Contemporary mores are viciously skewered in the amoral world of Ryan Murphy’s The Politician, but the series has just enough humanity to keep its heart beating. By Geordie Williamson.

Ryan Murphy’s The Politician

Ben Platt (right) and David Corenswet in The Politician.
Ben Platt (right) and David Corenswet in The Politician.
Credit: Adam Rose

The dreaded moment in the first episode of The Politician, the one I’d been steeling myself for since reading PR materials sent out by Netflix, was the musical interlude – all eight episodes in the first season have one. But it turned out to be the best thing in an already adroit and polished pilot.

Why did a song-length interruption to a show that lies halfway between Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses and Alexander Payne’s exquisitely nasty 1999 high school movie Election make sense? How could a spoilt, rich white boy, who’d spent much of the first hour of the show in a sociopathic fugue state, demolish my defences when he stood before a microphone and heaved heart up to mouth?

The answer was provided by that character’s former lover, an improbably handsome and soulful lacrosse captain, a little later in the series. “Music,” he said, “gives us permission to feel.”

And in a series of cultivated affectlessness, blackly comic and marinated in nihilism – a show that sets out to skewer its blindly privileged cast of characters and serves as an abattoir for Generation Z’s sacred cows – the sincerity of the moment strikes us as Kafka’s famous axe was meant to: a weapon for breaking the frozen sea within us.

As The Politician goes through every awful twist and turn in a student election campaign at a well-heeled Santa Barbara high school, these moments lure viewers on. They suggest that all of the characters’ wrong choices will eventually turn to the right. As Machiavelli put it, “For although the act condemns the doer, the end may justify him…”

The “doer” in this case is Payton Hobart. Payton, energetically played by actor and singer Ben Platt as a kind of sexually fluid Jewish Coriolanus, is a child of extreme wealth – his maid’s room has three lesser Picassos on the wall – but complex parentage. An adopted child, he is frequently disdained by his dim-witted twin older brothers and distant aristocratic father. But his mother, Georgina – played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who tunes her character somewhere between psychoanalytically acute Woody Allen heroine and fey Wes Anderson muse – adores him.

Payton does not know why he has wanted to be the president of the United States all his short life. He describes it to Georgina as a maths equation in which the answer has been given, with only the working-out to be completed. The first steps on this journey are to become school president and get into Harvard on his own merits. His ambition is outsized, as ludicrously scaled-up as Max Fischer’s was in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.

And just as in that film, much of the absurdity of the set-up is modulated by having a supporting cast that operates in deadpan sync with its leader. Payton already has a future first lady as his girlfriend, as well as two teen political operatives whose talent for machination are as impressive as they are ethically appalling.

The preparations made by this team are undone by the news that River, he of the Caravaggio lips and lacrosse captaincy, has decided to stand against Payton for president. River is better looking and more popular, and he exhibits in spades the one quality that Payton lacks: true feeling.

River has not made the decision in isolation. He has been pushed into competition by his Lady Macbeth of a girlfriend, Astrid Sloan (played with frigid animosity by Lucy Boynton), who is perplexed and infuriated by the emotional connection that has arisen between her boyfriend and Payton.

Though River’s candidacy doesn’t last long – due to “events, dear boy, events”, as former British prime minister Harold Macmillan once said – the election that was once Payton’s to lose becomes a carnival of competing claimants. When Astrid, for example, decides to stand in her lover’s stead, she achieves the coup of persuading a gender nonconforming African American to stand as her vice-presidential candidate.

Much of the joy of the early episodes results from Payton and his aides’ scrambling to find a VP able to claim an even greater share of historical victimhood and voter sympathy. The morally questionable shenanigans on one side demand a counterattack, and this in turn demands escalation. Things are destined to get out of hand.

That said, as the war of hearts and minds is fought across the trenches of social media, and as the internal polling of each side grows so aggressive and granular that it feels little different from classic peer pressure and schoolyard bullying, another picture comes into view.

The political contest that drives the narrative emerges as a metaphor for the Darwinian struggle of teenage social interaction. It is, of course, the age of foment and revolution, in which the stakes are impossibly high because no perspective has yet been gained on what value stakes should hold.

And in a period when the self is still in formation, teenage years are a time for masks. “Man,” wrote André Malraux, in traditionally gendered language, “is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.” Viewers might reasonably come to view Payton’s determination to achieve some political apex as a counterpart to the submerged terror he feels as an adoptee, his vast inheritance somehow unearned by genealogical sanction.

Platt’s rubbery features are a vivid external indication of internal tumult. He is by turns anguished with pure need, rigid with mercenary resolve. He is not so different from his nemesis, Astrid, in using the connections forged through student politics to disguise a debilitating sense of aloneness.

Any such insights come hitched to a story that unfolds in a manner so antic, so satiric in tone, that deeper currents of feeling arrive belatedly, if at all. Showrunner Ryan Murphy takes the breezy uplift of his breakout work, the TV series Glee, and adds a pinch of the Gothic horror that drove the standalone seasons of his American Horror Story.

The result never swerves as far into dark absurdism as, say, 1988’s Heathers – with its ur-narrative of the anti-John Hughes teen schmaltz movie tradition – or Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s weird masterpiece. There is no anarchic sense that politics might be used as a tool to dismantle or subvert the existing order. Instead we see the retreat of democracy into the silos of identity politics: a field of legitimate grievance deployed with absolute cynicism for personal gain.

Not that the oldsters of this milieu provide much in the way of an alternative. Dusty Jackson – grandmother of Infinity, teen cancer sufferer and eventual VP candidate on Payton’s ticket – is the senior member of the cast. Played with witchy vehemence by Jessica Lange, she reveals herself to be more selfish and grasping than any of the kids who cross her path.

Meanwhile, Dylan McDermott and January Jones, as Astrid’s parents, are a portrait of curdled realism. They have utterly no illusions about each other and the world – and yet this knowledge has become a straitjacket. For all the laughs McDermott wins with a performance of sleazy brio, and for all the consideration Jones earns in her pill-popping turn as his long-suffering spouse, what they attempt to impart to their daughter is the opposite of wisdom.

Still, the question of how great our sympathy should be for Payton, Astrid and their fellow travellers remains an open one. What should we think of a political stunt that sees students from the school pay hundreds of dollars a time to take a sledgehammer to a gold Rolls-Royce sprayed with a Me Too hashtag – all to provide the funds for a full-time school harassment tsar? When Payton buys up the entire stock of a nearby firearms store and has it all melted down for a memorial sculpture to the victims of gun violence, we sense that money tends to hollow out and render farcical even the most earnest gestures.

The genius of Ryan Murphy, along with the deft talents of his co-creators and screenwriters Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, is to balance our compassion for Payton with contempt. As long as they keep the plates spinning, we’re kept too busy admiring the chutzpah of the undertaking to weigh it all up.

It’s left to Georgina Hobart, the one adult painted in more than a single shade, to clarify the younger generation’s situation. When her son breaks down and, for once, breaks free of the rictus of his ambition, he admits he lacks some essential capacity for care. Stroking his brow with unadulterated maternal love, she gently identifies “a pandemic of intercommunication that has led to an absence of intimacy”. Whatever your thoughts about Payton, there is no app for that.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 28, 2019 as "Presidential vices".

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