For Ryan Murphy’s first act as Netflix megaproducer, he’s whipped up a new series that’s one part Election, one part Glee, and all deeply extra. It’s The Politician, starring Ben Platt as ambitious young politico Payton Hobart, alongside an ensemble cast.
The premise of The Politician is a mix between serial and anthology: each season will follow another of Payton’s campaigns for office on his way to eventually running for president of the United States. The first season covers his race for student body president, and is treated with all the gravitas of an election on The West Wing or Scandal. Focus groups and extensive research and polling come into play. More melodramatically, assassination threats are bandied about among those who wish ill for both Payton and his opponent, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton). It’s all quite Murphian in its over-the-top splendor. If there’s an excess to be found — from characters flogging their diversity credentials in campaign speeches — to melodramatic affairs between sexually fluid students, it’s here.
The critical response hasn’t been the kindest, with reviewers calling it "tediously cynical," "aggressively kitschy," and "mean, nonsensical, and utterly hollow." Not exactly the raves Netflix must have been hoping for when it signed Murphy to one of the richest deals in TV history, but having seen the first season in its entirety ahead of release, I have to say I agree with almost every negative review. The show is almost a self-parody of Ryan Murphy productions, wildly shifting its outlook on its characters from episode-to-episode (and sometimes from scene-to-scene).
But take a look at the display of all the season’s episodes on Netflix’s browsing menu, and you’ll see an oddity: The fifth episode, titled The Voter, is only 27 minutes long. It’s also, I can happily report, an absolute crackerjack episode, effectively a short film about a single undecided voter in the election that simultaneously deflates the melodrama of the series’ main plot and offers a refreshing new perspective on it. The episode follows that voter, Elliott Beachman, throughout the entirety of Election Day on the ritzy Santa Barbara school campus. From his first steps onto the school property, he’s harassed for his vote by candidate advocates, teachers, parents (including series star Gwyneth Paltrow as Payton’s mom) and even Payton and Astrid themselves.
What’s remarkable is that, despite all the Sturm und Drang about the election, including a hostile debate and outlandish promises of a Drake concert (it makes sense in context, as much as anything in The Politician makes sense), Elliott never grows to care any more than he did before. He is an undecided, unmotivated voter through and through. And in a series that's often hyperbolically earnest about its own premise, "The Voter" offers much-needed perspective.
This kind of mid-season deviation in storytelling is not entirely uncommon. One episode of Amazon’s gone-but-not-forgotten afterlife dramedy Forever entitled Andre and Sarah completely shifted focus away from series leads Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen to tell a seemingly unrelated story about the two titular lovers, played by Hong Chau and Jason Mitchell. The end of that episode revealed that the deceased June was watching their story throughout the years, and it compelled her to make changes in her own life — er, well, death, in this case. Similarly, the episode Janet in the third season of The Good Place completely broke format and expelled most of the main cast for a one-episode showcase for D’arcy Carden's omnipotent being.
This trend can be traced back to the practice of "bottle episodes," a term named by Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens, to describe series episodes which often feature minimal cast and locations in order to save money. These have become a tradition, though they may be verging on over-saturation now. At their best, bottle episodes offer a new take on what’s already been happening in the season. They’re a step back, a breather, that can help reset a show as it moves forward.
Unfortunately I can't earnestly recommend watching all of The Politician, but I do strongly recommend The Voter. It even works without seeing the rest of the series, because the point-of-view is so firmly rooted in Elliott's eyes. You only know what he's seeing, and your only relationship with the characters is viewed through his apathy. It's a terrific installment, directed by Ian Brennan and written by Murphy, Brennan, and Brad Falchuk (the team best known for creating and writing Glee). It also informs a way forward for The Politician, one that more regularly pauses to gain a healthier perspective.
People are talking about The Politician in our forums. Join the conversation.
Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.