TV Review: “The Politician”

“The Politician” is a disaster — I love it.

When “The Politician” seduces you, it does so loudly, with firm direction and vibrant color. In its first 15 minutes, it promises a show that is clever and current, but light enough for a weekend Netflix binge. We start off with Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a high school senior who has been set on one goal his whole life: becoming president. Every aspect of his life has been mapped out through his careful study of all presidents, past and present. The next step in his plan is clear: become class president of his upper-class Santa Barbara high school. The catch? His newly-announced opponent, River Barkley (David Corenswet), a golden boy with shocking depth, is the boy that Payton has also been having a secret affair with for months.

“Ah,” you might think, contentedly, at this point in the show. “I see what this is going to be about. This is a relevant show exploring the wild ins and outs of our current political world through the microcosm of high school. This campaign will go to ridiculous lengths to achieve success, but we, the viewer, will still be fully invested in all the twists and turns and subterfuge. In the end, our heroes will learn an important lesson about sexuality, and ambition at the price of being yourself.”

Well, you thought wrong.

“The Politician” is a delightful mess, happily picking up possible plot threads and then dropping them moments later in favor of something shinier. Are we talking about Payton’s self-detrimental ambition now? His mother’s lesbian affair? An assassination attempt staged through a school musical? His vice-presidential candidate’s (possibly not real) cancer and her domineering grandmother? Characters are disinherited and reunited seemingly at the whims of a bored god with a short attention span. They attempt to poison each other in one episode and appear as the best of friends in the next. Despite its concise eight-episode season, “The Politician” still finds the time to completely forget that it’s about a school election, spending episodes on unrelated side drama, before anxiously remembering and picking up that plotline with a renewed fervor.

The show’s creators are Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuck, and Ian Brennan. Murphy, Falchuck, and Brennan are also known for their work on “Glee,” which certainly seems to make sense at first glance. There is definitely a ghostly resemblance to “Glee” that runs through the heart of the show — in it’s Type A, endearingly terrible protagonist, its penchant towards bizarre storylines and overblown drama, and of course, the musical numbers. “The Politician” is no “Glee” though, which for all its infamy, was at least purposeful and competent in its first seasons. “The Politician’s” stylized over-direction often far overshoots “charming” and nearly lands in “headache-inducing” territory. Payton’s character and growth are often left by the wayside, only for the show to pretend it was central by its end. The musical numbers exist on an inconsistent basis that feels like it depended less on narrative pacing, and more on someone in the writer’s room suddenly remembering that they had Ben Platt as the lead.

But here is the key: It is very fun. Yes, the plot is convoluted and poorly paced, but it hardly seems to matter as the constantly moving machine of stray plot threads constantly provides something to keep you excitedly clicking on the next episode. It would be wrong to call “The Politician” a particularly funny show, but there’s a light-hearted feeling even in its darker moments, and enough well-placed jokes to keep the viewer entertained despite anything else. Ben Platt shines especially as he brings both his musical and acting talent to the show, adding an endearing and even relatable element to Payton, who otherwise could have easily been made unlikeable due to his ambition and privilege. Gwenyth Paltrow appears as Payton’s mother, a woman formerly disillusioned by love who must choose between her own happiness and her family’s, and does a fantastic job with a relatively small role. Jessica Lange, of course, absolutely kills it as Dusty Jackson, an unstable woman caring for her sick granddaughter while struggling with her tendencies towards narcissism and control. What “The Politician” lacks in subtlety and nuance, it seems to make up for in a strong cast and good humor.

The final episode of “The Politician” is a bizarrely paced epilogue, in which we catch up with characters four years in the future and wonder why we are until the very end. But finally. there it is: The promise of a season two and another election, this time against an incumbent New York state senator whose scandalous sex life may provide the key to her downfall. And wouldn’t you know it, those b——- did it again! I know that season two of this show isn’t going to be the witty, satisfying, overblown political drama it so artfully has already set itself up to be. But part of me, the part that has been trained by a history of media generally making some sense, still expects it to be that. But I know it won’t be. But I also know that it will be beautiful, it will be ridiculous, it will be entertaining, and, most of all, it will be bad. But I will still be watching.

Grade: C+
Creators: Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk, Ryan Murphy
Starring: Ben Platt, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton
Premiered: Sept 27, 2019 on Netflix