Still, Gwyneth Paltrow is a scene-stealer, proving that she remains a formidable actress

By Tom Gliatto
September 27, 2019 09:00 AM
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The Politician, Ryan Murphy’s first project for Netflix, doesn’t have the bold conceptual clarity of that superproducer’s network hits, from American Horror Story (which just started a new season on FX) to Pose. The eight-episode Politician feels like a Glee episode about Richard Nixon.

This means, at the least, that The Politician is a contradiction in terms — no one in American history was less gleeful than Nixon. It also means that Politician, which appears to think of itself as a zestily malicious satire, isn’t of much relevance or use in the Age of Trump. As we head toward the 2020 election, what else is there to be zestily malicious about?

Politician is the saga of an ambitious Santa Barbara high-school senior named Payton Hobart (Ben Platt). Very much a child of privilege, with his eye on Harvard, he has equipped himself with a blueprint to earn him success upon success and ultimately land him in the White House. First up: winning student-body president.

Credit: Courtesy of NETFLIX

But elections, even at this level, are a minefield. For one thing, Payton’s sympathy-vote running mate, Infinity (Zoey Deutch), may be faking her terminal cancer, possibly in collusion with her grandmother (Jessica Lange), a horrible, tacky woman who cackles with pleasure as she loads up her plate at the buffet.

This is a good setup, good enough that you might hope that The Politician is Murphy’s answer to Election, the 1999 Reese Witherspoon comedy that gave us the immortal name “Tracy Flick.” Or maybe a teenage House of Cards. Or a Machiavellian Clueless.

But, to put it in campaign terms, who or what is the show’s demographic? The students, starting with 25-year-old Platt, don’t look like adolescents, even mature ones. And, apart from some satire of “snowflakes” and one episode that shifts the story’s perspective to that of a slacker student with no interest in the election, there’s not much sense of social media or modern pop culture — of young lives lived in the streaming, texting, posting, sharing moment.

Instead we have Payton and Infinity joining the school’s annual musical production, which happens to be Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. This gives Platt and Deutch the opportunity to sing “Unworthy of Your Love,” a melodic mock-ballad in which John Hinckley professes his love for Jodie Foster and Squeakie Fromm, hers for Charles Manson. The effect isn’t satiric, campy, funny, ironic or even cynical. The one thing it is is condescending. And it brings us no closer to the age of Trump.

By the way, the most popular musical currently staged by high schools is The Addams Family. After that comes Mamma Mia!

Politician sets up a second season by engineering a last-episode shift that elevates Peyton to some kind of higher moral ground — not an implausible thing in itself (there’s the myth, for instance, of Robert Kennedy’s transformation from his brother’s wingman to liberal knight). But a nice Payton, no longer strictly the antihero, may well prove insufferable. Platt, with his large, sensitive eyes and shivering earnestness, is a bit like an anxious poet.

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Besides, does the series actually aspire to follow Payton all the way to the presidency? It’s hard to imagine him getting as far as dogcatcher.

The acting, across the board, is very good, although the single best performance comes from Gwyneth Paltrow as Payton’s rich, often wayward mother. (Paltrow and her husband, Brad Falchuk, are executive producers for the show.) Her performance is unforced, unmannered, tart but without edges — as clean and smoothly elegant as a minimal-fragrance bar of soap. Paltrow remains a formidable actress.

The eight-episode first season of The Politician is streaming on Netflix.