. Yet by the season finale, she’s back in Payton’s orbit in his run for Senate (more on that later). The show never clarifies why she would join Payton’s campaign, as their dislike for each other has never ended.
Ben Platt Shines
Ben Platt is fantastic as Payton. He’s able to show the cracks in Payton’s armor while still portraying the character’s ruthless ambition. The few scenes when Payton sings are some of my favorite in the show and allow the character to show some vulnerability, as well as Ben Platt’s angelic voice. It’s no surprise that some of the best scenes feature Payton talking to his mother, Georgiana (Gwyneth Paltrow). When the show actually takes a beat to delve into the relationships amid all the political intrigue, it really shines. Gwyneth Paltrow is surprisingly great in this role, and she exudes a warmth in her scenes with Payton that allows for some heart. The character gets some of the best lines, such as when her husband ends up in the hospital and she complains that “this is the fourth time somebody has jumped out of a window when I tried to break up with them.”
Season One Shortcomings: Supporting Characters
These scenes only stress how underserved some of the other supporting characters are, such as Payton’s advisors, McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), James (Theo Germaine) and his girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer). We get told that James and Alice are having an affair one episode, yet it never seems to have any impact on the plot. It’s thrown in and never mentioned again. We don’t get into what that means for Alice and Payton’s relationship or his friendship with James. We’re told that Alice and Payton are in love, but the show never gives us any genuine emotional scenes between the two, other than one in the finale. McAfee gets into a relationship with Astrid’s running mate, Skye (Rahne Jones), out of the blue, which is ended after a few episodes, again with no real development or understanding of who these characters actually are. All three characters are devoted to Payton, but I never understood why. Sure, we’re told they want to get to the White House, but their loyalty feels unearned and confusing.
Weakest Part of the Season
One of the casualties of the packed season is the plotline following Payton’s choice for his vice president, Infinity (Zoey Deutch), and her grandmother, Dusty (Jessica Lange). The subsequent Munchausen by proxy reveal made the plot feel like another show altogether. The plotline is left to be seen as a weaker version of Hulu’s “The Act.” Despite this, the entertaining performance from Jessica Lange (who naturally steals every scene she’s in), alongside the affecting turn from Zoey Deutch, keep the plot from being unwatchable.
Season Highlight: “The Voter.”
The fifth episode shows how the show can combine politics and satire without throwing in unnecessary plot points. The episode entirely follows an alienated potential voter, Elliot Beachman (Russell Posner), who the audience hasn’t seen before. It’s the funniest episode of the season — alongside the shortest— which proves the great results Murphy and his team can get when they narrow their focus slightly.
Season One Finale
Just as the season started to drag, the season finale came along. Now three years into the future, when Payton is at NYU with James, the show now sets up an interesting Senate race. We are introduced to New York State Senate Majority Leader Dede Standish (Judith Light) and her chief of staff, Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler). The show is instantly given new energy, and Judith Light and Bette Midler play off each other brilliantly. Both of their characters feel more developed than most of the cast we’ve spent the whole season with. Reunited with his previous advisors, who have discovered some of Senator Standish’s weak spots, Payton now launches a Senate campaign against the previously unopposed Standish. “This is going to be fun,” Bette Midler notes gleefully after seeing the announcement on television. She’s not wrong. With Judith Light and Bette Midler, season two now looks incredibly promising.
Ultimately, “The Politician” is stylish and watchable. While it’s fun, it’s incredibly frustrating. As a comedy, the show can get away with teenagers talking like White House strategists and casually suggesting assassination as a political strategy. I don’t expect the show to be grounded in realism. However, while the show may own its extravagant nature, it doesn’t take away from how messy some of the plotting is. There’s a wonderful cast full of interesting characters and exciting relationships to explore. The finale sets up what should hopefully be a superior season two, one that hopefully will be worth watching.
Have you watched “The Politician”? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!
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