There have been many shows that comment on the American political landscape. “Saturday Night Live” delivers politically charged sketches on a weekly basis, “Veep” put a satirical spin on Washington, D.C. with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ exasperated vice president and “The West Wing” gave a look inside the White House with a realistic administration.
In “The Politician,” which dropped Sept. 27 on Netflix, executive producer Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story”) attempts to capture modern political issues through the lens of perhaps the most political environment around — high school.
“The Politician” follows Payton Hobart (Tony-Award winner Ben Platt), a senior at a glitzy high school in Santa Barbara, California. Ever since he was a kid, Hobart knew he wanted to be the president of the United States. He carefully crafted his life to become the perfect model politician, joining specific clubs and applying to Harvard, as he believes they will give him the best chance to be president. As he runs for student body president, he battles the teenage angst of high school and his own lofty ambitions, which cloud his moral judgements.
One would not be faulted going into “The Politician” with relatively high expectations. Besides starring Platt and Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Hobart’s socialite mother, Georgina, the series also has the advantage of the steady, experienced hand of Murphy to guide it. The man knows how to produce quality television as the writer and executive producer of multiple successful series.
So, it is truly, utterly shocking how much of an incoherent mess this show is.
Where do I even start? This series is fundamentally screwed up on so many levels. First of all, just about every character on this show is a conniving, wholly unlikable person.
Hobart is a true politician, backstabbing and manipulating the people around him to further his own goals. His political opponent, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton) is a stereotypical, apathetic, high school mean girl and an uncompelling, barely present foil to Hobart. Hobart’s inner circle, comprised of his campaign managers McAfee Westbrook (Laura Dreyfuss), James Sullivan (Theo Germaine) and his girlfriend Alice Charles (Julia Schlaepfer), encourage his ruthless side, committing immoral, deceptive acts of their own.
Now, it’s possible to write unlikable characters who the audience loves to hate — just look at classic television antiheroes such as J.R. Ewing and Walter White. However, they need to be complex and richly written characters, and neither of those words can be used to describe the players in “The Politician.”
Instead, they are largely motivation-less, aimless characters who are impossible to invest in because they don’t seem to invest in anything either.
Take Hobart for example. While the series is definitely at its most interesting when its focus is on the main character, and Platt does find a way to work with what little emotional complexity the writers give him, he falls quite short of compelling.
The writers miss countless opportunities to dig into his internal struggle between his manipulative political and compassionate human sides, rendering him as more of an ineffectively satirical caricature than a realistic person. Other than a few one-off conversations about his humanity with his mom and his underdeveloped grief for River, Hobart primarily focuses on whatever he needs to become the powerful figure he has always dreamed of.
The most interesting character in the entire 8-episode season, Hobart’s friend, lover and brief political opponent River Barkley (David Corenswet), gets killed off in the first 20 minutes of the first episode. This epitomizes the next major issue with this show — a confusing, horribly paced narrative.
The season’s arc is chock-full of gaping plot holes. Characters betray each other in one episode, but then that betrayal is never brought up again and all is forgiven with no resolution in between. It feels like certain scenes were edited out of order, creating a story with baffling character decisions. It’s as if Murphy inexplicably forgot how to write a coherent television arc.
Credit must be given to the boldness of the narrative leaps this series takes. Murphy certainly isn’t afraid to take big swings — the only problem is just about every swing misses in spectacular fashion, with weird subplots about fake cancer diagnoses and too many instances of the narrative stopping for Platt to sing a song.
Then there’s the final episode, which demonstrates both the maddening flaws and untapped potential this series holds. The episode jumps ahead three years, where Hobart and his friends are living in New York during college. It randomly introduces Judith Light and Bette Midler as a New York state senator and her chief of staff, then lazily sets them up as the already announced second season’s main antagonists before wrapping this season up.
For all the bizarre plot points, the show still manages to be an uninteresting slog. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a show that has so many subplots to juggle but is also so ideologically aimless and boring. The show attempts to tackle numerous issues, including sexuality, gun control and mental health, but never follows through on any of these points or has anything meaningful to say about them.
I could go on, but frankly, I don’t want to think about this falsely self-important dumpster fire any longer than I need to. The only positive quality that sticks out in this show is its visual splendor — series cinematographer Simon Dennis does an excellent job highlighting the glamour of southern California through bright, beautiful shots.
But I guess even these stunning visuals perfectly sum up all of the issues that plague “The Politician” — all style, no substance. Instead of the sharp political commentary it aspires to be, it’s more similar to the politicians it’s lampooning — appealing on the outside, but uninspired and full of empty promises at its core.