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The Fatal Flaw at the Heart of Ryan Murphy's The Politician

The series is primed for a delicious Season 2, but there's one thing even Bette Midler can't fix.
  • Ben Platt stars as Payton Hobart in The Politician (Netflix)
    Ben Platt stars as Payton Hobart in The Politician (Netflix)

    It should come as no surprise that The Politician is both imperfect and endlessly fascinating. From the hopscotch nature of its topicality, to its glitzy casting, to its baffling narrative turns, it fits perfectly with the uneven but buzzworthy nature of Ryan Murphy's canon of previous work.

    After a string of productions with a stronger grasp on their narratives, most notably Feud, Pose, and American Crime Story, The Politician (co-produced with Glee's Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan) is a throwback to Murphy at his most undisciplined. My colleague Kevin O'Keeffe has already detailed the messiness of the first season, while noting how the off-the-rails season finale beautifully sets up a must-watch Season 2.

    To recap (Season 1 spoilers ahead), the season finale jumps forward three years, transplants all the major characters to New York City, and enrolls Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) at NYU, where he has abandoned his political dreams and turned to a life of boozing and piano bar performances (allowing Platt to show off his Tony-winning pipes). Soon however, Payton crosses paths with state senator Dede Standish (Judith Light) and her brassy campaign manager Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler), and in short order, Payton's old high-school cohorts are working to rekindle his political ambitions and urging him to run against Senator Standish. The episodes closing moments follow Payton as he throws a sparsely attended press conference to announce he is indeed running for state senate. This will be the political campaign that catapults him back into the game. Tune in next year!

    And, yes, I will tune in next year. Of course I will. Bette Midler will be play a fast-talking, ball-busting political operative with the kind of take-a-bite-outta-life zeal she hasn't displayed in years. That alone earns my viewership. But that final scene couldn't obscure what for me is the glaring problem at the heart of the series, one which no stunt casting or musical number can ever solve: Payton Hobart is WAY too basic to ever develop into the type of keystone character the show needs him to become.

    It seems too simple to be such a major problem, but frankly, it's insurmountable. Payton Hobart is a white, wealthy, handsome, NYU-educated young man, with the kind of savvy Murphy's shows cannot resist. The conceit worked well enough this past season in high school, where it was archly amusing to watch this classic political slickster — with his the two-arm handshakes and insincere anecdotes  — maneuver his way to the top of the high-school heap. But the concept cannot survive a leap into the political shark tank that is New York City. Watching Payton announce his campaign on those sweeping, empty steps, all I could think was that this kind of blandly handsome, decently articulated son of privilege comes a dime a dozen in The Big Apple. We're supposed to believe his youth, beauty, and money will be enough to defeat an entrenched and wildly popular Manhattan politician, simply because he's chosen, um  [checks notes] bitching about the MTA as his platform?

    The Politician has stars in its eyes for Payton in much the same way that Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan appear to have stars in their eyes for Ben Platt. How else to explain the way the show bends over backwards to fit in musical non sequiturs like Platt's mournful rendition of Joni Mitchell's "River"? That was...fine. But combined with a two-episode detour for a school production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins? Excruciating! Talented as Platt may be, the show repeatedly grinds its gears to a halt, just to let its star show off.

    Similarly, it's never clear why exactly the supporting characters think of Payton in terms of destiny and becoming the one candidate who can unite them all. What is it about this kid that makes him such a once-in-a-lifetime find? During his high-school campaign in Season 1, Payton's political instincts were only occasionally on target, and his ability to mesmerize voters resulted in … an electoral defeat.

    In the series' opening scene, Payton explains to a Harvard recruiter how he will follow in the footsteps of Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and both Bushes, but his argument mostly boils down to boasting that he can related to by both rich people (because he's, uh, rich) and poor people (because his birth mother once lived in poverty). Cool story, I guess, but again, Payton is out there running against New York political royalty, and his argument is that he's a handsome, white, wealthy NYU student? 

    That's not to say that America will never again fall under the thrall of a handsome, white politician in the Payton Hobart mold, but if the idea is that Payton is the political unicorn the world has been waiting for? iIts just not there on the screen.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Politician, Netflix, Ben Platt, Bette Midler, Brad Falchuck, Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy