‘The Politician,’ God Help Us, May Be the Future of TV
By Kevin Fallon
The Politician, the new Ryan Murphy series that hits Netflix on Friday, is a simple show. A boy named Payton, played by Ben Platt, wants to be class president and, one day, president of the United States.
Well, there’s that. There’s also a bisexual love triangle, a suicide, a staged kidnapping, a murder investigation, Gwyneth Paltrow having an affair with Martina Navratilova, a deaf school principal, a whistleblower with cerebral palsy, a poisoning through cupcakes, a poisoning via BB gun, a staging of the musical Assassins, January Jones as a pill-popping former hooker, a performance of Joni Mitchell’s “The River,” a throuple featuring Judith Light, and a ghost mentor/therapist.
And that’s all not to mention Jessica Lange’s role as a grandmother with Munchausen-by-proxy who poisons her granddaughter and tells her she has cancer.
That The Politician does SO MUCH is its fatal flaw, because scaled back to its core, to that simple logline, it is legitimately fascinating and provocative. Given the state of the world and the kind of behavior that isn’t just excused, but rewarded—and given who is, ahem, sitting in the White House—what kind of person would want to be a politician? What kind of ambition does that take? What does ambition mean, or require, in 2019? And what about us: What moral compromises are we willing to justify so that we don’t have to be leaders ourselves? It’s cynical and optimistic in warring ways that feel just about right given the mood of today.
It’s a shame that’s essentially drowned in the flood of constant lunacy. It’s tonally all over the place. Respective elements of it are intriguing and occasionally fantastic. Platt is a captivating actor, capable of both Election-like camp and emotional rawness in equal measure. The storyline between him and Paltrow, who plays his mother, is remarkably tender, elevated all the more by the Oscar-winner’s stirring performance. And no one does big comedy with a dame-like flair more skillfully than Jessica Lange.
But that the show doesn’t seem to know what it is becoming clearer as the episodes continue and actors whose plot lines never meet—like Paltrow and Lange—seem to think they are in entirely different shows. Paltrow is acting with the grounded sincerity of someone on a Murphy show like American Crime Story. Lange is doing broad, satirical work straight out of Glee. The large ensemble falls on the spectrum in between.
The truly remarkable thing, however, is that for how mixed and meh I feel about the series, I could not be more excited for a Season Two. The standout final episode of the show sets up a Season Two featuring Platt, Light, and Bette Midler. Other critics have wondered why the series didn’t just start there.
And that’s what makes this show such a captivating test case. Of the many reasons I’m obsessed with the series—hello, did you catch that part about Paltrow and Martina Navratilova?—the biggest is that its existence provides a window into what may be the next stage of television, at a time when the medium is in a curious stage of transition.
The Politician is Ryan Murphy’s first Netflix series, and he now has a massive $300 million deal with the streamer. The series is the first example of how a slew of celebrated TV auteurs will take advantage of the seemingly free rein and bottomless bank accounts they have access to while transitioning from networks to streaming services. (Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris’ first shows under their respective, massive Netflix deals have yet to air.)