The opening sequence of Netflix’ “The Politician” is very telling of its titular character. We see a wooden effigy carefully carved and tailored to take up the form of a flawless, polished, young man. Inside this hollow creation are various trinkets that presumably, help make this lifeless dummy an ideal presidential candidate. Bank checks, pins, trophies, bullets, and drugs are apparently essential to the path of becoming president of the United States.
Much like this wooden statue, Payton Hobart (Broadway star Ben Platt) appears to be incapable of empathy. He’s a ruthless, scheming, perfectly manicured high school student who’s driven by nothing but his ambition to be the next US President. Payton already had his path to the Whitehouse mapped out, studying and emulating the lives of past presidents to come up with a measurable formula towards his ambition – from where he’ll go to college, his socioeconomic background, he even already has a presidential staff and First Lady in mind! However, one common denominator among several US presidents that Payton is yet to achieve, is that they have been elected as student body president when they were in high school. In order to secure his goal, Payton runs for the position of Saint Sebastian High School president. But he’s not the only one who’s ambitious, and he’s definitely not the only ruthless candidate around. Now Payton must strategically navigate the treacherous political landscape of high school elections without losing his mind and morals along the way.
“The Politician” has Ryan Murphy written all over it. The characters are extra (cartoonish, even), the storyline is satirical, and we’re treated to subplots which may or may not have taken inspiration from real life events. The most prominent one in the Series, is the story of Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch) and her grandmother Dusty (Jessica Lange) who’s under a case of Munchausen by Proxy syndrome. The term may sound familiar to you if you’ve heard of the real-life story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, who has been made to believe that she has cancer by her mother Dee Dee Blanchard, in order to get benefits and freebies from Gypsy’s supposedly medical condition. Ryan Murphy is no stranger from taking inspiration from real-life events for his shows, although both Zoey Deutch and Jessica Lange both denied that Gypsy and Dee Dee’s story has anything to do with their performance.
Speaking of Ryan Murphy’s shows, “The Politician” feels like a nostalgic callback to “Glee”, complete with high school drama, musical numbers, and exaggerated characters. In many ways, Payton Habart is like the male version of Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry – they’re both ambitious, aggressive, and would fight tooth and nail to reach their dreams. Basically, imagine “Glee” with a dash of “House of Cards” thrown in.
Ben Platt is brilliant as the calculating Payton Hobart. He masterfully navigates this manipulative, yet vulnerable character. The genius behind Platt’s performance, is that he humanizes Payton, but just like any politician, it’s hard to figure out if he’s being authentic or not. When he bursts out crying in front of Infinity after she called him out for being a fake, I couldn’t tell if he’s legitimately sorry, or if it’s an act to get Infinity’s sympathy. I guess the only way we can tell when Payton’s being real, is when he conjures his “imaginary friend” (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) for a heart-to-heart conversation. He’s essentially talking to himself, his “dark side” as he calls it, so I guess there’s no need for him to put on a show.
Come to think of it, part of Payton’s charm is that he acknowledges his need to be humanized. His best friends recognize his desperation to feel, and despite his impression as a stone-cold, stuck-up as*hole, he shows them that all he wants is acceptance. In the end, Payton’s ambition and charm prevails. At his lowest, he’s able to gain the loyalty even of his fiercest rivals.
In the same way that Payton’s run in the student body elections is a trial for his candidacy as US President, the first season of “The Politician” felt like a test drive to see its potential as a series. Sure, it gets wobbly in the middle, but it’s entertaining and campy enough to keep you wanting more. With Payton still dead-set on his way to the Whitehouse after high school, we can only expect bigger things and even more ruthless competition in Season 2.