As anyone acquainted with Ryan Murphy’s filmography would know, the content he produces is far from understated. From the extravaganza of the grandiose drag balls in Pose to the outrageous antics that we couldn’t seem to take our eyes off each week during the Glee era, it’s safe to say that he’s left his mark on the television industry. Leading up to the release of his latest project, the Netflix-released, 8-part comedy led by Ben Platt of Dear Evan Hansen fame, fans of Murphy’s would know not to expect anything less than the definition of camp, presenting viewers with the next in his long line of shows to follow his unique style. In that regard, it triumphs. With the hijinks of the soapy rivalries, the melodrama created by the shocking betrayals and twists, and the moments of sheer disbelief when faced with the darkest of the biting comedic dialogue, before anything else, The Politician makes for incomparably entertaining television.
The series provides the perfect viewing experience for those seeking endlessly engrossing drama propelled by a cast of distinctive characters, all with differing stakes in the quest for success. The race for student body president at Saint Sebastian High School lays the groundwork for what turns into an all-consuming crusade for its candidates and is what sparks the central ideas of the show. Its primary, overarching theme attempts to tackle the morality of ambition, and whether your achievements are truly fulfilling if they are at the expense of others. Platt’s enthrallingly acted Payton Hobart is at the centre of this idea, grappling with the lack of empathy that he continues to feel as his crushing ambition grows increasingly out of control. Despite being born into wealth, Payton has insisted ever since he was a child that he wanted to do things properly – become student body president after a fair fight, get into Harvard without bribery, and, eventually, as a result of all of his achievements, become president of the United States without tarnishing his reputation. The latter goal becomes the focal point of his life, causing him to make rash, ill-informed decisions without consideration of anyone but himself for as long as he can get away with it, all in pursuit of doing whatever he can to succeed.
This idea of ambition is similarly expressed in his lackeys – the quirky array of sidekicks Payton carries with him on his journey to success – each having their own, loftier goals in mind under their “undying” commitment to Payton. In the wider scheme of things, the ever-present uncertainty of where any character’s true motivations lie reflects the modern spectacle of politics. In the age of endless Notes App apologies and the ticking time-bomb for when the next big scandal is away to break, it is now more than ever excessively difficult to tell what is and isn’t genuine or what may or may not be hidden beneath the surface by those in power. This consistent, albeit on the nose, commentary and thematic exploration is one of the major strengths of the show, making it more and more interesting to see just how far Payton will go to get what he wants, and how long he can keep things up until his conniving machinations are laid bare.
Emphasising and providing a balanced perspective for these ideas is the character of River Barkley (David Corenswet). Beginning the season as a candidate that Payton is up against, River serves not only as Payton’s opposition in the political race but also in terms of their outlooks on life. From the very first speech that they both give this contrast is palpable: where Payton’s is calculated, manufactured and disingenuous, River’s is sincere – laden with personal anecdotes that connect him with the voters. River enchants in ways that Payton never could, no matter how hard he may try, and this is reflected further in River’s emotional state where he feels the pain of those around him so deeply that he doesn’t know what to do with it. River serves as a foil to Payton, present in everything he does but especially when he is at his most ambitious, balancing out his irrational desires and helping to humanise him by showing that Payton, despite everything, wants to better himself. As much as the over-the-top elements of the show are undeniably enjoyable, the surprising amount of depth that went into the study of its main characters makes for an additional ingredient in what makes the show so addictive.
While the show’s handling of characterisation is evidently layered and thoughtful, the show, like its leads, is prone to biting off more than it can chew. In the midst of the myriad of grand ideas the show clearly wanted to explore, this brings with it a glaring disparity in tone that often takes away from the appeal of the show. It’s hard to take the more dramatic beats seriously when you know that the wacky capers of the Hobart family will be cut back to in a moment’s notice, but it doesn’t seem like the show wants to make any apologies for this. At the end of the day, the show is at its most muddled when Payton is at his breaking point. It begins to mirror how Payton’s drive to succeed becomes more and more overwhelming and how he eventually crumbles under the weight of his ambition, much like the show itself towards the end of the season. It’s messy, for sure, but can that be part of the appeal?
If there’s one thing that’s for sure about the show’s idiosyncratic look into the mind of a man who strives to have it all, it’s that Ben Platt is a phenomenon in the making. Blessing viewers with both his captivating acting and transcendental musical talent, it’s a wonder we’re still waiting for him to become a household name. Looking to the future, the series is primed to head towards even more insanity that will either overjoy fans of this audacious style or alienate viewers further. But, what’s even more certain is that if Ben Platt’s cover of Vienna is not released on every streaming platform under the sun by the time season 2 rolls around then it’s clear that Netflix will have Hell to pay.