I have been singing the song of Ben Platt ever since I saw him on Broadway in his Tony/Grammy/Emmy-winning role in Dear Evan Hansen. His remarkable performance in that show was an acting showcase few his age are capable of. I’ve been hoping those with the money and power to make the big decisions in Hollywood and beyond would see his insane talent and that he would break through in a way theatre actors have trouble doing. Every time I’ve seen Lucas Hedges pop up in a prestige picture since then, I couldn’t help but think, ‘surely, Hollywood could do better than that.’
Platt’s first post-Evan starring role comes as a gamble for not only himself but series creator Ryan Murphy. This is Murphy’s first project for Netflix, a deal recently closed, which would break the showrunner’s well-established relationship with cable network FX, where he’s produced multiple Emmy-nominated (and winning) programs. It’s the jumping-off point of a deal that would pay the series creator a whopping $500 million.
The Politician is a show I’ve watched twice already. I think I like it. Maybe I love it. But I definitely can’t stop thinking about what it’s trying to do on a more significant level. And I’m ready for round three.
Payton Hobart (Platt) is a wildly ambitious and possibly sociopathic high school student in a massive, beautiful high school in Santa Barbara. Payton is running for Student Body President, and this is the first step in a series of fights he’ll have to win if he wants to achieve his ultimate goal – to become President of the United States.
This seems like it’s very much in Ryan Murphy’s wheelhouse. After establishing his space in the television landscape with shows like Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story, The Politician can’t help but feel like several different Murphy projects melded together. It’s got the biting, sardonic wit of a Scream Queens, the teen-drama thing Glee has going on, and the glorious Jessica Lange scenery-chewing we have in American Horror Story. In the beginning, it’s all very irreverent and fun, and then when the show decides to become emotionally sincere, it can be devastating. The tonal shifts can be so jarring and this can make the story feel inconsistent. But if you’re paying attention, there are good reasons why the narrative is crafted this way.
Platt brings as much to the role of Payton as he did onstage to Evan, and yet this character feels like a total departure for him, as the viewer is never sure if Payton is genuine in the moments he outwardly displays emotion. We’re second-guessing him constantly and yet this doesn’t stop us from connecting with him. It’s made clear from the first scene that Payton’s ambition could possibly be linked to some kind of personality disorder that he should maybe address with a psychiatrist. But that would take precious time away from achieving his goals. Even when Payton lets his guard down in a way that feels safe to him, it’s clear he’s not seeing the big picture and isn’t comprehending the more significant elements at play that define his character.
Platt’s outstanding performance is constantly adding more to what’s on the page. This is already a very gripping character study, and future seasons of the show will follow Payton as he is running future campaigns. There are so many places this character could go, and I’m all in for it. We see growth from Payton, but we absolutely don’t see him reaching enlightenment. At the end of this season, he’s been knocked down, and he’s evolved, but his eye is again on the prize, and this time, he doesn’t care who he has to hurt to get there. And yet, Payton never does anything that is beyond redemption. It will be exciting to see where his story goes moving forward. And we get to hear him sing here, so that’s a plus.
Even though I could talk about Platt’s performance all day, I will acknowledge there are other people in this show doing some good work. First, we have Gwyneth Paltrow playing Payton’s adoptive mother, Georgina. She’s the essential Ryan Murphy leading lady – an impeccably dressed wealthy woman with secrets. She’s married to Keaton (Bob Balaban) and has two muscular and dim-witted sons of her own, neither of whom she likes very much. But her own secrets and indiscretions threaten to ruin everything around her! This seems like it’s written as a one-season role, but it would be great to see Paltrow pop up in future seasons. She’s having more fun than she’s had onscreen in years.
Jessica Lange has become something of a Ryan Murphy staple in recent years. After starring in the first four seasons of American Horror Story, and disappointing fans everywhere when she refused to return for subsequent seasons, Lange has occasionally shifted back to Murphy’s projects. After playing Joan Crawford in FX’s great Feud miniseries, she’s back in the Murphy-verse yet again as Dusty Jackson, grandmother of Infinity (Zoey Deutch), a cancer-stricken classmate who Payton pursues as his running mate. We’ll get to Deutch later, but her loud, campy, dramatic arguments with Lange are some of the most deliciously vicious moments of The Politician. Also designed as a one-season role, it’s disappointing we probably won’t spend more time with Lange. However, the series has already found a way around this.
This is a show where every supporting character is a standout, and everyone has ample time to shine, and we’re introduced to an extensive list of newcomers we should expect to see popping up elsewhere in the future. We’ll begin with Zoey Deutch, who recently enjoyed positive reviews for her roles in Before I Fall and Zombieland: Double Tap. Playing a role here that doesn’t even remotely resemble either of those, Deutch is already proving herself as an actress of versatility, and she’s excellent as the presumably tragic teenager who just might have more up her sleeve.
We also have Platt’s Dear Evan Hansen costar Laura Dreyfuss and newcomer Theo Germaine as Payton’s campaign managers McAfee and James. Germaine is a trans actor, and this show never once addresses this. There are plenty of progressive elements that the series never expects a pat on the back for. If anything, there are a lot of elements criticizing what people use to their advantage in their quests for power, which is a more fascinating way to look at this. Meanwhile, Dreyfuss seems like she’s having lots of fun, and she’s got some great pantsuits. Newcomer Rahne Jones plays Skye Leighton, a maybe-ally-maybe-villain to Payton’s cause, and she’s charismatic and fun to watch.
Relative unknown David Corenswet plays River Barclay, a handsome and charming student who is running against Payton for Student Body President. River looks like he’s got it all figured out – he’s good-looking and charismatic, he’s got the popular girlfriend (Lucy Boynton), the great social life, and the bright future, but there’s more to him than you’d ever expect. I’m going to be vague here, but trust me that Corenswet is a real find. I’ve never seen him in anything before, but he has genuine screen presence in a way that actors usually spend years figuring out how to achieve. He’s not in a lot of the series, but the viewer feels the importance of this character even when he’s off-screen. We never forget about him, and it takes an actor who truly knows what he’s doing to make that happen. Corenswet will next be seen in a lead role in Ryan Murphy’s next project for Netflix, a limited series called Hollywood. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Hopefully, he can work with Ben Platt again.
I’m not even sure how I felt about The Politician. I loved a great deal of it, and bits and pieces infuriated me. Parts of it are cutting and extremely timely and relevant, and moments will follow that contradict those. It’s an indictment of the ultra-rich in America, but it also wants you to sympathize with these people. The production design is outrageously beautiful, and the score by Mac Quayle is exquisite. It’s campy and extravagant and ridiculous and exactly as over-the-top as you’d expect from Ryan Murphy, but it seems kind of tonally all over the place and as a result, feels a kind of like a show in search of a message, and it hasn’t quite found one yet.
It’s an excellent use of Ben Platt, but you also just want to watch him do more. It speaks volumes to Platt’s talent that Murphy saw him in a Broadway show and decided not only to craft an entire show around him – but to have that show be his first project for his new tenure at Netflix. It’s an exceptional cast of relative unknowns, and if this were a more tautly crafted first season, it would send several promising new careers on their way. I’m sure it will anyway, as there’s just enough that’s positively irresistible about The Politician to carry it the distance.
Even though the series wavers a bit in quality as we make it to the end of the first season, it’s all saved by the finale that sets up what we have to come. New characters played by Judith Light and Bette Midler are introduced, and they are both expected to play a pivotal role next season. The second season in view after the first season finale looks exceptionally better than what we just saw. Everything in high school is messy and unfocused and unpredictable, even for someone as exasperatingly organized as Payton Hobart. And after all that he’s learned throughout this first season, he’s ready for the fight of his life. And the viewer is finally on his side, and angry there are no more episodes. See you next fall, Payton.