Ryan Murphy’s first series with Netflix as part of the mega-bucks deal he signed last year, The Politician arrives like so many Murphy-created or produced series; with a flourish, confidence, high production values and modicum of hype.
As one of the biggest names currently working on television and as someone who played a massive part in creating cinematic television that not only became a massive part of our cultural diet but also in helping to create the phenomenon of binge viewing, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that he has found his way to Netflix.
A lot of the trademarks that scream ‘this is a Ryan Murphy series’ are here; it looks and feels like a movie; the humour is dark and somewhat unforgiving; it’s unafraid to push challenging, subject matter, some of which can be triggering; Jessica Lange shows up, initially looking as if she’s playing a variation of her Murder House character before events take on a dimension more similar to the true life story that inspired the recent Hulu series The Act.
However, reviews for the series have thus far been mixed, and it seems as if there is a ‘love it or hate it’ air that is stemming from watching the series and it has to be said that viewing the first episode can prove somewhat polarising.
The confidence and bravado is there. This isn’t Murphy’s first rodeo of course, but everything about it gives one the feeling that this is one of the biggest names in television production absolutely having a blast being given free reign on a large canvas, although at first glance, especially by its halfway mark, it never fells as if goes as crazy as Nip/Tuck or American Horror Story.
Murphy’s trick has always been to combine shlock with class, which explains how something like Nip/Tuck was able to combine anti-heroic cable television characters, with graphic surgery scenes and shock value material such as serial killing and sexual violence, with the shlocky elements getting a more thorough work out with American Horror Story, and yet as producer and occasional director, he put his name to American Crime Story which has delivered some of the finest, most potent television in recent years.
The Politician comes to the screens in a preppy, jovial, almost theatrical manner. The first episode is fun and sets its stall out pretty much right away, and yet there are overindulgences that can grate, the biggest one being a performance from lead character Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) singing Jodi Mitchell’s ‘River’.
The notion behind the song is understandable as is the reason why Payton is singing it, with the character trying to score votes and yet also putting his own grief out there, and yet the song plays out pretty much in full and one can see why Platt, who got his big break on Pitch Perfect but has since become a major Broadway star thanks to Dear Evan Hansen, has been given the platform here, and yet it really adds nothing other than for the episode to be either manipulative or self indulgent. In fact, one gets the impression that the scene could have been thrown into one of the many episodes Murphy’s Fox Network juggernaut Glee produced, except this isn’t Glee. Hell, it isn’t even a musical.
There’s enough good here to get you to come back and things become better with the second episode, co-written and directed by Brad Falchuk who has pretty much been at Murphy’s side since Nip/Tuck, been credited as co-creator on many of their shows together, and yet it feels as if he never gets the credit or press coverage that Murphy appears to get.
They sometimes say it’s best to give a series three episodes before deciding if you’re in or you’re out, yet with The Politician it’s very much its first two episodes that could be the deciding factor. The tone, exaggerated performances and sense of disbelief that needs to be suspended has to be doubled right from the moment the series begins.
Right from the off, none of these characters actually look like high school students (a common complaint about American high school series, yes) and yet The Politician doesn’t really seem to care if Ben Platt, Lucy Toynton and the rest of the cast look as if they’re in their late twenties or early thirties. Realism is not the point here, but satire and biting theatrical wit is the key here and once one leans into that and settles into the myriad manipulations, plot twists and horrible, but darkly comic behaviour, then one finds the series becoming more and more fun, but it’s a big ‘if’ because if it doesn’t work by halfway through the second episode then this is definitely not the series for you.
That is, mind you, if one comes back after the first episode.
The series approaches the high school election here with an exagerrated level of drama that one wouldn’t even find on a season of The West Wing or 24. In fact, the bitter tone and exaggeration on display here has more in common with Alexander Payne’s Election, but with the high school satire of Heathers, a fine combination actually that becomes more fun the more one stays in the confines of the universe that Murphy, Falchuk and Ian Brennan have set up here.
At the centre of it all is a superb performance from Ben Platt. For anyone only familiar with him through Pitch Perfect or Dear Evan Hansen, the confidence, bravado and manipulative tactics might come as a shock, but if anything if should continue his current ascent to stardom. He pretty much dominates proceedings with a character and performance that will either grate or carry you along and could be a metaphor for the series itself. That he’s very much front and centre of that wonderful credit sequence, itself one of the very best things on television right now, is indicative of the series stall and what it’s setting out to do.
He may fit into the prism of an male anti-heroic character leading a television show, but he’s also one of the most entertaining we’ve had in a while. This being Ben Platt, you somewhat cannot help but root for him, even though the things he’s doing are incredibly manipulative. It is after all simply a high school election, before one is reminded that he genuinely wants to be President of the United States someday and that everything going on is part of his plan to get there, which makes his machinations, manipulations and behaviour somewhat disturbing, but which only adds to the satirical fire and fury going on here.
Very much love it or hate it, but four episodes on, I’m hooked and chomping at the bit to see what will happen next.