By Jillian Goodman, Bloomberg
IF YOU’VE seen the 1999 film Election, starring Matthew Broderick as an irritated civics teacher and Reese Witherspoon as the indelible striver Tracy Flick, then you’re familiar with the basic plot and some of the main themes of The Politician, Netflix’s first series from super-producer Ryan Murphy out Sept. 27. The comparisons started almost as soon as the first trailer went out: “Ryan Murphy’s New Netflix Show The Politician Is Election on Steroids” (Vice); “Ryan Murphy’s The Politician Trailer: It’s Like Election — But With Ben Platt and Possibly Murder” (The Wrap); “What if you took the movie Election but turned it into a Ryan Murphy show on Netflix? That seems to be the premise of the dark comedy The Politician” (Vulture).
Like Election, The Politician is primarily about an ambitious anti-hero (played by Ben Platt, who we’ll get to in a bit) who’s convinced their entire future hangs on winning the office of student body president. Unlike Election, which is decidedly satire, The Politician at first seems insecure in its self-identity. Is it burlesque? Is it melodrama? Is it bildungsroman? The answer is that it’s a Ryan Murphy show, i.e. all three and then some.
Delving into Murphy’s extended oeuvre produces some more useful comparisons. The Politician will also very likely be held up against Glee, Murphy’s monster hit series for Fox that ran from 2009 to 2015. Glee was also set in a high school and concerned such themes as the price of ambition and what it means to be likable and the anxiety of auditioning for the things. (While The Politician isn’t a musical, you’d be crazy to cast Platt, who broke out in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen and can be seen in two of the three Pitch Perfects, and not let him sing. If his rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River” doesn’t make you at least tear up, I can’t help you.) But it has even stronger echoes of Popular, Murphy’s first series as executive producer. That story was closer to pure camp and far more brutal about the material necessities for survival in a wealth- and status-obsessed world.
The central question of The Politician, once it finally becomes clear in a pair of linked episodes toward the end of the season, helps the show rise above all the comparisons. That is: Can someone want power and be a good person at the same time?
I hardly need to mention at this point that there’s a US presidential election coming up in 2020, and that already voters are asking themselves whether it’s more important to pick a candidate who inspires them or one they think will win. By making Platt’s character, Payton Hobart, a wealthy, white, straight(-ish) male, Murphy obviated some of what made Election so bleak. Essential to what makes pert, driven Tracy Flick a villain in Broderick’s character’s eyes is that she’s a young woman who won’t let anyone stand in the way of her dreams. Election is a great movie, but it also gave troglodytes everywhere the perfect cudgel to wield against female political candidates. Hillary Clinton, who was just prepping her run for Senate as Election played in theaters, has never been able to shake the association.
As Payton, Platt is both empty and torn up inside, and because he seemingly has everything going for him, he has to gain the audience’s sympathy the hard way. In an early episode, Payton’s elegant, self-sacrificing mother (played by, who else, Gwyneth Paltrow) hugs him and whispers, “Your ambition frightens me,” which seems to cause the young ruler-to-be genuine distress. He’s sure that he wants to help people, and yet the only thing he actually feels is the desire to win. Being conscious of such an epic internal contradiction would be a lot for anyone to live with, and Platt plays both the exhaustion and the fear of that with honesty and clarity. He doesn’t ask us to like Payton, just that we don’t hate him as he bungles around, trying to figure out what being “good” looks like.
Of course, Payton has a couple of lackeys, McAfee and James (Laura Dreyfuss and Theo Germaine), who are as impeccably dressed as they are devoted and calculating. The Politician traffics in certain regrettable stereotypes, including the frigid girlfriend (given redeeming vulnerability by Lucy Boynton), the impossible dreamboat (David Corenswet, whose dimples deserve credits of their own), and the outcast who also happens to be dumb, poor, and a person of color (Benjamin Barrett, who turns out on multiple occasions to be smarter and more capable than he seems). And there’s a subplot involving Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the psychological disorder in which an adult caretaker either acts as though or causes a child to become sick, which has also been seen in HBO’s Sharp Objects and Hulu’s The Act — an epidemic on television if not in real life.
For investors in Netflix, the central question of The Politician is will it start to fill the void left by the departure of Friends and other popular library series from its lineup? While Ryan Murphy has produced some hits in his day, I can’t imagine this will be one of them — then again, it probably has enough visual richness and chef’s kiss-worthy cameos to keep casual viewers coming back. If the thematic fuzziness and occasionally random-feeling plot zigzags turn you off, I hear you. Again, it’s a Ryan Murphy show: there will be splatter. But at least do yourself the favor of watching the season finale, which features Bette Midler as a self-described “sassy, brassy, wise old broad” and Judith Light in a throuple. It doesn’t exactly give me faith in politics, but it does make me think season two is going to be really, really good.