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How The Politician’s Ruthless Satire Misses

Ryan Murphy’s show about a super-elite high-school election could have made brilliant, cultish television.

Adam Rose / Netflix

“It was a waking dream—the kind that arrives in the twilight between sleep, and the real world,” the high-school student Payton Hobart recalls brightly, in the opening lines of Ryan Murphy’s Netflix show, The Politician. “I sat straight up in bed, and said out loud: ‘I’m going to be the president of the United States.’” He is in a Harvard interview, explaining why he is not only the best candidate for a place at the university, but also the best candidate for the eventual leadership of the entire nation. “Yes, that does seem to be the hot job everyone aspires to nowadays,” the dean nods. “The air of impossibility has been removed.”

Payton plans to start his political career early, by running for student body president at his super-elite high school in California—a move he believes will put him on a path leading inexorably to the White House. The word “impossible” does not seem to belong in his vocabulary, perhaps because he is the son of a billionaire, and because he wears a Gucci suit to school. (He is still waitlisted by Harvard, who do not seem as convinced of his destiny as he is.) Payton is played by the Tony, Emmy and Grammy-award-winning Broadway actor Ben Platt, who earned renown for his performance as an anxious and neurotic teenager in the musical Dear Evan Hansen, and is now embodying an entirely different kind of teen: one who will stop at nothing, up to and including blackmail, to achieve his destiny as the most powerful, entitled white man on the planet.

At once babyish and solemn, Platt is 25-years-old but easily passes for a fussy and fastidious kid, his puppy fat and cartoon eyes making what ought to be unwatchably repellent—a character fueled by ruthlessness, self-certainty, and an attitude towards his immediate peers that verges on the sociopathic—bearable for a full season of high-voltage and high-volume television. He has the kind of slack, cherubic mouth that makes him appear credulous even when scheming, looking like the innocent boutonnière and being the serpent under it. “I am not a good person,” Payton insists over and over again, and even as we see evidence that he is right, we do not entirely believe him. “The level of ambition I certainly could relate to,” Platt recently told The New York Times. “We took ourselves very seriously in the arts and really wanted to make something of ourselves, and a lot of us are [somebodies] now.”

To draw parallels between the politician and the theater kid, when we are more used to equating presidents with businessmen and reality TV stars, is an unusual move, and not a strictly inaccurate one: At their worst, stage school types are ersatz-seeming, all bared teeth and cloaked determination. Just in case we happened to forget that the United States’ sixteenth president died at the theater, The Politician reminds us by including a high-school production of Sondheim’s Assassins.

The Politician may be the Ryan-Murphiest Ryan Murphy show to date. It is deranged, its pilot as dense with improbable, hand-over-mouth twists as a particularly breakneck episode of Gossip Girl. I hesitate to reveal many of the intricacies of its eight-episode run, in part because of an especially detailed list of things I am advised not to discuss by Netflix, and in part because I believe that if you happen to be the target audience for the Ryan-Murphiest Ryan Murphy show to date, it may be best to go in cold. I will say that it has attempted murder, political intrigue, a plotline involving feral possum blood that is inspired by the myth of Philoctetes, a one-episode appearance from two boldface actresses beloved by the gay community, and several heartfelt, full-length songs. There is an argument over whether a queer black woman or a cancer patient might make a more sympathetic running mate, and at some point one character says to another, as if this were a completely normal observation: “You’ve put on a few pounds since your boyfriend blew his brains out.” It has a scene in which a breezy Gwyneth Paltrow, playing a billionaire’s wife swaddled in cashmere, watches Dr. Pimple Popper for the first time. It has one in which she says, with brilliant, pitch-perfect sincerity: “Yes, that would have been two poisonings in one week, but he’s a very polarizing figure.”

“A very polarizing figure” would not be an unfair way to describe Gwyneth Paltrow, whose rebranding as the personification of a certain kind of very rich, very Caucasian nonsense since the launch of her lifestyle company GOOP in 2008 has for many almost cancelled out her identity as an Oscar-winning actress. Her casting in The Politician—as a woman living in unfathomable luxury, who speaks in platitudes and believes in the healing power of crystals—is less savage than it might have been by dint of the screenplay’s co-authorship by her new husband, the writer-producer Brad Falchuk. Still, she gets to wink at our perception of her. Her character’s softly-spoken, Xanaxed sweetness, pitched halfway between a yoga guru and a Californian wine mom, lends her the air of an expensive Live, Laugh, Love sign given sentience; in the scene in which she tells her billionaire husband she is planning to divorce him, I half-expected the dread phrase “conscious uncoupling” to appear.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays the softly-spoken Georgina Hobart in “The Politician.”
Beth Dubber / Netflix

While much has already been made of Jessica Lange’s character delivering the line: “That’s what gays do: munch butts and celebrate Halloween!”, it would be criminal to overlook the way that Paltrow, sitting at the bedside of a person in a coma, reveals mournfully that “this is the fourth time somebody’s jumped out of the window when I tried to break up with them.” It is enough to make you understand why Brad Pitt often looks so downcast, or why Chris Martin has penned so many doleful songs. Later, breaking up with somebody again, Paltrow widens her impossibly blue eyes until they look as large as $110 terra cotta dinner plates, and asks: “You’re not going to jump out of a window, are you?”

The Politician,” reads the title card, “is a show about ambition, moxie, and getting what you want at all costs. But for those who struggle with their mental health, some aspects may be disturbing.” Thematically, The Politician will no doubt inspire comparisons with Alexander Payne’s Election, in which Reese Witherspoon played a similarly perky, Machiavellian teen for pitch-black laughs. Like Platt, Witherspoon is adroit at making terminal ambitiousness more appealing than it ought to be by virtue of her own charisma, and if 1999’s post-Lewinskygate, pre-9/11 climate was deserving of a savage political satire, 2019 could not provide richer fodder.

Still, where both Election and its source material took deadly aim, The Politician’s great ambition far outweighs its clarity. Its criticism of the link between political access and privilege would be more valid if it did not glory, like a very loud and moderately provocative Wes Anderson movie, in the aesthetic of the super-wealthy, piling excess on excess. Its jewel box interiors and outré styling do not make the business of being a scheming and amoral millionaire or billionaire appear particularly unappealing. Its sick moments, like the plotline that includes the aforementioned cancer patient, are not sick enough to pierce the heavy fug of aspiration hanging over its mean, Miu-Miu–wearing teens. “It’s wealthy people behaving badly,” Ryan Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter. “All of this has been percolating in the culture, particularly under this president and this idea of Ivanka and Jared [as] the sort of satanic poster boy and girl for privilege and nepotism.” This is true; it’s also true that Murphy’s version of their privileged and nepotistic hell is very photogenic, like a travel agent’s brochure for damnation.

In imagining a high-school election where the stakes ramp up until there is a possibility of death, Murphy has landed on a premise that could have made a brilliant, cultish television show. Instead he has produced a passable one, watchable but infinitely messy. It zips by, as hollow and seductive as a politician’s patter. It is never boring, never slow, and never certain of its message. It has some good gags—for the record, I laughed every time at the recurrent joke about getting “the Haitian vote,” amounting to a single, baffled Haitian kid—and some tin-eared ones, mostly to do with how much poor people love to eat at Olive Garden. The “disturbing aspects” mentioned in the series’ title card are, I suspect, those that relate to a particularly major, maybe-controversial plot point in the pilot; without explicitly spoiling what unfolds, it is worth saying that the most disturbing thing about the storyline is its unnecessariness, a nasty flourish with the nastiness somewhat negated by the fact that Thirteen Reasons Why already exists.

In its final episode, The Politician takes an unexpected zig into new, somewhat different territory, which suggests the possibility of something better for its second season. I look forward to an incarnation of the show that is a little older, wiser, and more adept at delivering on its promises. This is, I guess, why presidents are required to be over 35.