'The Politician' Runs On Plenty Of Twists And Turns — But Few Winning Characters

Sep 27, 2019
Originally published on October 1, 2019 11:30 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Today on Netflix, the streaming service presents its newest TV series and, at the same time, employs its latest not-so-secret weapon. That weapon is Ryan Murphy, co-creator of Netflix's new eight-part comedy drama "The Politician." Netflix, as part of its aggressive programming strategy, has begun signing some of TV's most successful producers.

Murphy, whose resume includes "Glee," "Feud" and "American Horror Story" is one. Shonda Rhimes, creator of "Grey's Anatomy," is another. The idea is to weaken the competition by hiring away their biggest talents, something CBS did back at the very dawn of television. So it's by no means a new move, but it also counts on those talents to deliver. And with "The Politician," Ryan Murphy and his collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan have delivered a very mixed bag.

The politician in the title is Ben Platt, the dynamic star of Broadway's "Dear Evan Hansen." He plays Payton Hobart, a privileged California high schooler who dreams of attending an Ivy League school and much, much more. Well, they're more than just dreams. They're expectations, as he explains to his school dean.

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BEN PLATT: (As Payton Hobart) It was a waking dream, the kind that arrives in the twilight between sleep and the real world. I sat straight up in down and said out loud, I'm going to be president of the United States.

ANDREW PATRICK RALSTON: (As Dean Lawrence) It does seem to be the hot job everyone aspires to nowadays. The air of impossibility has been removed.

PLATT: (As Payton Hobart) Yes. Well, I had that dream when I was 7 years old, Dean Lawrence, and I spent my entire life studying the lives of former presidents in order to identify common experiences and traits that led to their inevitable election victories.

RALSTON: (As Dean Lawrence) Such as?

PLATT: (As Payton Hobart) Well, I only went back as far as Ronald Reagan because, as far as I'm concerned, he created the modern presidency, the presidency of television and celebrity. People like to think of their presidents as characters they see on TV. Most never actually see them in real life. Reagan and Bush Sr. were both presidents of their senior classes in high school.

RALSTON: (As Dean Lawrence) Which I assume you are on your way to accomplishing.

PLATT: (As Payton Hobart) I believe I have the election well in hand, yes.

BIANCULLI: To fulfill his long-term ambitions, Payton sets his sights on winning the race for high school president. Even though he's so calculating and aloof and relatively unpopular, he thinks he can win with the right campaign team and polling data, the perfect running mate and the most resonant issues. These will range over the course of the campaign from gun control and teen suicide to celebrity concerts and plastic straws.

And just as Payton's focus shifts wildly from issue to issue, Murphy's "The Politician" shifts wildly, too. Its plot twists arrive at an unsettlingly rapid pace, and its characters are just as erratic. As an overall piece of television, "The Politician" seems to borrow from several familiar sources, from "Election" and Murphy's own "Glee" to the recent Hulu series "The Act." Some scenes and characters are exaggerated and caricatured. Others play for sincere drama, asking us to take the plots and people seriously even when surrounded by absurdity.

But where Murphy always has been at his best is at showcasing his actors and allowing them to shine. With Ben Platt, he not only gives the young actor plenty of chances to play either sweet or smarmy, he finds several excuses over the course of the season for the musical theater star to sing. In the pilot, he sings a Joni Mitchell song beautifully. Later on, he sings a Billy Joel song and even a number from Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins."

And Murphy is showcasing other favorite players as well. Gwyneth Paltrow, who appeared in a recurring role on "Glee," plays Payton's protective stifled mother. And Jessica Lange, who has stolen many seasons of Murphy's "American Horror Story," gets the best role here of all. She plays the grandmother of Infinity Jackson, a seriously ill teen girl - or so it seems - who is pushed around in a wheelchair by her nana. And her nana pushes everyone else around, too, as when she confronts the woman handling restaurant reservations at a crowded Olive Garden as other patrons watch while waiting for their own tables. Zoey Deutch plays Infinity.

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JESSICA LANGE: (As Dusty Jackson) Infinity, say hello to Karen.

ZOEY DEUTCH: (As Infinity Jackson) Hello, Karen.

COURTNEY TAYLOR BURNESS: (As Karen) Hi.

LANGE: (As Dusty Jackson) You were really looking forward to eating here, weren't you, baby doll?

DEUTCH: (As Infinity Jackson) Uh-huh.

LANGE: (As Dusty Jackson) Hell, I said let's go to Coco's (ph). I was so excited. I love me some of that Coco's pot pie. No, but you dug in. You said, I want Olive Garden, Nana (laughter).

DEUTCH: (As Infinity Jackson) I do want Olive Garden, Nana. I do. I just got my feeding tube taken out, and my nana, sure, yeah. You want endless breadsticks - let's go for it.

LANGE: (As Dusty Jackson) Why don't you tell Karen about your cancer? You're in pain sometimes, aren't you?

KAREN BRUNDAGE: (As Olive Garden woman) I'm sorry. I couldn't help overhear. We're ahead of you, but we'd really like you to have our table.

LANGE: (As Dusty Jackson) Oh, no. Oh, no. We couldn't possibly do that.

BRUNDAGE: (As Olive Garden woman) Please. Please. I insist. We'd also like to pay for your meal.

BIANCULLI: It's always fun to watch Jessica Lange. And she throws herself into this role with so much enthusiasm and abandon, it's impossible not to be entertained by her. But the rest of "The Politician" doesn't draw you in as much. You watch all its twists and turns and sudden mood shifts but without really caring about or even believing the characters.

And Murphy, who almost always starts new series stronger than he ends them, appears to get bored with this series' premise about halfway through and reboots it once or twice before the eight-episode season is over. And as it ends, preparing for a Season 2, it reboots again with Bette Midler and Judith Light showing up only for the season finale.

Whether "The Politician" ends up being a success for Netflix will depend on its short-term buzz and long-term views. Creatively, Season 1 is better than the last few seasons of "American Horror Story" but not as good as "Feud." "The Politician" already succeeded for Netflix, however, in one key regard. It's Ryan Murphy's newest TV series, and it's not on FX or Fox. It's on Netflix.

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BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, our guest will be actor Antonio Banderas, who has had a long collaboration with the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. It began after the death of Spain's longtime dictator Franco when it was possible to break old rules. Banderas now stars in Almodovar's new film "Pain And Glory" as a director dealing with physical and psychic pain. Almodovar based the character on himself. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUIKA'S "SE ME HIZO FACIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.