Payton Hobart, a student from Santa Barbara, has known since age seven that he’s going to be President of the United States. But first he’ll have to navigate the most treacherous political landscape of all: Saint Sebastian High School.
Cast: Ben Platt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange, Zoey Deutch, Bob Balaban, David Corenswet, Lucy Boynton, Julia Schlaepfer, Laura Dreyfuss, Theo Germaine, Rahne Jones, Benjamin Barrett
Directors: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Ian Brennan, Janet Mock, Helen Hunt, Gwyneth Horder-Payton
Writers: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Ian Brennan
The Politician begins with Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) in an interview with the Dean of Harvard, laying out his ambition to one day be President of the United States of America. The Dean is impressed with the polish of Payton’s application but seeks to learn more about him as a person. He asks Payton when was the last time he cried. Payton says he cried the last time he watched It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas but the Dean points out that everyone cries at the end of that movie. He then asks if he cried because he was moved or because he felt had to and Payton tellingly answers “Does it matter?”
The Politician is a story of people with their eyes firmly set on their end goals and the sole ambition to get there. Payton is moulding his life in a way to best get him to his goal of being president by doing things like reading past Presidents’ autobiographies to copy their traits and studying Mandarin and working on the literary magazine to best impress on his Harvard College application. The next step on his road to the White House is to become Student Body President of Saint Sebastian High School, but to do that he will have to beat his longtime arch nemesis Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton), who is constantly trying to win her father’s approval. In order to win his friends/campaign managers McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss) and James (Theo Germaine) recommend he find a running mate who will make him more relatable to voters and feel more authentic. Enter Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), a young woman suffering with cancer who is doted on by her Nanna (Jessica Lange), who it seems is taking advantage of Infinity’s illness for free stuff. After convincing her to join his campaign, everything seems to be going great for Payton until someone tells him that Infinity is faking her illness. And it just gets crazier from there.
The show is thoroughly engrossing with a bunch of twists and turns that will keep you want to just watch one more episode. It feels like a Cohen Brothers’ film, like Burn After Reading, where things continue to snowball and get crazier until we hit a breaking point. The situation involving Infinity, Nanna and Infinity’s boyfriend Ricardo (Benjamin Barrett), who is the comedic star of the series, comes to a hilarious and satisfying conclusion. Payton’s family situation is a lot of fun to witness as he is close to his adoptive mother, Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow), but not close to his adoptive father,Keaton (Bob Balaban), and antagonistic with his twin step brothers (Trey & Trevor Eason) who are like a douchebagier version of the Winklevoss twins. Paltrow’s delightful as the doting mother who is struggling in a relationship with a man she only married because she thought it was what she was meant to do. Her love for Payton is clear, as is her fear at what she will do to help him in whatever way she can.
As the star of the show Ben Platt is given the most to work with as Payton deals with a spectrum of emotions and situations (and yes Ben Platt fans, he does sing in the show). He starts the series as an unlikeable figure due to his unbridled ambition and politicking but slowly starts to feel for others, with the help of his mother and River Barkley (David Corenswet), Astrid’s boyfriend and Payton’s tutor and one time lover. David Corenswet is fantastic as the yin to Payton’s yang and one of the few people that Payton can be honest with, talking about his struggle with trying to be a good politician even if it means not being a good person. He isn’t given a lot to do but knock it out of the park every opportunity he is given. The chemistry between the pair is palpable and the scenes they share some of the best of the series.
The show has really great dialogue with everyone seeming to deliver their lines at 1.25 speed. You really need to pay attention to keep up, which isn’t hard as there are some really clever and witty lines, great political speeches and nuggets of wisdom and inspiration. My favourite sees one character tell another that she’s “been sitting in on meetings like this since before you could focus your eye long enough to find your penis.”
While The Politician wastes little time during its eight episodes, I can’t help but feel that it would have been improved with an extra episode or two to expand on some of the supporting characters. Payton’s girlfriend, Alice Charles (Julia Schlaepfer), and their relationship is one element that could have used more time. Towards the end of the season, Payton has to make a big gesture to win her back but we never understand why he loves her, other than she is the type of person who could help him politically, even though it is clear she loves him. There is also one declaration made early in the season that you would expect to create some sort of conflict or would become a factor later but it is never really resolved or addressed again. It would have been great to have seen Payton, McAfee and James came together as neither of them are terrible fleshed out or to have seen why Payton and Astrid are so antagonistic to each other, even though they are eerily similar to each other.
The episode “The Voter” is easily the weakest of the season as it focuses on a student outside of the main cast in the lead up to the election. While it’s interesting to see everything play out from an outsider’s perspective, it feels tonally out of place to the rest of the season, especially with student constantly leering at girls and trying to masturbate in peace. It is at least mercifully short, clocking in at under 40 minutes.