Updated: Nov 30, 2019
A chaotic, jewel-toned race to the finish
Streaming on Netflix | 2019 | TV-14 | 1 season, 8 episodes
Genre: High School Dramedy
Why We Watched: We haven’t been lucky enough to watch Ben Platt as the titular character in Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, but are obsessed with his voice. We both first “met” him when he played an awkward, magic-trick loving a capella singer in Pitch Perfect. We heard him on a podcast last month talking about his new show and immediately knew we’d watch it. You Might Also Like: It’s October, y’all, which means it’s time for horror. And Ryan Murphy—creator of The Politician—has a lot to offer in that genre. Resident What-to-Watch List horror expert Liz says American Horror Story (AHS Coven, especially) is a must-watch, but even better is Scream Queens: “It’s campy and terrible and funny and very much the aesthetic of The Politician. IMHO, they have many of the same pitfalls and enjoyments. As with any Ryan Murphy project, we learn to take the good with the bad!”
Since Nip/Tuck first aired in 2003, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have been unstoppable. The duo has cranked out hit show after hit show. Glee, American Horror Story, Pose, and now The Politician have become mainstream behemoths; everyone, it seems, has watched and loved at least one of them. No matter the subject, these shows are instantly identifiable by their overwhelming campiness. From the characters to the songs to the costumes to the plots, they’re just a few notches past extra—and that’s why we love them.
The Politician follows Payton Hobart (Platt), a high school senior who is determined to become president of the United States of America. But before he gets there he has to navigate an even more treacherous presidential campaign: Saint Sebastian High School. Hobart is obsessed with winning this race (bringing us major Election vibes) because he is convinced it will set the tone for every other election up to and including his bid for the U.S. presidency. And his faithful team of advisors, Alice Charles (Julia Schlapfer), McAfee Westbrook (Laura Dreyfuss), and James Sullivan (Theo Germaine) believe in him wholeheartedly. They’re committed to seeing Payton all the way to the highest office in the country and are willing to do whatever it takes to get him there. Court undecided voters in bathrooms to ensure they’ll vote for Payton? Done. Orchestrate a fake cheating scandal to gain sympathy votes? Done. Entertain murder so that the election is an undeniable win? Done. (Keyword: entertain.)
What transforms The Politician from a generic high school election story into an absurdly compelling TV show is, in part, the casting. Take Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Payton's adoptive mother, Georgina Hobart. Georgina is loving and magnanimous and wise. She raffles off her expensive jewels and donates the proceeds to charity, puts crystals by her son’s head to heal him while he’s puking in a toilet, and exiles herself to an ashram when her filthy-rich husband cuts her off. While Georgina wears caftans and Victorian gowns unironically, of course, Paltrow as the character wears them ironically. In this role, Gwyneth embodies a parody of her own Goop-y persona, which makes Georgina Hobart all the more layered and interesting. Supplemented with standout performances from Zoey Deutch, Jessica Lange, and January Jones, to name a few, The Politician thrives on a cast that balances unironic sincerity with ironic outlandishness.
And The Politician is truly outlandish, garish even—all jewel-toned, gothic panache. The tone is set from the outset in the opening credits, which assembles a menagerie of objects that define Payton Hobart. Metallic school pins and biographies on recent presidents, yes, but also signed blank checks and bright colored heaps of prescription drugs. With a Wes Anderson-style color palette and attention to detail, these items converge into a mannequin that melts and transforms into Payton. The opening questions whether Payton is merely, or more than, the sum of his parts. And this captures one of the central struggles of the show: are ambition and feeling mutually exclusive? Can you do good things without being a good person? Does it matter? The plot is emotionally oversaturated with nastiness and selfishness, and excessively concerned with the tension between motives and deeds. Just when the show starts to get too slimy, though, Murphy offers viewers breathtaking moments of authenticity and raw emotion, like Payton’s tear-inducing rendition of Joni Mitchell’s River at the end of the pilot. These breaks from campiness and absurdity are when the show does its best work and allow it to broach sober topics, including suicide and terminal illness, with sincerity.
While The Politician leaves room to deepen some of its narrative arcs and characters—Ricardo and Skye, in particular—it’s a show that will keep you on your toes from start to finish. The performances and the stylish flair undoubtedly make it worth a watch, and the set-up for Payton Hobart’s next campaign anticipates a promising chapter for the already-planned second season.
This one deserves your vote, y’all. Happy streaming.
—Tess and Grace