‘The Politician’ Review: School Halls Become a Battleground in Ryan Murphy’s Tiresome Netflix Series

Netflix’s The Politician, by its own description, is about moxie – a North American term synonymous with gall, nerve, and determination. The show has a lot of it, not just because it’s a Ryan Murphy production, but because it also asks you to believe actors in their mid-twenties can convincingly portray teenage students. While this is glaring in so many other high school-set shows, The Politician somewhat avoids having to skirt around this, because so little of the series is actually about school. Yes, the narrative is about an election that takes place in one, but so much of what we associate with adolescence is missing from this sharp tale of ambition.

Ben Platt is Payton Hobart, a hysterical man-child who has his entire working-life planned out. He wants to become the president of the United States — because anyone with enough audacity can be — and a crucial part of his route to The White House is winning an election to become student body president at his school. Payton and his campaign runners treat the election as if it were a life or death situation.  He needs to know everything, he needs to be in control, and anyone who threatens that is in the firing line of his intense journey to power.

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On the other side of the battlefield is Lucy Boynton’s Astrid, who is running against him. Her cohorts are as dedicated to her cause as Payton’s are to his, but everyone’s got more than one agenda. Neither of the candidates is particularly likable, but that doesn’t seem to be of much importance in the overall scope of the show. The Politician‘s strong cast —which also features Zoey Deutch playing Infinity, a clear riff on the Gypsy Rose Blanchard story — help soften the blow of characters who are difficult to connect to.

The idea of authenticity in politics is one of the show’s recurring themes. In the quest for a greater, noble truth, lies and manipulation line paths like mines. The halls of the high school become a tacky chessboard on which ridiculous teenagers skid around trying to take each other out. As a viewer, it seems safe to say that the series wants you to care about the outcome of the election, but it never quite translates because of how it’s structured. It’s amusing to watch the drama unfold, and the plot twists are fun albeit predictable, but there’s never much reason to latch on to anything beyond that. The Politician isn’t lacking emotional moments or insights into character, it just fails to make them resonate past a mildly entertaining level. But hey, at least Jessica Lange is present as Infinity’s grandmother doing Jessica Lange stuff.

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Some might come into the season expecting biting social commentary and an exhilarating race to the top for the key players in the series, but the fast pacing of the show delivers minimal thrill and the commentary is opaque. This is a story about politics, so of course, there’s underlying jabs and equations, but it’s left to the viewer to seek them out and they’re not as obvious as one might expect. The high school setting is especially of interest because of how far removed that part of the characters’ lives is from their goals – perhaps speaking to how the upcoming generation of kids has become much more political in recent memory out of necessity. But there’s also a whole episode about apolitical kids, so who’s to say?

Most of what makes The Politician a fairly enjoyable watch is in the details. It’s shot and edited well with interesting needle drops. The costumes and sets are also sublime and tell you so much about the privileged characters inhabiting them.

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Among the positives is Gwyneth Paltrow as Payton’s adoptive mother. She’s often gliding around her house’s garden in silky kimonos, giving advice to Payton — who she admits to loving more than her biological sons. She’s warm, but also odd in a pleasing way, and has the wealthy matriarchal demeanor of a woman you could easily place in a Lana Del Rey music video — roaming around the large rooms of her home with glamour and contradiction. Paltrow is one of The Politician‘s most inviting characters, but she’s lost in the narrative around her and is left to flounder as are many of the more entertaining characters. More humor could’ve gone a long way.

The Politician improves in the second half of the season but still fails to culminate in anything that seems worth the time spent trudging through some of the slower-paced episodes. It’s not a total waste, just slightly pointless. The character development is inconsistent, the quirks that made the likes of Glee a success are tiring, and there’s little spark to be found past the interesting premise.

★★ ½

The Politician launches September 27th on Netflix.

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