Since the age of seven, Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) has been fixated on becoming the President of the United States. As an Ivy League dean notes during an interview, this dream has become increasingly popular — “the air of impossibility has been removed” — but for Payton, it’s not just a dream. It’s an eventuality, one that will surely come to pass if Payton adheres to a strict formula for success, and Ryan Murphy’s The Politician introduces us to Payton as he embarks on the next step in his journey: running for class president.
Truth be told, Payton should have the election well in hand, thanks to a dedicated team of campaign staffers (Theo Germaine and Laura Dreyfuss) and a devoted girlfriend (Julia Schlaepfer), all of whom intend to follow him straight to the White House. But when handsome, popular jock River (David Corenswet) enters the race, suddenly the path to the Oval Office isn’t quite so clear. Payton’s team recommends that he enlist a special needs student as his running mate, an idea which is immediately shot down — “John McCain tried that, it was a disaster” — but Payton finally relents with an overture to Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), a cheerful and childlike cancer patient whose overbearing grandmother (Jessica Lange) sees Payton’s ambition as a vehicle for personal gain.
There’s little argument that Murphy’s projects always look incredible, and The Politician is certainly no exception. With the bulk of its characters coming from incredibly, almost offensively wealthy backgrounds, the production design is a visual feast of lavish sets and eye-popping pastel colors — which allow some of the grimier elements (both literally and figuratively) to feel all the more unseemly. And there’s plenty of grime to behold, as the race devolves into mud-slinging, offensive slurs, unsubstantiated rumors, and multiple — yes, multiple — assassination plots.
It’s heavy stuff for a group of high-schoolers, and that’s without acknowledging The Politician‘s frank approach to mental health issues. To an outsider, River might seem to have the perfect life, but behind closed doors he readily admits that he spends most of his time faking it for the benefit of others. Payton may be imbued with lofty ambitions for changing the world, but secretly wonders if he might be a sociopath, asking his mother poignantly, “What if all I’ll ever be able to do is pretend to feel?” These are damaged kids, struggling to find their place in a world where adults frequently let them down — or in the case of River’s girlfriend, Astrid (Lucy Boynton), ignore them almost completely — and the series doesn’t shy away from these moments.
But lest I give the impression The Politician is all doom and gloom, the truth is that Murphy (reuniting with Glee collaborators Brad Falchuck and Ian Brennan) has crafted a bitingly funny series, full of characters who are at once endearing and despicable, and often take themselves (and their privileged lives) way too seriously. The satire isn’t quite a clever or fully realized as Alexander Payne’s brilliant 1999 film Election — which will almost surely draw a few comparisons — but Murphy also seems to be striving for something more earnest, as evidenced by the first season’s final episode, which promises big things for Season Two.
Platt, best known for his appearances in the Pitch Perfect series and for originating the title role in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, excels at taking a wholly unlikable character and turning him into someone for whom we feel a remarkable amount of empathy. “Your ambition frightens me,” says his mother (Gwyneth Paltrow in a wonderful supporting role), and it should, because for all of Payton’s good intentions, he makes a series of increasingly poor choices. And yet, Platt’s many-faceted portrayal ensures that we never fully turn away from Payton, and that we’re always willing to give him an opportunity to redeem himself.
The rest of the cast is great, especially Corenswet, a Superman lookalike whose quiet, understated charm is immediately infectious. It’s a shame the series doesn’t spend more time with him, but for reasons that will become clear before the end of the first episode, there was little choice but to use him sparingly. Elsewhere, Deutch sparkles as the frail but fiery Infinity, a mixture of childlike wonder and ever-increasing frustration, and her scenes opposite Lange — smiling and sashaying and chain-smoking her way through every bit of dialogue — are tremendous.
The Politician is somewhat hampered by its inability to settle on a consistent tone — some of the shifts are positively jarring — and a season finale that not only leaves a number of important questions unanswered (and not likely to be addressed in the future) but spends an excessive amount of time getting to its destination. Nevertheless, the cast is so great and the promise of its future so bright that we can’t wait to meet up with Payton and his frenemies again.