It’s a cliche to say that people who seek power probably shouldn’t have it—for good reason. Even if someone running for office, accumulating wealth, or, say, producing a cultural work intended to be influential thinks they have humanity’s best interests at heart, who are they to determine what those interests are? And what’s to say they won’t use their power solely to benefit themselves? Deciding to seek a position of power should be difficult, which is why it’s so alarming that Payton Hobart, the protagonist of The Politician, apparently decided he wanted to be President Of The United States at the tender age of seven.
Payton, played with wide-eyed, anxious energy by Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt, is introduced to the audience relaying this information in an interview with an official at Harvard. Apparently, he sat up in bed one night and didn’t just realize he wanted to be president, he knew he would be president one day. To a normal person, I think, this should be alarming—which is, perhaps, why the interviewer presses Payton on who he really is. In the interview, Payton is unable to answer a question about whether he cried at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life because he’s “supposed to.”
This is just the first of many instances in which The Politician, the first series made under executive producer Ryan Murphy’s overall deal with Netflix, highlights Payton’s tenuous grasp on “authenticity.” He becomes frustrated when River Barkley, his opponent in the race for student body president that will form the backbone of the season, outpolls him as a more authentic candidate. In several scenes, he admits to building much of his personality around what he thinks he’s supposed to do, largely based on reading the autobiographies of various famous politicians. Later in the episode, he expresses a deep fear to his mother, Georgina: He might not be capable of genuine feeling.
Whether you enjoy the pilot of The Politician depends in large part on how interested you are in whether Payton has feelings, or how interested you are in Payton more broadly. And though Platt is throwing himself into the role, he’s often swallowed up in the pilot, largely because there are so many other things happening and so many other potentially more intriguing characters.
Among these: Astrid, River’s girlfriend, who tells her boyfriend “I will do better at appearing more authentic from now on” when he asks her to be more honest about sex. It’s unclear what differentiates Astrid, Payton’s nemesis, from him, other than the fact that she is a woman and appears to be a bit colder in making her political calculations. Though Payton’s team, including his consultants McAfee and James and his girlfriend Alice, consider themselves smooth operators, Astrid makes by far the best play of the episode when she takes over River’s campaign in the wake of his death. Because halfway through the first episode, River shoots himself in the head, right in front of Payton.
In a show that promises a lot of buck wild material—Gwyneth Paltrow doing paintings to raise money for the Syrian war debt (not the victims of the actual war), inexplicable polls in an election for high school student body president, a Munchausen by proxy plot casting Jessica Lange in the Patricia Arquette role from The Act—River’s suicide is by far the most jarring thing that happens in the pilot, largely because he’s also the show’s most jarring character.
Played by David Corenswet, River is a far better politician than Payton, precisely because he isn’t interested in politics. He’s beautiful, instinctively empathetic, and steals a debate with Payton by delivering a remarkable, off-the-cuff speech about isolation, mental illness, and connection. (He’s also been carrying on an affair with Payton, and probably had a threesome with Payton and Astrid.) He’s a square-jawed cipher for Murphy’s ideal of masculinity, Superman if he cried in the bathroom of a Kim Petras show.
Payton’s relationship with River is by far the most complicated emotional element of the show, which is another way of saying it’s by far the most compelling. When Payton sings Joni Mitchell’s “River” in his official capacity as presumptive student body president, it feels right, and not just because it’s Ben Platt or the closest this show has come to Glee.
Aesthetically, The Politician is definitely a Ryan Murphy show, which is to say it looks great and is often a ton of fun, but is also a succession of moments and ideas that have little interest in cohering over the course of an episode. (We’ll see about the season.) There’s a lot happening here that seems compelling, but it’s also, well, a lot. There’s Payton’s adoptive family—two oafish, menacingly, blankly hot brothers, and his mother Gwyneth Paltrow—stacking on top of Payton’s seemingly real emotional motivation, his anger at not being “chosen” by his birth mother. There’s his girlfriend, Alice, who fake breaks up with Payton to garner him sympathy on the condition that he turn and wistfully look back at her when they pass each other in the hallway. He doesn’t do it, seemingly shattering their relationship for real. Why? We don’t know. There’s some other shiny stuff to look at.
The shiniest part of The Politician is likely Jessica Lange’s performance as Dusty Jackson, the grandmother of Zoey Deutch’s Infinity Jackson, a girl who seemingly has cancer and who winds up as Payton’s vice presidential candidate. The two have a sort of political meet cute, in which Payton becomes increasingly awed and interested in her wholesome personality and sunny disposition. Like River, she’s another natural, genuine talent who isn’t calculating the way Payton is—except that she’s probably faking her illness. The pilot ends with another student telling Payton that Infinity isn’t really sick, a dramatic moment that contrasts with her growing confidence on the stump.
Is the campaign going to do anything about this information? Will it interact at all with Payton’s disintegrating relationship with Alice? Will anyone process River’s death at all? Not if Payton has anything to say about it. In his interview with Harvard, Payton tells his interlocutor, “People like to think of their presidents as characters they see on TV. Most never actually see them in real life.” Now all he is to do is make sure he isn’t seen.
- “Pilot” is written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan and directed by Murphy.
- The beginning of the episode comes with a content warning: “The Politician is a comedy about moxie, ambition, and getting what you want at all costs. But for those who struggle with their mental health, some elements may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”
- Payton describes each recent American president as having won an “inevitable election victory,” which should be news to Al Gore.
- The opening titles, in which Payton is fashioned into a sort of mannequin, is set to Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago,” seemingly for no reason.
- When the consultants posit that Payton should try to recruit a running mate from the special ed class, he retorts, “John McCain tried that. It was a disaster!” Unfortunately, I laughed.
- Hi, everyone. Looking forward to digging into the rest of the season with you. This is a weird and interesting show!