Calum Henderson reviews the Netflix original series, The Politician.
If Ryan Murphy made half as many television shows, would the ones he did make be twice as good?
I know that's probably not how it works but it's a nice thought. How good would it be to watch one of the prolific TV creator's many shows and be able to truthfully say I'm really glad I watched that, instead of coming away feeling kind of empty and unfulfilled and like you're somehow complicit in the death of culture?
That's how it feels watching The Politician, the new series Murphy was paid approximately one bajillion dollars to make for Netflix.
The first ominous sign is the opening card. "The Politician is a comedy about moxie, ambition, and getting what you want at all costs," it reads. "But for those who struggle with their mental health, viewer discretion is advised."
Ever heard the expression "explaining is losing"? What it seems to be saying — and maybe this is an ungenerous reading, but The Politician is a remarkably ungenerous show — is: "Yes somebody kills themselves in the first ep but it's part of a funny joke, so it's not our fault if you find it upsetting."
The series is centred around hyper-wealthy nerd Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) and his ambitions to become the President of the United States of America. Each season promises to follow a different electoral race on his path to the Big One, starting with him running for student president of his elite Santa Barbara high school.
Standing in Payton's way is his more handsome, popular, and woke opponent River, who connects with the student body on an emotional level by talking about his previous suicide attempt before announcing his running mate as a "gender non-conforming African-American".
In a panic, Payton's campaign team try to find him an even more marginalised running mate, hitting up every last disabled and "handi-capable" student in the school before settling on a Munchausen-by-proxy cancer patient who, along with her overbearing mother, has been very unsubtly based on Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard in The Act.
The joke is obviously meant to be on Payton and the gall of his boundless "moxie and ambition" but it's laid on so thick it's hard to interpret it as anything other than eye-rolling cynical writing.
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Murphy seems to want it both ways, so when Payton gets up at River's funeral (via the aforementioned comedy-suicide) and starts singing River by Joni Mitchell, you're supposed to both shocked by his audacity but at the same time be profoundly moved by the poignancy of the performance.
Overwhelmingly, though, the only reaction you can have to a scene like this is a profound sense of second-hand embarrassment for everybody involved. Even in later seasons of Glee, this would have felt like a bit of a stretch.
There are moments in the first episode where you can sense what the show might be aiming for, somewhere approximately in between Rushmore and Metropolitan. And when Gwyneth Paltrow gets involved as Payton's emotionally distant adoptive mother, it briefly delivers. Too bad about the other 50 minutes.
The Politician screens on Netflix