Welcome, friends, to the age of Ryan Murphy’s Netflix. Or Netflix’s Ryan Murphy. Welcome to the moment in which a powerful showrunner and producer gets even more freedom to try things, to get weird, to say “to hell with it” and have Gwyneth Paltrow garden in a full-skirted gown, because why not? (That is not a complaint.) It’s not as if Murphy’s shows for FX have been tame or conservative; pick almost any scene from any episode of any season of American Horror Story, and ye shall find something bonkers. But it’s hard not to imagine that in the streaming world, especially given the deal that brought him there, Murphy won’t have access to more of almost everything. More money, more time, more liberty. And more people who say, “Yes, that totally works, that’s brilliant,” even when it isn’t.
So here’s the pilot of The Politician, and some of the hypothetical people in Murphy’s corner — his McAfee, James, and Alice, if you will — were right when they said yes. And some were wrong. Maybe that’s an unfair comparison. After all, when Payton Hobart (played with staggering energy, vulnerability, and what can only described as gusto by Ben Platt) gets absolutely crushed in a presidential debate, they give it to him straight: It was bad. Very bad. Maybe his answers were perfect, but he got creamed, because there’s no beating authenticity. Authenticity, sincerity, honesty, call it what you want — it not only wins people over, it also tends to reveal its lack in others. And as Payton’s equally disastrous Harvard admissions interview makes clear, he doesn’t do “authentic” well.
There’s the single most interesting thing about The Politician so far: Payton Hobart is startlingly vulnerable, and what he’s turned that into is inauthenticity. Just as those beautiful opening credits illustrate, he’s shoving out the real person to make room for a perfect, precise collection of experiences, skills, achievements, and images, all because a “waking dream” made clear to him that his destiny was the presidency of the United States. He is, without a doubt, the most Paris Geller–esque character to grace our screens since Liza Weil kicked that door shut in the Gilmore Girls revival. (Now taking bets on whether Payton pulls a kick like that by season’s end.)
What’s fascinating about that debate, and about Platt’s performance in general, is that for Payton, the person he’s trying to dissolve and the one he’s trying to build are both present and in constant conflict. When River (David Corenswet) impulsively tells the school about a failed suicide attempt, it’s the dissolving Payton who reacts. Maybe the strategic part of his mind is still whirring quietly, just a little, but this is a person he’s connected to — a person we later learn he loves. But he also watches him walk into the audience with alarm, and he starts to sweat, and when he’s asked for his closing statement, he just kind of moves his face. (It doesn’t totally work; Ben Platt is so good in this, but maybe facial-tic comedy isn’t his thing.)
River has two selves too, it seems, although it’s not the same. He is himself and the person everyone else imagines him to be. That includes his girlfriend, Astrid, played by Sing Street’s Lucy Boynton (don’t you dare call her Bohemian Rhapsody’s Lucy Boynton or I swear to God I will turn this car around). River doesn’t put much work into pretending to be that person, he just happens to be handsome and popular and rich and good at things. Moments after we meet him, he’s holding a gun, and by the episode’s halfway point, he’s used it. (Murphy may not often opt for restraint, but he does here, and it’s the best possible choice.) The person who looks back at Payton in those last moments is just River, not an idea, just a person. It’s the idea that keeps going, and the real River who we see again as the action jumps into the past.
But The Politician is a comedy, right? That’s what the warning up front says. There are funny moments, and it’s certainly got the rhythm of (an admittedly dark) comedy in places. Payton’s pursuit of a running mate offers several such moments, including Payton getting absolutely savaged on a school bus and the introduction of Infinity (Zoey Deutch) and her grandmother Dusty (eternal Murphy muse Jessica Lange). But when a person obviously craving genuine connection reaches for a gun with the intent to do himself harm in the first moments of a show, it’s hard to let giggles pour out. Luckily, that jump back in time introduces us to Payton’s mother (the only parent or caregiver, other than Dusty, that we meet), Georgina Hobart, who’s played by Gwyneth Paltrow. And Gwyneth Paltrow seems to be playing a parody of Gwyneth Paltrow.
She’s so well cast here! The painting! The soothing voice! The casual use of “staff!” Just … staff. Presumably she means the butler, the under-butler, the personal chef, the masseuse, the personal trainer, the trainer’s trainer, the carpet expert, three aerialists, five to seven lawyers depending on the time, a mindful meditation expert who restores antiques on the side, a whole slew of housekeepers, Daisy from Downton Abbey, the family portraitist, and two guys who follow her twin sons around with a briefcase full of NDAs (that’s why the number of lawyers varies). Oh, and a driver. Paltrow’s Georgina is ludicrous but also human, but there doesn’t seem to be a division there. Just the person who loves her son, or at the very least, makes an incredibly convincing show of it. And she certainly helps him pursue his destiny, not least by hiring him a Mandarin tutor — River, who somehow clocks Payton’s dissolving, broken self in seconds.
The fact that such a scene works at all is an accomplishment. (It also turned me around on Corenswet, who I thought was a bit of a blank slate at first.) But it’s also where The Politician grows even more confusing. Sure, the tone turns on a dime throughout the first episode, but is what we’re seeing in these flashbacks real? Can River understand Payton instantly? Can he reduce him to tears in moments? Is Astrid the world’s most accomplished library-teleporter? The people are heightened throughout. Just look at Alice, a Jackie O.–Rachel Berry hybrid with a voice like a hypnotist and a haircut she presumably ran by a focus group full of compulsive liars. So is the world they inhabit, which Murphy shoots like Wes Anderson filming a season of Real Housewives. And sure, the election is ludicrous, but there’s nothing to indicate that it isn’t really happening to Payton. Yet the flashbacks are a step beyond.
In the present, Payton finds himself suddenly the only candidate in the race, though one still without a running mate, since Infinity keeps turning him down for reasons she’s not compelled to explain. He gives a speech — probably genuine, probably also calculated — at a memorial for River, then sings Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and I’d call it a shameless opportunity to get Ben Platt to sing if it wasn’t so affecting. (Pick a weeping student from the audience for yourself, I’m McAfee, swallowing her own mouth in the attempt to avoid howling.) Astrid’s crying too, and then she’s not crying; this episode can really be summed up by her silently weeping and shaking, then walking on stage to dab at one nonexistent tear.
That’s the tear that changed an election. Alice falls on her sword, opening herself up to a torrent of abuse by telling everyone (via social media, of course) that she cheated on Payton and had to break up with him — lies, as far as we know. Payton presumably changes the dynamic of his whole team by breaking the rules she lays out at the earliest possible moment, an act so unexpected that it’s the one I’ve kept turning over and over in my head since first watching this hour. And Payton’s desperation drives him to once again court Infinity, whose angry refusal pushes him off of grief’s cliffs. He’s using them. He’s seducing them. He’s fake, fake, fake.
She’s right, he replies, something he tried to confess to his mother earlier. He’s fake, but Infinity is real, and so was River, and then he shatters. That’s the other contrast that this episode hinges on. That devastation is real. But so is his composed walk to the car, and his simple declaration that Infinity is onboard.
Except maybe she’s faking it, too.
• When I first watched this episode, my viewing buddy guessed that Payton and River’s connection would be that they were brothers. I said no, if they were brothers they’d be hot twins. Then the hot twins showed up. Someone send me a medal.
• Here’s hoping that, in the world of The Politician, someone caught Dusty glaring at the black family in the restaurant and has already christened her “Buffet Betty” or something like that on Twitter.
• Which came first, the name River or the choice of song? I am, to be quite honest, guessing the latter.
• As with every Murphy-Falchuk show (this one Murphy, Falchuk, and Glee collaborator Ian Brennan), the costumes and production design are exquisite. So let’s do a best costume of the episode pick throughout: Obviously, the gardening gown, though I covet each and every thing that McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss) wears.
• “Well, your father and I bought their way in.”
In crisis? The number for the Suicide Prevention Hotline in the U.S. is 1-800-273-8255, or you can visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.