It’s a daring show that reveals right from the start how wooden and obviously constructed its central character is. The opening credits of The Politician, Ryan Murphy’s first series for Netflix, show a boy-shaped simulation being formed out of flawless report cards, prescription drugs, Dale Carnegie books, and a silver spoon, all contained within a polished teak shell. (Imagine Westworld, but with an Ivy League obsession.) The inference is clear: Here is a character who is exactly the sum of his parts, and no more.
But is he, though? Payton Hobart (played by Ben Platt) is an impossibly driven teenager running for student-body president at an elite California high school—a milestone that he sees as pivotal to his mission to one day be president of the United States. (The Politician is planned as a multiseason work; each installment will tackle a different electoral race over the course of Payton’s career.) Like Tracy Flick, Payton is ambition anthropomorphized; unlike Tracy, his ruthlessness and zeal fit seamlessly with his status as a billionaire’s adopted son. No one around Payton seems to question how or why he got this way, and the fact that the series he’s in doesn’t either is among its most perplexing elements.
The Politician is the first show to emerge from Murphy’s $300 million, five-year deal with Netflix, which is why it’s surprising that the first season feels so derivative. In some moments, it comes across like a tribute to Wes Anderson, all Rushmore eccentricity and meticulous aesthetics. Gwyneth Paltrow, Margot Tenenbaum herself, plays Georgina Hobart, Payton’s mother, who wears jewel-toned caftans and is conducting a wistful love affair with her horse trainer (played, absurdly, by Martina Navratilova). Bob Balaban (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) is Payton’s father, who collects first editions and tries to leap to his death from a window above a $6 million Chippendale commode when he discovers Georgina’s infidelity. Julia Schlaepfer plays Alice, Payton’s girlfriend, a kind of Margot-lite with a severe blond bob and countless cashmere twinsets. (“I’m reducing,” Alice says when offered a cupcake, as if she were a silent-era Gloria Swanson instead of a 2019 high-school senior.) There are pastel colors and lunk-like twins (Payton’s brothers, Martin and Luther); there’s also a pervasive sense of anachronistic whimsy.
This being a Ryan Murphy series, though, there’s also a defiant kind of glibness, a reluctance to make space for emotional candor or psychological depth or even Andersonian melancholy. Suicide, murder, Munchausen by proxy, the violent impulses underlying toxic masculinity—all of these subjects exist at eye level, but when you scratch the surface, there’s nothing underneath. Characters state, rather than embody, their motivations. “I’m not a good person,” Payton confesses to his school principal in one scene. “That’s my flaw. I’m ambitious, I’m political, I’m conniving.” He’s other things, too, Platt’s soulful performance makes clear, but the show rarely gives him the space to reveal what they might be.
The subplots contain other elements of cultural imitation. Jessica Lange plays a grotesque grandmother inflicting unnecessary medical treatments on her granddaughter Infinity (Zoey Deutch) in exchange for free Olive Garden meals and trips to Busch Gardens, in a story that visually apes that of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose. (Lange’s performance, complete with dubious West Virginia accent, is high Grand Guignol compared with Patricia Arquette’s Emmy-winning turn as Dee Dee in Hulu’s The Act.) A story line in which Payton gets close to someone only for things to end in tragedy has thematic ties to the musical that made Platt famous and scored him a Tony, Dear Evan Hansen.
Some of these scenes are more fun to watch than others. Platt, as an actor, is all heart, which makes his casting as the possibly sociopathic Payton seem like a strange choice. In reality, though, Platt is what holds The Politician together: His rubberized, animated face, his toothy smile, and his patrician manner humanize a character who otherwise could be disastrously robotic. Payton knew from the age of 7, he explains in his Harvard admissions interview, that he was going to be the American president one day. Virtually every word written for him involves a reiteration of this goal, and the necessity of everyone falling in line around it. “Do not screw with my dream!” he shouts. “I’m on a singular path … I will win at all costs. I know what my future’s going to be and I know how to get there. And I will not be stopped.”
This is ambition by diktat rather than design. The Politician hardly tries to untangle Payton’s motivations, or to sketch even in broad strokes the particular anxieties that compel Gen Z kids to overachieve. The fact that Payton was originally the only son of a cocktail waitress before being adopted by Georgina is mentioned in the opening scene, then never explored again. In fairness, Paltrow is resplendent as Georgina, and her scenes with Platt are among the few in which the show reaches for connection. “You were alone in the world,” Georgina tells him adoringly. “And I suppose I felt that way about myself.” Payton’s ambiguously sexualized relationship with River (David Corenswet), his friend and Mandarin tutor, is also absorbing, in that it offers glimpses of Payton with his guard down—a person living in the moment rather than propelling himself relentlessly forward.
Tonally, though, The Politician curdles. The absurdist comedy of Payton’s life at home jars awkwardly with the political drama of his campaign. And the breeziness with which Murphy and his co-writers, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, tackle marital infidelity and fluid teenage sexuality feels uncomfortably irreverent when it comes to more somber subjects such as suicide and addiction. One episode follows a male student as he goes about his day on campus; when he punches one campaign staffer in the face and shoves another, those acts of violence are treated as nothing more than physical comedy. As with what feels like every Ryan Murphy show, murder crops up with the inevitability of daisies in springtime.
What’s lamentable is that Payton—his insecurity, his ambition, his mercurialism—feels tailor-made for psychological storytelling. For the entirety of his career in television, Murphy has demanded screen time for people whose stories rarely get told: trans women of color, differently abled characters, same-sex couples. But Payton’s story as a wealthy white teenager empowered by his own self-delusion is too familiar a tale to be so lightly drawn. The last of the eight episodes released Friday spell out where Season 2 is going, and introduce no less than Judith Light as a New York state senator and Bette Midler as her chief of staff. The change in location feels welcome, but the plot developments suggest that the show will remain rooted in melodrama, slick and sumptuous and insubstantial as ever.