Stunning showcase for Ben Platt in darkly irreverent ‘The Politician’
Ryan Murphy’s first foray into Netflix is more than just another endeavor to merge quirky comedy, sly satire and dark themes.
This is probably why “The Politician,” which begins streaming on Friday, issues a warning to viewers even before the first of its eight hourlong episodes in Season 1 begins: Some elements of the series may be disturbing to those who struggle with mental illness, and it doesn’t want to be misconstrued as poking fun at the life-and-death challenges behind it.
Even protagonist Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) doesn’t see it coming, because he’s too busy manipulating everything and everyone around him. But we digress.
Since age 7, Payton has always known he’d eventually end up ruling the roost at the Oval Office. That’s easier said than done, of course.
His journey to the White House is as circuitous as his teenage friends’ romantic dalliances. It begins at Saint Sebastian High School, where getting high grades isn’t enough to get him into Harvard.
Payton, with his wealthy adoptive family backing him up, says he needs to get into Harvard because it has produced more US presidents, from John Adams to Barack Obama, than any other university: eight. (Yale has produced five.)
Part of treading the singular path to success is learning to cleverly and decisively navigate the school’s most treacherous political landscape.
First and foremost, Payton has to get himself elected as student body president by outsmarting his ruthless opponents without sacrificing his carefully crafted image.
But Payton’s ascent to power hits a tricky snag when dreamy campus heartthrob and cocaptain of the lacrosse team River Barkley (David Corenswet) announces his intention to make a run for the presidency. River isn’t really interested in the position, but he says it’s his only way to get into Stanford.
Unfortunately, popularity trounces skill in this lopsided political mano-a-mano. Ring a bell, Pinoy voters?
While Payton gets much-deserved applause for his carefully researched speeches, all River needs to do to generate ecstatic cheers is flash a Clark Kent-channeling smile before playing to the peanut gallery.
What is a brilliant but charmless candidate to do?
Payton feels the need to succeed to prove he’s more than just his doting mom Georgina’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) adopted son. Moreover, he feels betrayed by River’s belated announcement because he’s had some rolls in the hay with the school jock, who used to be his Mandarin tutor.
Helping Payton navigate Saint Sebastian High’s political scene are his girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and his strategists, James (Theo Germaine) and McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss).
But they have their work cut out for them because River has campus beauty Astrid Sloan’s (Lucy Boynton) support. To appear “politically correct,” Astrid asks Skye Leighton (Rahne Jones), a “gender-nonconforming” African-American lesbian, to be River’s running mate!
Payton’s team has an ace up its sleeve, however: To “soften” his rigid image and win the students’ sympathy vote, they recruit cancer-stricken Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutsch) to run as his vice president! They’re willing to manipulate anything for the sake of appearances.
But all hell breaks loose when Payton discovers that Infinity, with her omnipresent grandmother Dusty Jackson (Jessica Lange) by her side, is neither as frail as she looks nor as sick as she appears!
We were pretty hooked and invested in these characters’ stories throughout the eight-hour binge, not just because of “The Politician’s” zany development, but also because of each cast member’s feisty, hard-to-ignore portrayals.
We’ve been a fan of Ben Platt since we saw his Tony-winning breakout performance in the acclaimed musical “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway, and we’re only too happy to note that he doesn’t disappoint here.
The show even manages to utilize the talented actor’s formidable vocal chops in scenes that require him to sing the complex melodies of Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Unworthy of Your Love” (from “Assassins”) and Joni Mitchell’s “River,” rendered with as much emotive beauty as technical flair.
Payton’s isn’t the only story worth following: The dramatic upheavals fueling the characters of Gwyneth Paltrow (who portrays a bored socialite who’s in love with her lesbian lover, played by tennis legend Martina Navratilove), Jessica Lange (as a grandmother who uses her ward’s “illness” to get freebies), Benjamin Barrett (as Infinity’s “simple” boyfriend Ricardo) and David Corenswet (who conceals a dark secret behind his wholesome boy-next-door image) are just as compelling.
The series meanders midway but gets a bigger and more tantalizing narrative boost in Episodes 7 and 8, when Judith Light (as Sen. Dede Standish) and the Divine Miss M Bette Midler (as Dede’s right-hand woman Hadassah Gold) are introduced into the story.
There’s a sequence in the second half of the series that will remind viewers just how “divine” Ms Midler is: When Hadassah isn’t allowed to sit through Dede’s meeting with a senator, she demonstrates to everyone around who’s boss without breaking a sweat!
In what we consider the premier season’s second act, “The Politician” ticks off a series of well-staged realizations and epiphanies that allows Payton and his pals to reexamine their priorities in life.
As one of them astutely muses, “Money makes all the important stuff easy, so we end up making the unimportant stuff hard, just to make it feel like we’re coasting along.”
In Payton’s latest challenge, he crosses paths with a “good-looking political firebrand with bold new ideas,” as well as a charismatic leader who’s been in a secret romantic “thrupple” for 10 years!
With his ideal life going off the rails, Payton discovers the importance of feeling empty—because it teaches him what it means to lose, for a change (“Do I have to be a loser to feel things?”).
But there’s more honor in defeat than there is in unused potential, he’s told: “We can’t quit every time we don’t get what we want. There’s no such thing as destiny—just men who, when the world needs them, answer the call.”
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