Ryan Murphy’s new show for Netflix indulges without excesses and fires off shots without finding a target, Sam Brooks writes.
Ryan Murphy is a polarising figure in television. After a dodgy start to his career – the tonally bonkers Popular and the famously scuzzy Nip/Tuck – he achieved proper mainstream success with Glee, and pivoted from that into the cable-hit American Horror Story, and to the genuine critical success of both American Crime Story series. Add the middling Feud and the beloved Pose, and you’ve got the career of a man who, for better or worse, is one of the few genuine auteurs working in television today.
Which is why The Politician, the debut show from Murphy’s package deal for Netflix, is such a disappointment. Even as someone who isn’t a fan of Murphy, finding his tendency to buff up surfaces rather than dive beneath them not exhilarating but exhausting, I can’t help but feel that this is his first genuine miss since Julian McMahon cut into women on a weekly basis back on Nip/Tuck.
The first stumbling point is the premise. The Politician seeks to be a multi-season affair which follows Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a wealthy white Californian, across the many political races of his career. The first season, bloated at eight episodes, focuses on his battle to become class president of his private prep school. He sees it as his stepping stone to Harvard, and then onwards to his ultimate goal: president of the United States.
The character of Payton is one of The Politician‘s biggest problems. He’s an unsympathetic little shit, lacking in both charisma and empathy. Half of this is by design – we’re not meant to actually like Payton, a young man who’s a cross between Tracy Flick (a harsh comparison, given how much better 1999’s Election handled this same milieu) and Donald Trump.
Unfortunately, half of this is also due to casting and performance. Platt, who you probably know from playing the lovable loser in the first two Pitch Perfects or as the titular sociopath at the centre of musical-du-jour Dear Evan Hansen, is a poor fit for this particular character. He not only lacks the kind of charisma that a Murphy character needs to keep the audience invested (see: Lange, Jessica or Michele, Lea) but he doesn’t track as somebody that his fellow students would even like, let alone vote for. This is bizarre, given that the show seems built around him, as evidenced by the two out-of-nowhere singing showcases that Platt is given.
It doesn’t help that The Politician seems not to know what it’s trying to do. Is it a parody of the kinds of people who want to go into politics? Is it a satire of elections in general, and the kind of sociopathic behaviour that’s required to be a candidate who wants nothing more than to be a politician? Is it a critique of the 2016 election? Whatever was intended, it ends up being some of these things some of the time; more often, it’s just a meandering story that’s hard to invest in because it can’t even settle on a tone.
The story is also hard to invest in because the stakes are so low. It’s a student election. At a school for privileged, wealthy kids. Despite the show’s Murphy-esque high-camp, low-realism twists and turns – one of which is a direct, unsubtle lift from the story that inspired The Act – it’s not much fun. For a viewer, it’s like a loud party at the flat downstairs on a Monday night: I’m glad they’re having fun, but why the fuck in my vicinity and why now?
Often, when Murphy’s stories flag he can rely on his cast to act as seamstresses to stitch it into a presentable product. There’s two reasons why American Horror Story, for all of its eight seasons, was populated with actresses whose list of awards are longer than most actors’ CVs. One, he creates big, meaty roles for older women in an industry where they’re a rarity and two, they’re the kinds of actresses who are capable of turning his dialogue into something worthy of the screen.
Here that trick doesn’t work. Despite assembling a stacked cast (Bette Midler and Judith Light show up later on) and exciting young talent, including trans actor Theo Germaine and newcomer Julia Schlaepfer, Murphy doesn’t give them the material to work with. He serves regular collaborator Jessica Lange particularly poorly – her performance as a doting grandmother of a child with cancer is so unhinged that Kate Winslet could float on it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Other, less experienced actors like Zoey Deutch, Laura Dreyfuss and Lucy Boynton flounder with the stilettos-on-wood rhythmic dialogue that they’re saddled with, and fail to enliven their roles with consistency or charisma. Even established actors like Dermot Mulroney and January Jones miss the mark, with the latter doing a very loose trace over her Betty Draper from Mad Men.
Oddly enough, the one actor to come off well in the show is Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Hobart’s mother. However much the general public has turned on her in the past decade, Paltrow has always brought an oddly compelling warmth to her trademark archness. In The Politician, her performance strikes a balance between a wealthy, over-protective mother and a woman searching for a better life for herself – all while winking to the fact that yes, this is a highly privileged woman who won’t ever really be in any true strife or danger ever. The only misstep is that the show saddles her with the season’s big emotional moment, putting The Politician in the odd company of Avengers: Endgame, which did exactly the same thing. I’m all for it, but the other 99% of this show’s audience? Not so much, I’d wager.
Viewers have forgiven Ryan Murphy for a lot of things that other makers of TV have been castigated for: Tonal inconsistency, fetishization of both men and women in problematically different ways, a general lack of following through on high promise, and a shallowness that borders on emptiness. But it’s easy to forgive these sins if the product is entertaining. The Politician doesn’t fail for the usual Murphy reasons – though they don’t help – but because, for the first time ever, he has made something that is mindnumbingly dull.
All eight episodes of The Politician are streaming on Netflix now.