The Politician review: A curious, uneven series that doesn’t know what it wants to be

The first series from Ryan Murphy since he signed a multi-million dollar Netflix deal, this high school satire is not the wunder-producer’s best work 

Ed Cumming
Thursday 26 September 2019 13:50
The Politician: Official Trailer

I wonder what Netflix makes of The Politician. It’s the first series from Ryan Murphy, the wunder-producer the streaming service hired on an exclusive deal for a reported $300m (£243m), the biggest such deal in history.

For that kind of wonga they don’t want mere hits but blockbusters, Games of Thrones and Crowns that send people running into the streets to beg friends, family and members of the public to sign up.

The streaming world is about to get much more competitive, as Disney and others launch their own services, so the scrabble for content is more desperate than ever, particularly for Netflix, which lacks a catalogue of old material to draw on.

Murphy, who created Nip/Tuck, Glee and Pose, among others, has a suitably galactico CV, but this curious, uneven series about a high school politician is not his best work.

Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) has known since he was seven that he wants to be president of the USA. To do that, he wants to go to Harvard. To help his chances of getting into Harvard, he is running for student body president of San Sebastian High School.

The ground has been mined before, most effectively in 1999’s sharp satire Election, which starred Reese Witherspoon as the Machiavellian Tracy Flick. The current American presidency is a fertile background for a series that wants to show politics at its most cynical. Running against Hobart is River (David Corenswet), an even more handsome and charismatic young man who once tutored Tobart in Mandarin, and is allied to the scheming Astrid (Lucy Boynton). Sensing their rival’s superior credentials, Hobart’s campaign team insist he try to find a running mate to make him look more real.

Between the idyllic-looking campus, the various sumptuous Californian houses and Hobart’s vintage white Alfa Romeo, everything looks pretty, as befitting its obsession with surfaces. Its style owes an obvious debt to Wes Anderson. But its tone swings around, lurching from high-school satire to something much darker (a note warns viewers that they might find some scenes upsetting) but then occasionally to full musical comedy.

It labours its point about the difference between what’s real and what’s fake. Beneath his bluster, Hobart is anxious and uncertain about everything, not least his sexuality and his place in the family, but while Platt conveys his sheen convincingly, he fails to make him likeable. Nor is he especially plausible as a candidate, less “young JFK”, more “briefcase wanker”. Gwyneth Paltrow is wasted as Hobart’s mother, painting serenely in opulence while the youngsters flail around.

It doesn’t help that the cast all look about 30, with assured, mature appearances that belie their supposed youthful incompetence. Apparently this is deliberate: future series will see the characters evolve through different kinds of political situations. If they get that far, that is. On this middling first series, it’s unclear how much more we want to see Hobart and co. Unlike its confident anti-hero, The Politician hasn’t decided what it wants to be.

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