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.”