Ryan Murphy Arrives on Netflix With the Dark Drama and Humor of ‘The Politician’

The Politician” defines ambition when it comes to crafting a TV series. In strange but always effective ways it mixes politics, teen satire and dark comedy to present what amounts to a panorama about human nature. Its high aims are the perfect way for maverick producer Ryan Murphy to debut his first original creation for Netflix. Much of this show is vintage Murphy, even in its look, but the breadth of its emotions and risky humor are testaments to how a streaming service now gives him limitless range, free from the constraints of regular cable networks.

Set amid the middle class of Santa Barbara, California, the show’s protagonist is a turbo go-getter named Payton Hobart (Ben Platt). Still a high schooler, Payton’s obsession is to go to the right Ivy League schools and eventually become president of the United States. You always have to start somewhere and for Payton that means becoming Student Body President. While Payton has blue blood in him, he’s an outsider in the lavish home run by his aristocratic mother Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is married out of convenience to patriarch Keaton (Bob Balaban). As in any political race, there are rivals in Payton’s way, including friend and former lover River (David Corenswet), who steals the spotlight during a debate by revealing he attempted suicide. Payton needs a good running mate and for a moment he considers cancer-stricken Infinity (Zoey Dutch). But she’s not all that she seems and Payton has to spin a campaign based on conjecture, like any political venture, with his team which includes acolytes James (Theo Germaine), McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss) and girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer). When River kills himself, Payton also finds himself facing the wrath of his opponent’s virago of a girlfriend, Astrid (Lucy Boynton) and even Infinity’s own jealous, looney boyfriend.

“The Politician” plays like an elevated mixture of some of the past work by Murphy and regular collaborator Brad Falchuk, who returns here as well. Like “Glee” the story focuses on a young cast, here made up of mostly unknowns. Platt comes from Broadway, and is best known for his work in “Dear Evan Hansen’s.” There is violence and wicked humor that could be taken from “American Crime Story.” But freed by Netflix to indulge in his obsessions, Murphy, who directs the pilot, takes the sun-kissed imagery and good looking youths of past visions and turns them into deeper reflections of darkest Americana. Payton is the embodiment of the obsessed, middle class high schooler already charting a perfect course for his life. He speaks like a populist, presenting himself as a man of the people, but we sense it’s a sham, a rehearsed performance to attain power. He hits the buzzwords like plastic straws and gun control. But his girlfriend is a cover for his actual sexual orientation, it’s clear early on that River was the love of his life. In one of Murphy’s most poignant dramatic touches, River’s ghost will haunt Payton’s thoughts throughout the season, calling him out for rarely being true to himself. The second episode opens with a montage going over Richard Nixon’s own hassles in finding the perfect VP, and like “Election,” Murphy uses high school as a testing ground for the jungle of politics in the real world. Some of the dialogue sings with vicious satire, like Payton responding to a suggestion he get a special needs running mate with, “John McCain tried that, it was a disaster.”

It may be a bit hard to keep up with everything going on in “The Politician” simply because Murphy and his staff have fun throwing in various storylines and character arches. There’s Infinity’s aunt Dusty (Jessica Lange in a brilliantly savage performance), who uses her niece’s health issues to get perks at Olive Garden. Astrid becomes Payton’s main rival for power but also has her own private issues at home that reveal her to be far more complex than just a mere villain. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Georgina has a love affair that breaks her marriage to Keaton, and it isn’t too melodramatic but actually emotive. A scene where she confronts Keaton at an auction where he threatens to buy everything she’s putting on sale has some pathos when she walks away, tears swelling in her eyes. Even Bette Midler drops in later in the season as a political figure’s high-energy chief of staff. Some of these characters brim with great satire, like Payton’s twin brothers, two specimens who are caricatures of cocky rich white men. 

Where Murphy goes to new places is when the story, propelled by weird assassination attempts, kidnappings, spreading of rumors and other typical campaign happenings, becomes about Payton’s scared, insecure self. Near the end of the season, as many of the schemes and plans he’s put together to win unravel, and his campaign seems doom he is left alone by Georgina. There is a scene at L.A.’s Union Station where Ben Platt delivers his best moment in the season, tears streaming down his face, and he learns for the first time that attempting to shape your own future is not only easy, but sometimes lonely.

“The Politician” stands out as something both familiar and yet very different. It’s about the nature of politics, but about contemporary youth culture as well in an America where lines become more blurred every day. Issues like non-binary identity are explored, and one undecided voter on campus reveals he never casts a ballot because there’s no point, nothing changes. The soundtrack features LCD Soundsystem, Elliot Smith and others as the sounds of a specific moment in our time. Ryan Murphy, famous for playing with genres to no end, now delivers a series that traverses multiple lanes but never compromises. Even when it may be confusing, it is never less than bold.

The Politician” premieres Sept. 27 on Netflix.