Arts, Television, Review

‘The Politician’ Satirizes High School Power Struggles

Today’s political climate is polarized. With growing divisions between conservatives and liberals, campaigns rampant with celebrity and wealth, and an easily parodied president in charge, a time like this begs the question of what Americans expect and want from their appointed leaders. 

The Politician, Netflix’s latest television production created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Fulchuk, and Ian Brennan, portends an ominous message: People like to think of their presidents as characters they see on TV.

The Politician is a blend of Murphy’s previous works—Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens, and Pose. Yet it most closely resembles Glee. The Politician, like Glee, focuses on the lives of high schoolers, each with personal ambitions and steadfast dreams—minus all the musical numbers (though the show does give Ben Platt’s character, Payton Hobart, a shining solo early in the season). Set in Santa Barbara, Calif., its characters come predisposed with wealth, college admissions shortcuts, and power and money-hungry agendas. Payton, the protagonist of The Politician, is no exception. In fact, he’s leading the charge.    

Payton, nimbly played by Platt, is set on becoming president of the United States, a dream he’s cultivated and crafted since he was 7 years old. But first, he must claim the title of Senior Class President. Though this election may seem trivial, in Payton’s eyes, Senior Class President is only the beginning. It’s the finishing touch on a polished resume, the ticket to admission into Harvard, and the foundation for his future elections.  

It’s unclear to audiences—and to Payton—what he intends to gain from winning this election. His motive bounces between power, celebrity, and the pure promise of creating change, while his control freak personality borders on a psychotic break. Platt’s portrayal is a balancing act: As his character struggles to discover his true motivations, he gives in to emotional outbursts only to harness himself back into composure. Whether one wants to root for or against Payton remains uncertain.

While his reasons for running aren’t entirely clear, Payton is so steadfast in his ways that there’s no changing his mind. Payton’s election committee, a team comprised of McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), James (Theo Germaine), and his girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), approaches the election with the same severity as Payton. After all, his cohorts are integral pawns in his plan to conquer the White House. They truly believe their futures depend on the outcome of this election. They’re enraptured with polling numbers, hosting campaign and fundraising events, sabotaging the other opponent. Winning is the only option—through blood, sweat, and tears, they plan to come out on top.    

The Politician is deliberately melodramatic to the point of comedy. Its frantic energy, generated by the seriousness in which these high schoolers approach the election lends it a comedic tone. Overarching parental figures, including Georgina Hobart (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Dusty Jackson (Jessica Lange), draw out two parodied extremes. Paltrow plays the nurturing, garden-dwelling mother replete with compassion for her son, while Lange plays the diabolical nana bent on free-riding the benefits of her granddaughter Infinity Jackson’s (Zoey Deutch) cancer treatments. Both Paltrow and Lange command their roles—they’re two characters who skillfully take charge of their scenes.  

As is to be expected, the plot is a tangled parody of high school. It jumps from characters and plot points, introducing new disruptions to the election, but it always remains on track. Yet The Politician, for all its twists and turns, tackles hot political topics including gun violence and gender fluidity, and the show properly manufactures a plot adept at doing so. As with any election, its candidates lean into the ideas that best appeal to their targeted voters. After all, they’re merely campaign promises.

Visually and stylistically, the show is stunning, ornate, and over-the-top. The show also has its own trove of clichés: Gwyenth Paltrow’s character falls in love with one of the stable workers, Payton’s twin brothers are the embodiment of evil step-brothers, and rich girl Astrid (Lucy Boynton) runs away to live a life of poverty for a few days.

The Politician is a comedy that twists the tropes of high school for the sake of entertainment. But a show like this can grow past its characters’ high school personas, a consideration its creators must have kept in mind. Senior Class President is just a trial run for the real deal—the White House is just around the corner for Payton and his friends.

Featured Image by Netflix

September 29, 2019

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