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Empathy for the devil

  • Ryan Murphy’s glossy Netflix satire is about a budding politician in high school
  • ‘The Politician’ is polished, but disappointingly hollow and trashy

Ben Platt as Payton Hobart, the sociopathic lead of ‘The Politician’.
Ben Platt as Payton Hobart, the sociopathic lead of ‘The Politician’.

Politics," Groucho Marx said, “is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies." This wisdom is echoed by the glossy and vapid Netflix satire The Politician, made by the ever-indulgent Ryan Murphy. Murphy, who broke through with the saccharine high school musical series Glee, keeps joy far from this flamboyant production where—as one girl astutely puts it (and I paraphrase)—wealth makes the hard things easy so the rich struggle to make the easy things hard.

Payton Hobart, the sociopath who happens to be this show’s leading man, is a career politician we meet pre-career. The only books he reads are biographies, mimicking inspirational leaders in a bid to xerox their greatness. This faking-it-till-we-make-it approach is taken by Murphy and Co, with their cold, heartless show evoking smarter and more incisive high school fictions of the past, like Alexander Payne’s savage Election and the murder-loving 1980s classic Heathers. There is even a pronounced Wes Anderson hangover—complete with a book-collecting Bob Balaban, a jaunty background score and Gwyneth Paltrow playing a woman who may well be Margot Tenenbaum on happy pills.

Oh, and there’s a self-consciously tender arc about a Superman-lookalike language coach falling in love with his young male student, before opposing him in the elections for student body president. Elect me by your name, so to speak.

It is a gorgeous-looking show. The delicious opening credits show shelves and partitions inside the ideal candidate, with biographies of Barack Obama and equestrian trophies stacked in a wooden shelf the shape of a boy, varnished with colour only after it’s been shaped just right. The style is lush and implausibly whimsical—this Harvard-eyeing young high-schooler campaigns in a Tabasco-red suit, for instance, and drives a cream Alfa Romeo with a Mille Miglia sticker. The visual nuttiness and baroque performances make The Politician fun, for underneath this polish it is disappointingly hollow and trashy. Ben Platt is a great Payton, Paltrow is superb as his flaky mother, as are Lucy Boynton as Astrid and Laura Dreyfuss as McAfee—making up for the formidable Jessica Lange acting so hard she appears to be channelling Kirron Kher. There’s enough Shirley Bassey on the soundtrack to smooth things over, though.

The dialogue is wickedly, alarmingly cold. Describing her twin sons (named Martin and Luther), Paltrow’s Georgina admits that she does love them—just not unconditionally, the way she loves Payton, her adopted son. “The love has edges," she explains. “It doesn’t go on and on." Payton’s political advisers are cartoonishly solemn, describe high school speeches on a scale of “Hillary ’08 tearing up in a New Hampshire cafe" and unironically refer to the school’s only student from Haiti as “the Haitian vote".

Despite flashes of wit, the show’s over-reliance on exaggerated scandal keeps it from being clever. Guns are fired, people are poisoned, cops are bribed—an attempt to depict the evils of politics doesn’t have to be this bald-faced, does it? The Politician could have been a lark, but this tabloidy need to shock gets in the way. As does the nearly hour-long running time, an impediment for a show this determinedly one-note. It would have worked far better as a 22-minute comedy.

Yet, a confession, dear readers and voters: I inhaled this salacious first season in one day. Television doesn’t have to be good to be compelling, and The Politician is sordid enough to charm a cynic. Also, the final episode setting up season 2 is a treat, with wise women having fun. More than words and characters, the visuals stay with me: a girl talking about “what love looks like" while sitting across a too-long dining table, with an elaborate candle stand and a stuffed bear in the background. When she rings a gong, a ponytailed butler shows up. I guess one is only truly wealthy when even the guy collecting the coats looks like Thom Yorke.

A standout episode is called The Voter. The shortest episode, it deals with an apathetic student with base interests and no eye on the future. It’s a snappy glimpse of the show this could have been, nearly as sharp as the acutely observed American Vandal (Netflix). In this world, students collate approval ratings via Facebook behaviour. About approval ratings, John F. Kennedy said it best: “Just think what my margin would have been if I had never left home at all." In The Politician, where students stage a musical about slain presidents, Kennedy’s musing hits home harder, in a more cautionary way. JFK could have lived.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter - @rajasen

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