The Politician. Available now on Netflix.
Payton Hobart, the titular teenage hero—well, protagonist; this show so has no heroes—of Ryan Murphy’s new series The Politician, is brooding to his therapist that he doesn’t seem to have the same emotions other people do. Or maybe any emotion at all.
Pish-posh, replies the therapist. Of course you do. You cry, don’t you? When’s the last time you cried? Hobart, giving it some thought, finally agrees: He cried last Christmas while watching It’s A Wonderful Life. “Because you were really moved?” replies the therapist. “Or because you thought you were supposed to?”
Hobart’s brow furrows as he asks: “Does it matter?”
That’s the key question in The Politician, a rollicking meditation on fakes, frauds, and phonies, where anything from a spouse to a case of cancer can turn out to be counterfeit—and probably will.
The Politician, which follows the life of the sociopathically ambitious Hobart from his days rigging high school elections to his quest for the White House, is Murphy’s first series since making his celebrated jump from Fox to Netflix.
If you were expecting the freedom of streaming services to further loosen Murphy’s putative inhibitions—his work on broadcast and basic cable shows has already dealt with everything from teenage three-ways to self-circumcision—you’re liable to be disappointed; he doesn’t unleash anything in The Politician that you couldn’t have seen in his FX shows.
As always, there are about 1.2 million plotlines going on at any given moment as the show bobs from gay-on-gay sexual blackmail to Munchausen-by-proxy manipulation to the adventures of a lesbian stable hand played by, of all people, Martina Navratilova. “Gay” and “lesbian” are terms of convenience; nearly all the show’s characters embrace what they call “gender fluidity,” itself a term of convenience for “sexual omniverance.”
But The Politician is much more than an amusing tangle of meandering weirdness. At every turn, it’s strapping a lie detector to its characters and almost always getting a clang-clang-clang of abject falsity.
The most obvious questions of authenticity concerns Hobart himself (played with perfect glossy entitlement by Ben Platt of the Pitch Perfect films) and his barbarous student pol-pals.
Hobart is the youngest son of a family with literally everything—Picassos on the walls of the maid’s room, a Chippendale toilet in the loo—but the White House, which he intends to acquire as soon as constitutionally possible.
Hobart is using the family coffers to buy whatever he can for his resume and stealing the rest, including the upcoming student body presidential election at his high school. Only obstacle: His hunky jock pal, River Barkley (David Corenswet, House Of Cards), who decides to oppose Hobart for the job only because his covetous blonde girlfriend thinks it’ll work better than a simple bribe to a college admissions office.
What follows will be familiar to anybody who’s been watching the Democratic debates this year: an avalanche of identity-politics pandering. Hobart negotiates to offer the vice presidential slot on his ticket to a kid with Down syndrome; Barkley counters with a black lesbian; Hobart raises the ante to a dying cancer victim.
All the while the campaign braintrusts are breathlessly checking polling data on their cell phones like a slavering pack of teenaged Lewandowskis and Abedins. At times, the partisan side of The Politician plays like a Gleeful version of the high school Watergate comedy Election.
Trashing politicians—even teenaged ones, or if my high school was in any way typical, especially teenaged ones—as lying swine is great sport. But Murphy and the rest of his writing team seem sense a broader and more serious degree of sham afoot in our age.
Spouses in The Politician are inevitably trophies or sugar daddies. Romances are faked for prestige or swag, and so are breakups. Sex is not only unrelated to love but even physical pleasure; one girl boasts to her boyfriend that her erotic proficiency will give him the self-confidence he needs to get into Stanford.
Hobart’s supposedly cancer-ridden running mate may be faking the disease, and she is certainly using it to shamelessly jump the line at Olive Garden and score free trips to Disneyland. When Hobart murmurs “fake it till you make it” in an unguarded moment, he’s not just talking about his dubious claim to speak fluent Mandarin, but his entire life.
In some ways, the most interesting thing about The Politician is that nearly all the characters sense that they live in an a wholly ersatz world and don’t care. Hobart’s mother (nicely portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, one of several Murphy repertory players in the cast) says it’s the inevitable fallout of Twitter and Facebook. “Your generation got the terrible idea that it was best to vomit every thought and feeling all over each other,” she tells her son. “It’s a pandemic of overcommunication that has led to an absence of intimacy.”
If that sounds like a chilly universe, perhaps it can be warmed through a sort of moral agnosticism. “You don’t have to be a good person as long as you do good things,” says one of Hobart’s political supporters, an aphorism surely borrowed from Richard Nixon, unless it came from Hillary Clinton.
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