Review: 'The Politician' has promise, does not deliver

by Nicole Aboodi | 10/18/19 2:05am

Everyone can enjoy watching a teenager who’s struggling with an identity crisis on TV. What’s not so fun to watch is a show that itself is struggling with an identity crisis. “The Politician” is striving for the former, but has ended up with the latter. The result is a show having an identity crisis about a gaggle of teens who are similarly confused.

“The Politician,” creator Ryan Murphy’s newest feat, focuses on the life of Payton Hobart, a high school senior motivated by one thing and one thing only: becoming President of the United States. Every aspect of his life is carefully calculated in order to achieve this, including his run for student council president at his posh private school in Santa Barbara. The show follows him, his team of loyal advisors and his eccentric enemies as they navigate the world of cutthroat campaigning. 

However, the show continuously falls off course as it tries to tackle every sort of basic plotline and present every high school stereotype. 

The show starts off strong enough, as I think every Murphy pilot does. In the opening scene, Payton, portrayed marvelously by Ben Platt, tells the dean of admissions at Harvard University that he will be President of the United States, and that this has been his plan since he was seven years old. Payton’s voice drips with eagerness, as he attempts to impress the dean. The stakes are high: if he doesn’t get into Harvard, his entire plan is thrown off course. 

Payton’s ambition is his folly, however, as the dean criticizes how Hobart is too polished and wishes he would dig deeper. The dean asks Payton, “When was the last time you cried?” and “Did you cry because you were moved or because you felt like you were supposed to?” Payton’s composure cracks as the conversation veers away from his accomplishments to his psyche. The audience can immediately infer that this show will revolve around the intertwined tangle of political and personal that has infested Payton’s life. Much of the time I wondered if Payton knew what to feel.

Right off the bat, the show’s theme song made me think about how Payton came to be who he is. The camera shows a collection of items that build Payton: a silver spoon, biographies of past presidents and a checkbook. As the theme song progresses, an ominous feeling pervades the images of black oil pouring into a wooden box — bringing a heart to life — and a wooden figure being polished and put into a red and blue outfit. What it seems to say is that Payton is driven by recognition and achievement, and the politician inside of him isn’t selfless or generous, but instead, simply wooden. He only cares what people think of him, not about the issues on which he speaks.

The idea of a politician being wooden and lacking emotion is what I would say is the show’s problem as well. Payton seems to have a lack of direction; one minute, he’s campaigning for better gun control, and then in the same breath vows to ban plastic straws. He has no real passion for one issue, so he just hops from one to the next, hoping that the voters don’t recognize his fickle behavior.

But the lack of emotion in “The Politician” isn’t the show’s only problem. The show also lacks direction. Like Payton, the show keeps losing track of the storylines, not wanting to dedicate any time or energy to any one issue in particular. It bounces around from queer politics to Munchausen’s Syndrome to suicide. As it tries to tackle every hot-button issue, it fails to deal with even one successfully. The show succeeds wildly in providing a shock factor for every episode, but then never follows through on any aspect.

For instance, Payton’s rival Astrid Sloan, portrayed by Lucy Boynton, has a severe inferiority complex that drives her to be hollow and void. Diving into her background alone would be an interesting storyline, but instead viewers are never given enough to get attached to her. Instead, she just seems to be a flighty, spoiled brat whose entire personality is dominated by issues with her father. She’s a blonde rich-girl stereotype, and due to the lack of character development she never breaks out of her pigeonhole.

The show’s tagline is, “We promise to promise you everything.” The phrase is displayed on a poster above the excessively styled Ben Platt and Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Payton’s mother. While the slogan is meant to be describing the protagonist’s lofty ambitions, in reality, it describes the shortcomings of the show. 

“The Politician” promises everything but doesn’t deliver much. Just like Payton, the show is overly ambitious, which ends up being the downfall of both the series and the character. 

Even the draw of the pilot, the relationship between Payton and popular opponent, River Barkley, portrayed by David Corenswet, is lackluster. The audience is dying for more of anything: more follow-through, more information, just more. The most interesting parts always abruptly end, as “The Politician” skips to a more sparkly storyline, one it’s also bound to abandon soon.