You sit down to watch the season one finale of Netflix’s “The Politician.” Immediately, you’re staring face to face, eye to eye, with Ben Platt as he launches into a truly gorgeous rendition of “Vienna” by Billy Joel. The camera pulls out and you’re in a hazy, lower-Manhattan speakeasy in which every member of the band and every patron is sexily drinking an artisan cocktail. Platt’s performance of “Vienna” is so stunning, so tragically beautiful, so perfect, that for just a moment you forget how much of a rambling mess of loose-ends “The Politician” really is, and for three and a half minutes, you’re truly happy.
And how could you not be happy watching Ryan Murphy’s first major outing with Netflix? It’s got a conniving, manipulating, yet lovable lead in Ben Platt as Payton Hobart. It’s got Wes Anderson-esque cinematography. It’s got plot twists, character turns and countless murder attempts. It’s got fake cancer, fake kidnappings and fake friendships. It’s got Gwyneth Paltrow, Zoey Deutch and Jessica Lange. It’s Murphy’s most ”Glee”-like show since “Glee.” Oh, and before I forget: Every. Single. Character. Is. Gay. Every last one! Even the characters who aren’t gay are gay. It’s truly beautiful.
Payton is a high school senior running for class president, with dreams of one day becoming the actual president. Together with his best friends and political advisors, McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss) and James (Theo Germaline), Payton stops at nothing (really, nothing) to get what he wants. Payton spends the entire season being literally haunted by River, his ex-lover/Mandarin tutor/political adversary who takes his own life in the pilot, while simultaneously attempting to get into Harvard (because Stanford and Yale aren’t good enough).
Part of what makes “The Politician” so entertaining is also its greatest flaw. That is, this eight-episode season is so jam-packed with huge dramatic events that there never seem to be any real stakes. The majority of the murder attempts—yes, there are so many they can be discussed in ratios—are forgiven within a few short hours of viewing. Essentially, every character betrays their closest allies at some point, and yet, by the end of the season, all is forgotten—not forgiven, but forgotten. It creates a numbing effect where we’re left skeptical of whether the most shocking and exciting plot elements will even matter an episode or two later.
Meanwhile, as earth-shattering high-jinks unfold, some more subtle character interactions and nuances go largely unaddressed. In the first episode, Payton betrays his girlfriend, Alice. This moment could’ve been ripe for character analysis. It gets at the feeling of grand, emotional stakes in high school relationships and exposes something about the false nature of Payton and Alice’s partnership. Without giving too much away, as this moment occurs, the camera pulls out dramatically and the music swells, telling the viewer, “Hey, pay attention! This matters…” But when Payton is finally confronted about this moment in the finale, he can’t manage to muster a single satisfying explanation for his behavior, and Alice pretty much forgives him anyway.
That’s what watching “The Politician” feels like. You’re confronted with a barrage of unexplained actions end events, but in the end, you’ll probably forgive them. There’s so much emotional eye-candy and dramatic somersaulting that it’s really a fun romp anyway. Sometimes letting us escape to a world where there are no consequences, where bigotry seems not to exist and where LGBTQ representation seems endless is all a TV show needs to do.
So many characters are gay or bi and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that not one single storyline revolves around their oppression. So often works claiming to champion queer stories pivot on their characters’ suffering as a result of their sexuality (*cough* “Love, Simon”). “The Politician” never falls into the trap, consistently treating its LGBTQ characters like…wait for it…regular people.
Maybe you’re hesitant to believe that a 2019 show with the word “politician” in the name is really going to be a light romp. You might be worried you’re going to find yourself hit over the head with, well, politics. Let me assure you that, unless you’re offended by gay teenagers smiling, you have nothing to worry about. “The Politician” is so chock-full of Plattitudes (platitudes spoken by Ben Platt) that while it may look like it has something of importance to say, it doesn’t. All the madness that we associate with today’s world of politics is so muddled with highschool drama and plot structures of questionable integrity that watching “The Politician” lulls you into a tranquil placidity, unconcerned with the real trials of life. You’ll finish season one in a post-sugar-rush coma. Who cares that nothing really made sense? For just a moment you weren’t so terrified of the world, and if that’s not worth watching a show for, I’m not sure what is.