As it goes into the second half of its inaugural season, The Politician doubles down on its pace and craziness, and yet it seem sometimes feels resolutely like some of the most subtle television that Murphy has put his name to.
Best of all, instead of just being somewhat typical of many of the anti-hero narratives that have dominated television ever since The Sopranos, there does feel as if there is a genuine attempt to make Payton Hobart as complex a character as possible.
Sure, anti-heroes are usually complex, but I can’t remember the last time one has straddled the line between good and bad in the manner that Ben Platt’s performance does here. For someone so desperate to achieve the highest office in the land and attempting to do everything he can to win a school election, his feelings for River (David Corenswet) and genuine sadness at his death feel genuinely emotional and by the time we get to the finale, itself a set up of sorts for season two and which while not being a massive game changer, does place the pieces of the story on to a much more larger chess board for which to play with should it be renewed (this is Netflix, I think we’re guaranteed three seasons the most, unless it ends up being a major flop for them).
The journey to that finale sees the series become almost increasingly over the top at times, with everything going on feeling increasingly fraught and crazy, not least The Act-inspired drama between Infinity (Zoey Deutch), her mother Dusty (hello, Jessica Lange) and boyfriend Ricardo (Benjamin Barrett doing a great line in being dim), a plot line that ends up turning into an assassination attempt on Payton (and there is much joy to be had in that those episodes are called ‘The Assassination of Peyton Hobart’ as if it’s the latest American Crime Story), but which runs like a crazy heightened soap opera complete with songs from Stephen Sondheim.
Yes, there are still musical moments, although honestly, the more the series won me over the less I hated the songs, and the fact that it involves Assassins and ends up playing into Peyton’s paranoia and realisation that becoming President involves potential danger from assassination is strangely good fun, but then strangely good fun sums up The Politician in a nutshell.
While Murphy is credited as co-writer on five of the episodes, I cannot help but feel a lot of the grounding and structural work here is because of Falchuk and Brennan, and the best episode here is arguably the finale which feels both independent of the rest of the series and yet an integral part of it.
The penultimate episode itself has the feel of a finale and builds up to a wonderful crescendo that would have been as good a place to leave it this season as any, but the finale shifts gears in a wonderful way. It slows down considerably, introduces us to next season’s protagonists (via the brilliant casting of Bette Midler and Judith Light) and proceeds to flash forward three years later and to a considerably different paradigm between the lead characters.
It is strange seeing everyone come together to get Payton back on his feet given a lot of what happened prior and that half of the characters were at each other’s throats throughout most of the season, but it still ends the season in such a way that it leaves the viewer itching to see where the story could possibly go next. It takes Payton to what is the next logical step into the world of bigger politics, and while it doesn’t ask or explore the question or themes that one is watching develop here, one is left hoping the series will explore the idea of a white male trying to supplant a female politician, a great one it seems who is heading to a Vice Presidency in a time when gender inequality is a pressing concern.
For some the finale may prove to be a disappointment given some of the drama that has come before it; many finales use their last hour of their season to really go for broke, but the slowing down of the pace, bringing Payton a peg or two and having him have to crawl his way back to where he was prior is a lovely palate cleanser and great mood setter for what is to come.
The Politician has proven to be very much the definition of a ‘Marmite’ series with some loving it and others being more annoyed by it than anything else, but if one allows it to get its claws into you then, much like Ben Platt’s singing voice, resistance proves to be futile.
The works of Ryan Murphy frequently have a go for broke attitude that makes them incredibly entertaining, be it in terms of narrative or content. The Politician never pushes the boundaries in the manner of American Horror Story, nor is it as dramatically powerful as American Crime Story, although as noted before a lot of the power of the latter came from writers other than Murphy who was calling the shots more as director or producer, but this is the funnest that a Murphy-created series has been in a while, possibly since Glee, his last foray into high school set drama.
That played in the realm of network television and while boundary pushing in its own way for sure, The Politician isn’t beset by content limitations, although for a Netflix series it never gets quite as dark or shocking as what other Murphy series have given us
As noted before, Murphy is credited a lot as co-writer on his episodes while Falchuk and Brennan go it alone with theirs, and given that it resets the series and starts afresh with its Falchuk-written and directed finale, one gets the sense that the other two credited authors of The Politician are the driving force here, or will become even more so as Murphy adds to his list of IMDb credits as creator via his multi million dollar contract with Netflix.
Massively enjoyable while satirising the level of prestige on display here (these are some of the most eccentric cast of rich people that television has given us in a while for sure) although one gets the sense that its enjoying spending time in such an affluent setting, the series manages to be both about the world we’re in today while also offering silly escapism on a level not seen outside of soap operas and telenovelas and based on this I cannot wait for the series to give us more.