Image courtesy of IMDB
SPOILERS AHEAD: Creator Ryan Murphy is known for the American Horror Story series amongst others, but none are as American or horrifying as his latest project, The Politician. All eight episodes recently dropped on Netflix. And while there is surely an addictive element given I was able to finish within a weekend basically, this addictive response came from a desire of wanting more out of the show and expecting it would eventually be delivered. The final episode gave hints of what could make for an interesting second season, but that does not make up for the fact that this first season had some disappointing elements that were difficult to ignore.
A major draw to the show was its cast and they really delivered. Ben Platt, who moves from stage to screen after drawing praise for his lead role in Dear Evan Hansen, is intriguing as main character Peyton Hobart. But, that is in no thanks to the writers. They act more as campaign advisors, making sure viewers are not able to see too much into the character. The series begins in the middle of a heated high school campaign for student body president, with Peyton facing off against River Barkley. Publicly, River is dating Astrid Sloane, Peyton’s actual rival. She is using River as a way to draw large support given his popularity while still obtaining power for herself. Privately, River has an intimate relationship with Peyton but neither acknowledge the implications behind this relationship. For River, this has a deadly consequence. After delivering a rousing speech to the student body about the importance of supporting each other and revealing a previous suicide attempt, he makes a second attempt and is unfortunately successful that time around. Even worse, Peyton is witness to it all. And yet, following this traumatic event he continues to pursue his public relationship with Alice, a member of his campaign team who he believes will be his first lady when he becomes POTUS down the road. Throughout the series, Peyton brings River back to life internally where he acts as his conscience, though no true revelations seem to come through. The writers have the opportunity to present what Peyton is actually thinking and they completely squander it. He even performs a song in his honor, and with Platt’s profesional pipes, good call. Sadly, there is no depth to it beyond his shaky emotional vocals.
The cast stand out, though, is Ryan Murphy regular Jessica Lange who puts a powerhouse performance into what is already a tired character trope. She is the Dee Dee to her granddaughter’s Gypsy Rose Blanchard, manipulating her into thinking she has a form a cancer and reaping the rewards she gets from the public whether it be free meals or vacations. Here, they are Dusty and Infinity Jackson. Dusty is not the only one taking advantage of Infinity, however, as Peyton attempts to make the sympathetic figure his running mate. Infinity sees this immediately and declines, though that was before Peyton met her this time alongside her grandmother who manages to extort a Disney cruise in exchange for her services. And while nearly the whole school believes that Infinity is sick, one student knew the truth. He informs Peyton of this, though it is a secret blood test conducted by the titular politician that provides concrete evidence of her healthy state. In what becomes his biggest scandal thus far, he hides this discovery not only from his voters but, even worse, Infinity in order to continue to benefit off of her perceived sickness. When he finally does tell her, it is after he had already fired her for an unrelated, far less-severe offense. The two end up developing a friendship later on and participate in the school play. These scenes provide some much needed human empathy, though not nearly enough. If only the writers had been as self-aware as the character they wrote. Ever since the Gypsy Rose case broke back in 2015, countless programs and movies have profited off of this tragic story. I get that it is a fascinating story, yet at this point it has become hackish and insensitive. But hey, that’s politics, right?
Peyton does end up being elected after his opponent Astrid (yes, she runs after her boyfriend’s tragic death in honor of him) drops out. This, in turn, makes him appear illegitimate and nothing gets done in the process. A lot of the episodes after that feel just this way as Peyton’s life becomes dominated with ridiculous “assassination attempts.” However, the worst episode actually comes right before the election. At a run time of 25 minutes versus the normal 47-55 minute structure, my attention span was relieved. Ultimately, though, this was a total waste of time. Titled “The Voter”, it is meant to be presented from the point of view of an indifferent voter. All he cares about is girls, guns and self-pleasure, no depth whatsoever. Well, that is at least how it is presented. But if each of these portrayals are to be accurate then what makes him any worse than Peyton? They show his home life, yet nothing about how he feels about it. We are left to believe that it is his own fault that he does not at least outwardly care about politics. It begs the question of whether they are truly trying to satirize politics or support the status quo.
All of this immaturity makes the final episode completely refreshing. Now a college student, Peyton is shown to have a stable group of friends, all of whom transferred with him from high school. What is new with him, however, is a drinking problem that stems from a lack of ambition he once allowed to define him. They all know what is good for him and so they band together to build his next campaign. This time it is for New York state senator against Dede Standish, a long-term incumbent who seems to equally lack ambition. It is a race that I’ll be watching closely.