Tuesday, June 2, 2020
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‘The Politician’ Misses the Mark

By: Ian Edwards

The New Netflix series, “The Politician,” was released on Sept. 27. It is another project under the auspice of executive producer Ryan Murphy, who also worked on “Glee,” “American Horror Story” and most recently the FX hit series “POSE.” “The Politician” follows ultra ambitious Payton Hobart, played by Broadway star Ben Platt, in his attempt to win his prestigious Santa Barbara High School’s, St. Sebastian’s, student body presidential election. 

One part “Cruel Intentions” and another part “House of Cards,” “The Politician” echoes 1999’s “Election” with Murphy’s particular, colorful and heavy-handed style, while trying (and never fully succeeding) to grapple with issues and themes of identity, both personal and political.

In his signature style, this program utilizes a rich color palette where characters are adorned in fashion-forward costuming framed by ornately queer textures. His characters are backgrounded by their lavish palatial estates and stately high school, dominated by the spaces and the roles that they inhabit within them. In classic Murphy fashion, the show cannot resist a musical number to find characters’ transcendent moments of freedom. 

The title sequence plays this angle too. It displays the main character’s desk drawers and shelves being filled with the paraphernalia of past presidential campaigns, his own compartmentalization of his ambitions. His body is then crafted into a pinocchio, a puppet to his own designs. This theme runs through the show as a weaponization of his entire personality. 

“The Politician” features several Murphy favorites, such as Jessica Lange as Dusty Jackson, the grandmother of Infinity Jackson, a cancer patient who Payton manipulates into becoming his running mate as a cynical ploy to garner sympathy votes for his campaign. Infinity is played by Zoey Deutch whose naïveté is a delightful counterpoint to the constant barrage of political conversations, long draw-on and empty discourses on identity and the little disasters the rich create for themselves to keep themselves from getting bored. 

Other newcomers include Lucy Boynton as Astrid Sloan, Payton’s rival candidate, and David Corenswet as River Barkley, deceased lover to both Astrid and Payton. Gwyneth Paltrow also stars in the role of Georgina Hobart, the wistfully bohemian mother of Payton and his Lacrosse team twin brothers, Martin and Luther. The whole cast’s interactions straddle the line between Glee’s cutesy, adork-able dialogue and the soaring language of an NPR beat poetry slam with a dash of Aaron Sorkin dialogue left in for good measure. 

As events unfold throughout the course of the series, in a baroque and melodramatic flare at such a dramatic and fast-cut pace, one cannot tell if the first few seconds of an episode are a trailer for the next one. The jarring editing raises stakes in scenes that would otherwise lack urgency. This is especially appropriate given the lack of content of the politics of the characters.

The main character, Payton, wrestles with his own authenticity. This is seen with his relationship with queerness—a part of a sordid polyamorous love affair with River, his adonis mandarin tutor and confidante. This desire for authenticity permeates every character in this upper crust milieu. Although, whenever a character is placed in an opportunity to change and express an ‘authentic self,’ they still do whatever terrible thing they were going to do anyway. 

Payton’s politics  are placed in that glittering centrist space between careerism and woke capitalism which Elizabeth Warren and people who filter their politics through Harry Potter and Leslie Knope GIFS find themselves in. Payton’s self-serious advisors, Mcafee, James and Alice advising him with data, polls, and sharp strategy, typify an empty millennial politics of personal political ambition and personality politics. The West Wing is placed into the world of rich high schoolers who have nothing more pressing to deal with than their Harvard admissions essays and scheduling conflicts between their after school tutors and targeted volunteer ‘experiences’. 

In general, Murphy’s projects tend to exist in this decoratively woke political space. The show takes a self-referential and cynical approach to identity, privilege and class, which in typical centrist liberal fashion touches on gender, sexuality, class, anti-blackness and HIV stigma. Like the old adage, “If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both.” This show chases every rabbit and appears to lose them all simultaneously. 

It attempts to make commentary about disability status and QTPOC people being used as political pawns. However, the fact that the minority characters’ manipulation is never brought to a point where the politicos are challenged in any meaningful way about that manipulation, leads to no lessons being learned with these issues. 

For example, The character Skye is a black, gender non-comforming, queer character with noble intentions of being the first QTPOC Vice president at her high school. Even she poisons Payton and then gets a slap on the wrist. Years later, with rest of Payton’s old campaign, they repeat their campaign again, for the same reasons and without any ideological concern rather than their personality cult around an insecure manipulator.  

Overall, The Politician” is well within Murphy’s canon as aesthetically interesting and profoundly simple. But, as a metaphor for modern political discourse, it suffers from a perennial problem that political dramas usually do, assuming that those who are operating in these communities of power are actually as competent as they are portrayed. Murphy’s understanding of power does not match his competence with aesthetic vision.