It’s been a while since Ryan Murphy had a little fun, hasn’t it? After spending the past few years on very worthy but decidedly serious fare like The Assassination of Gianni Versace and Pose, he’s now firmly back in Glee territory with The Politician — premiering this Friday on Netflix; I’ve seen five of the eight episodes — a lighthearted satire that combines Murphy’s signature acid-tongued wit with a quirky refinement that recalls the films of Wes Anderson. In fact, if you can imagine Anderson’s Rushmore remade by Murphy, with a bit of Election sprinkled in for good measure, you get a pretty solid idea of what to expect from The Politician… and the result is one of the most entertaining new shows of the fall.
Set at a picturesque California high school, The Politician stars Tony winner Ben Platt as class president hopeful Payton Hobart, a terrifying hybrid of Election‘s Tracy Flick and Rushmore‘s Max Fischer. Hyper-ambitious and hysterically high-strung, Payton dreams of becoming President of the United States one day and will stop at absolutely nothing to make that dream come true. For the school election, he chooses cancer-stricken classmate Infinity (Set It Up‘s Zoey Deutch) as his running mate in a bid to win the sympathy vote, but his handsome opponent — and former lover — River (David Corenswet) possesses an approachable humanity that Payton utterly lacks. (During a head-to-head debate with River, Payton’s friends lament, “Oh God, he’s sweating like Nixon.”)
It’s a deeply cynical, ridiculously heightened take on the focus-group nightmare that is our current political reality — both Payton and his opponent employ full-time campaign advisors and pollsters — and it takes a few stinging swipes at excessively “woke” culture along the way. (At one point, Payton raises money to hire a “harassment czar” at his school.) How much you enjoy all of this will depend on your appetite for the usual Ryan Murphy antics, and a certain subplot I won’t reveal feels like an unnecessary dollop of frosting on an already frosted cake. But the all-at-once Netflix format allows The Politician to take some interesting side routes, too, like an episode told from the perspective of a lone undecided voter at school who’s constantly being hounded about who he’s supporting.
Murphy has always had a golden touch when it comes to casting, and the one he’s assembled here is so crammed full of talented performers, it almost feels overstuffed. But there are lots of great characters to be found on the fringes: Lucy Boynton’s spoiled rich girl Ainsley, Benjamin Barrett’s dim-witted delinquent Ricardo… and especially the great Jessica Lange as Infinity’s pushy grandma Dusty, who doesn’t hesitate to use her granddaughter’s cancer diagnosis to jump the reservation line at Olive Garden. (When Payton approaches Infinity to join his ticket, Dusty coldly replies, “What’s in it for us?”) And I’m not even mentioning Gwyneth Paltrow as Payton’s adoptive mom Georgina, or Dylan McDermott and January Jones as Ainsley’s upper-crust parents — everywhere you look here, you find a performance that’s worthy of its own series.
The Politician does threaten to get too cynical at times, flirting with mean-spirited humor and losing any semblance of heart. (Payton’s lunkhead twin brothers, for example, are probably a bridge too far.) But Corenswet’s River helps provide the heart it needs, and Platt’s remarkable performance as Payton keeps it anchored. Payton is polished to a fault, accustomed to slapping on a fake smile when it’s needed. But that mask of his does slip a bit at times, and Platt’s finely calibrated vulnerability reveals that Payton’s unquenchable ambition is actually a burden. (“It’s so hard to have to try so hard all the time,” he confesses.) The Politician provides plenty of laughs and on-target jabs at our current political moment — but it’s the battered yet still-beating heart found in Platt’s performance that ultimately has us pulling the lever for this one.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: With a loaded cast and a savage wit, Ryan Murphy’s high school satire The Politician is one of the fall’s most promising new shows.