Even for a satirical melodrama by Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee and American Horror Story, The Politician is too much. Co-created with regular collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, this Netflix series about an election for student-body president at a well-off Southern California high school has trouble staying focused and seems not to realize when its clever ideas cancel each other out. And it’s so aggressively kitschy and cutesy that, on the rare occasions when it calms down and tries to be earnest and affecting, the sincerity comes across as calculated, like a politician tearing up while delivering the same campaign speech for the fourth time in a week.
Considering the show’s many irritating and exhausting qualities, it’s a small miracle that The Politician hangs together, much less that it manages to produce some touching and insightful moments. A good part of its cohesiveness comes from Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt’s central performance as Payton Hobart, a Max Fischer–esque obsessive overachiever. Payton lost his parents when he was young and was adopted by socialite Georgina Hobart (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her wealthy collector husband Keaton (Bob Balaban), who already have two arrogant and thuggish twin biological sons, played by Trey and Trevor Eason. Payton is a fish out of water who is accustomed to privilege but retains a certain affinity for society’s outsiders. Since he was 7, he has pictured himself becoming president of the United States after graduating from his dream school, Harvard. Platt’s anxious, dark energy and knack for smilingly aggressive patter nearly succeeds in making Payton seem like a plausible human being, rather than the anchor for a TV series of indeterminate purpose.
Payton’s purpose, however, is clear: He’s determined to win the position of student-body president at his high school, even running against a dreamboat and natural-born star named River (David Corenswet, who looks like he could play Henry Cavill’s kid brother). The dynamic between the two candidates is one of the series’ many callbacks to Election — see: Tracy Flick and Paul Metzler — but it’s complicated by the fact that they’ve been lovers. (True to form for Murphy, this is a series with a wide and embracing sense of gender and sexuality: There’s also a nonbinary student, Theo Germaine’s James, on Payton’s team, and one of his most formidable rivals is Rahne Jones’s Skye, an out-and-proud lesbian.) Another frequent reference point comes through in the show’s wide-shot compositions, whip-pan conversations, Futura Bold lettering, and overstuffed production design — it’s all early Wes Anderson, right down to a pizzicato-violins–plus–mariachi-trumpet score that seems to exclaim, “Isn’t this all quite delicious!”
Murphy & Co. have clearly poured many high-school satires into their pastiche fusion machine here, not just Rushmore and Election but also Heathers and the team’s own Popular and Glee (which comes through in the season’s sporadic but flashy musical interludes), plus some added dollops of tabloid outrageousness. (A key subplot is very close to the story line of a ripped-from-the-headlines streaming series that just got multiple Emmy nominations). But The Politician never quite manages to create a personality of its own.
I should not delve into the long-term mechanics of the election too deeply here, but suffice it to say that this series regularly flips itself upside down. Nearly every episode completely changes the dynamic and many of the key allegiances, taking some pieces off the narrative chessboard and adding others who get their own side plots to wander down, like Lucy Boynton’s Astrid, River’s girlfriend and Payton’s sworn enemy. Ultimately, the series has too much plot and churns through it too ravenously, turning its narrative architecture into a blatant formula: setup, twist, setup, twist, cliffhanger ending, repeat. Payton goes through such an election-season roller coaster, with triumphs constantly giving way to disasters and then to last-minute rescues, that it starts to feel as though you’re watching the third season of an existing series that has run out of ideas and is just trying to fill up every hour.
Nor does it help that one of the key story lines turns out to be a black hole that pulls energy and running time away from the main narrative. Payton chooses a spunky, wheelchair-using, possible leukemia sufferer named Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch) as his running mate to make himself seem as enlightened as possible and to win sympathy votes from Infinity’s fans. This brings a lot of unnecessary melodrama into an already fraught campaign, a lot of which comes from Infinity’s grandma Dusty, a stage mama and grifter whose scam becomes apparent a lot more quickly than the writers probably wanted it to.
Dusty is played by Murphy diva-in-residence Jessica Lange, replacing Barbra Streisand, who was originally cast in the role but bowed out. Lange is characteristically thrilling playing a boozy manipulator with a self-glorifying anecdote for every occasion. (Her deep-fried country-music accent here evokes her acclaimed performance as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams; she pronounces motel as MOE-tell and proclaims, “I’m just a little ol’ country girl.”) But the show’s determination to keep Dusty and Infinity smack-dab in the middle of things makes it seem as if The Politician never quite figured out how it wanted to express its ideas about the corruption of electoral politics by money and power and about the toxic superficiality of American culture in the social-media era. And unlike Election, The Politician never gets a handle on the main irony of its plot: These teenagers, many of whom are played by actors who look like they’re old enough to play teachers, are running for an office that has no actual power to speak of. And it’s never believable, even in the context of a borderline fable, that so many of the students would be carrying on like James Carville or Mary Matalin, obsessing over numbers and polling. (The main joke on the Election characters was that nobody cared about the election except the three students running in it and a couple of faculty members with axes to grind.) The final episode, which has the sad sting of Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, brings the microcosm of high school out into the wider world, confronting idealists with the entrenched bureaucratic and capitalistic status quo that’s going to paralyze them as grown-ups. But it’s too little, too late.
However, if you stick with the series through the fifth chapter, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most perfect and corrosive episodes of the TV year: It turns out this very tight campus election will be settled by a handful of undecided, mostly bored and uninterested voters, and the story focuses on one of them, a nihilistic, slack-jawed compulsive masturbator who can’t stop staring at girls’ butts, vaping, or playing video games long enough to listen during the candidates’ speeches, and tells one of the contenders that the most pressing issues on campus are the absence of hot Cheetos in the vending machines and the lack of individual restrooms. This installment could be lifted out of its context and stand on its own as a short film; the scene between the undecided voter and one of the candidates is one of the most perfect things Murphy and his team have ever been associated with.
But I’m not sure a single glorious hour is worth the lead-up, and by the time you enter the final chapter, depressing social critiques notwithstanding, you’re back to more wasted motion with Murphy & Co. refocusing their attention from the student election to a conspiracy potboiler. It’s more of an epilogue setting up an already-confirmed second season — the show is intended to follow Payton across several pivotal elections throughout his life — but, like too many elements of this series, it feels as if it would have been better served on its own show. Much like its hero’s determination to win his high-school election, The Politician’s presence on Netflix feels like the by-product of ambition and chutzpah rather than an urgent need to effect change or communicate meaningful ideas.