'The Politician': TV Review

The Politician - Ben Platt - Gwyneth Paltrow - Publicity Still - H 2019
Courtesy of NETFLIX
Not Ryan Murphy's finest hour.

'Glee' creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan return to high school for a Netflix comedy starring Ben Platt, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Lange that fails to deliver any real satirical spark.

Were Ryan Murphy a more confessional storyteller, it would be easy to read autobiographical elements in The Politician. It's the story of a prodigy with a gift for flash and occasional glibness (Popular, Nip/Tuck) who has to learn to tap into his feelings and expose his heart (Pose, American Crime Story) in order to advance on a path to world domination (a lucrative production deal with Netflix). It's a series about reckless ambition and the sacrifices made along the way. But Murphy isn't a confessional storyteller, and The Politician isn't his 8 1/2.

Maybe it should be? With a wandering focus and an erratic sense of tone, The Politician simply doesn't come together as a clean vision. It remains generally watchable throughout thanks to a great cast and fleeting moments of inspiration and it actually teases a promising second season — none of which makes these episodes any less of a wasted opportunity for satire and commentary.

A reunion of Glee creators Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, The Politician focuses on over-calculating high school senior Payton Hobart (Ben Platt). Payton is the adopted son of ultra-wealthy Santa Barbarans (Gwyneth Paltrow and Bob Balaban) and he has done the math to figure out every step of his journey to the White House, a map that includes high school presidency and admission to Harvard. He's even assembled a dream team to help him on the journey, including key strategists James (Theo Germaine) and McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), as well as trusted girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), who will be his first lady.

But Payton's clear path to senior class office might be blocked by fellow candidate River (David Corenswet), ultra popular, blessed with an ambitious girlfriend of his own (Lucy Boynton's Astrid) and tied to Payton in, um, intimate ways. It's going to be a complicated election featuring scandal, unearthed revelations and assassination attempts.

Off to the side, but about to become way more involved than it probably should be, is a subplot involving Zoey Deutch and Jessica Lange in a barely altered variation on the story of Gypsy Rose, Dee Dee Blanchard and the outsize case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy that was handled far more deftly in Hulu's Emmy-nominated The Act.

Now before you start in: Platt is 25 and more convincing playing 30 than 18, which can also be said for almost the entire young cast. It's a feature, not a bug. The plan is for each season of The Politician to focus on a different election in Payton's inexorable ascension, so suspension of disbelief shouldn't be as much of a factor in subsequent seasons. This inaugural season is functionally only seven episodes, leading into an eighth showcasing spectacular guest stars Judith Light and Bette Midler, theoretically key to the show's future. My kingdom to have just skipped the first seven episodes entirely.

One can almost imagine the creators sucking it up and acknowledging to themselves, not that they'd ever admit it, that this part of Payton's story is an impediment. He's a self-absorbed twit and he knows he's a self-absorbed twit, which isn't so bad because that's the arc of the season. He's only 18, but he's already a wax replica from the Hall of Presidents, a young man in need of being melted and reset. What's bad is that the show can't find any way at all to illustrate why everybody around Payton is so convinced he'll make a good leader and many supporting characters — James, Alice and McAfee in particular — are hamstrung by a total lack of personality other than devotion to a guy who doesn't appear even slightly worthy of that devotion. The show doesn't quite get that in the same way it doesn't get that Alice isn't even a half-realized character, so it's absurd any time the show suggests there's any affection between her and Payton. These are problems.

And nobody seems to get that The Politician feels oddly — and for Murphy almost unprecedentedly — behind the curve. In a world in which we use Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the ultimate poster girl for youthful political hunger, and she surely will come to mind frequently during The Politician, who would have guessed that Murphy of all people would reframe that narrative around a white man? There's little fresh or observationally current here.

The season is fixated on the hollow failings of the rich and vapid, right down to a college admissions storyline that would feel ripped from the headlines except that it has absolutely nothing to say about anything other than "Rich people can buy their way into fancy schools." There's an icky condescension toward its non-affluent characters, boiling over in the Munchausen arc that I can only assume caused everybody heart attacks when The Act came out and it was more than simply withering contempt for Olive-Garden-loving white trash.

In the big picture, the collaborations between Lange and Murphy have been predominantly award-worthy highlights, but this performance is a broad miscalculation at every turn, one of several turns that teeter into cartoonish with no grounding at all. Only a midseason episode penned by Brennan and focusing on one of the students outside of this electoral tyranny projects real empathy and even that is of a sour sort.

You may feel that this is, at best, Murphy's fourth most perceptive look at a youthful popularity, behind Glee, Popular and, yes, Scream Queens, a generally forgotten horror pastiche that was much sharper in humorous execution than The Politician. The Murphy-in-a-blender feeling isn't helped by a cast of either Murphy-verse regulars or eerie doppelgangers; Dreyfuss, Corenswet and Boynton come across as substitutes in roles Billie Lourd, Matthew Bomer and Emma Roberts might have played under different circumstances.

So much of the show hinges on Platt and he does well with some of Payton's unlikable eccentricities. Maybe it's a product of his theater background that he doesn't have chemistry with anybody, projecting all of his emotions out to the audience rather than his scene partners. Or again, in this season about a not-ready-for-primetime future president, it might be intentional. It's exactly no surprise that Platt's performance is most alive when he's just allowed to sing, and he's got uninterrupted crooning moments in three of eight episodes — including one in which he and Deutch do a very sweet duet from Assassins, easily her best episode as well.

It's an ensemble of arch performances and everybody will have different favorites. Boynton and Balaban both have moments that made me laugh and Dylan McDermott, as the ultra-sleazy father of Boynton's character, continues a welcome mid-career pivot into smarmy comic excellence. If you make it to that eighth episode, Midler is so wonderful that you'll probably wonder how she and Murphy have never crossed paths previously.

Messy though it is, The Politician isn't a hard show to watch. The season's short. Episodes are short. And as repetitious as it is within the Murphy oeuvre, the deja vu thing somehow helps the pacing. It sounds odd to say, but: I didn't like The Politician, and bring on season two!

Cast: Ben Platt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, Theo Germaine, Julia Schlaepfer, Laura Dreyfuss, Bob Balaban, David Corenswet, Rahne Jones, Benjamin Barrett
Creators: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)