If you tried to drink every time someone on “The Politician” says “ambition,” you wouldn’t get through a single episode alive. For the steel-jawed characters of “The Politician,” and especially its ostensible hero Payton (executive producer Ben Platt), ambition is the urgent undercurrent of just about every scene, revealing a desperate intensity that never lets up. Ambition is what drives them to be smarter, more ruthless, more removed. It’s what keeps them dissatisfied with everything they already have — for better and, more and more frequently, for worse.
It’s not altogether shocking that ambition is also the driving force that brought its creative team back together. For the first project for Netflix, Ryan Murphy turned to Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, his former collaborators on a show whose characters palpably ached under the weight of their ambition: “Glee.” Given the thematic similarities between that series and this one, similarly exaggerated high school settings, and Murphy’s enormous blank Netflix check (the producer signed a massive overall deal with the streaming service last year, though this show falls under his previous agreement with 20th Century Fox TV) it would be reasonable to assume that “The Politician” might take full advantage of its unlimited running time and lack of censors to get even more manic than “Glee” ever did. The first couple episodes back up that instinct by leaning into a deliberately brusque dialogue rhythm, pastel palette, and the characters’ own gaudy wealth. (Wes Anderson, and particularly “Rushmore,” come to mind more than once, though “The Politician” always has more of an acidic bite.) And yet, over the course of its eight-episode season, “The Politician” proves to be something a little more interesting than it seems — and yes, maybe even a little more ambitious.
You could draw a straight line from Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry, the laser-focused center of “Glee,” to Platt’s Payton, the hyper-intense showman of “The Politician” who similarly believes that he is destined for greatness if only he can get everyone else on board. (In Rachel’s case, “greatness” means Broadway; in Payton’s, it’s a road to the White House, starting with becoming his senior class president.) Like Rachel, Payton is very talented, more intelligent than his high school knows what to do with, and downright abrasive in his confidence of both. Like Rachel, Payton believes he’s destined for greater things, and will do whatever it takes to achieve them. They’re even both adopted — and yes, like Rachel, Payton has an undeniable singing voice that grounds him when nothing else can. (The times when “The Politician” breaks into song are forced, but it’s hard to complain when Platt’s the one singing.)
But there are still a few key differences between the characters that also differentiate “Glee” and “The Politician” from each other. For one, it’s never quite clear why Payton wants to be president so badly; he treats it more like a need, a pressing itch he felt once and can’t scratch until he’s sitting in the Oval Office. For another, Rachel was a girl who was always punished for her drive while Payton is a boy who keeps getting rewarded for his outsized passions (an unavoidably gendered fact that, to its credit, “The Politician” well knows). And unlike Rachel, who constantly had to fight for anyone to take her seriously, Payton is surrounded by people who want nothing more than for him to succeed.
His best friends (Theo Germaine and Laura Dreyfuss) and girlfriend (Julia Schlaepfer) double as his presidential campaign’s consulting team, and are frequently even more singleminded than him. His beguilingly sanguine mother (executive producer Gwyneth Paltrow) openly admits to loving him more than either of her biological sons (Trevor and Trey Eason). Even Payton’s potential rival River (David Corenswet), River’s girlfriend Astrid (Lucy Boynton), and opponent Skye (an immediately magnetic Rahne Jones) admit that he’s more prepared and motivated than either of them will ever be.
But the flip side of that, as his mother says with frank resignation, is that Payton’s determination to succeed can be downright scary. It’s a crucial moment that, like every other scene on “The Politician,” could err too blunt to work; but Paltrow, returning to TV to work with her now husband Falchuk, sells it by letting her character’s exaggerated calm crack with genuine fear. This soon collides with a subplot that, when it comes into sharper focus, brings the entire season together in a truly unexpected way.
At first, the sideshow of wide-eyed Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch) and her conniving grandmother (Jessica Lange) feels like a wacky C-plot that stretches too long, game though Deutch and Lange are. Stricken with a mysterious strain of cancer, Infinity is the town’s sweetheart, a common cause for everyone to feel good about rallying behind. But as is immediately obvious, not everything about Infinity is what meets the eye, and the truth of her life comes crashing into Payton’s own with an alarming force that derails both his dreams and the entire show itself. That Infinity will be a complication for Payton is never in doubt; more surprising is how she forces Payton to reckon with himself, his feelings, and his resolute desire to never examine either too closely lest he break. This conflict between ideal endgame and disappointing reality is where “The Politician” shines. Platt, no stranger to unsympathetic heroes after his Tony-winning turn as the lead role in “Dear Evan Hansen,” takes every chance to humanize Payton as he gets, especially in the rare moments when he, or someone else, gives him permission to feel the messier emotions he otherwise keeps at bay.
Following Payton’s own journey of self-discovery, by the end of the season, “The Politician” becomes far more nuanced and complex than its initial few episodes suggest. It almost feels like the Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan team knows what viewers are expecting of them (i.e. colorfully bitchy social commentary served up with hyper-stylized flair) before pulling out the rug from underneath them entirely. It doesn’t always work; their tonal shifts remain jarring; the cartoons are characters until they’re not; the extent of the show’s belief that Payton deserves the world simply because he says so can be unclear. But when it does click into place, “The Politician” proves a perversely fascinating portrait of what it means to not only have ambition, but stop at nothing to serve it.
“The Politician” premieres Friday, Sept. 27 on Netflix.
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