12:30 pm EDT, September 23, 2019

Ryan Murphy’s ‘The Politician’ is a brilliant character study and surprisingly good

Two Ryan Murphy skeptics debate his first Netflix series.

The Politician season 1, the first of Ryan Murphy’s creations to hit Netflix, has two of our writers asking, “Can it actually be this good?”

“What two people who are skeptical of Ryan Murphy think of his Netflix show, The Politician.” That was the pitch that led two Hypable writers, Natalie and Brittany, to wander down a well-beaten path that have left both of us disappointed, broken-hearted, and honestly, a bit worse for wear.

In our friendship, it’s not uncommon to receive a text that looks something like this: a link to some Murphy news story or other with a follow up message reading something like “Why is he doing this?” or “Why does he think this is necessary?”

In fact, the last time we met up in person, we spent no less than eleven New York City blocks – an exasperated friend may have counted – beating that path towards Port Authority bus station while screaming at each other, screaming and flailing, about the fever dream mass hallucination horror hysteria that was Glee, and the sick power that it held over us for so many years.

There’s a Tumblr post that has become somewhat iconic in our lives. It’s a text post that goes like this.

me: i used to really like glee
person: oh cool
me, looking into the distant, eyes unfocused, in a low mysterious voice:
i used to really like glee

If you lived it too, you know. You know. What even happened to us? How was any of that allowed to… be?

But for better or worse, there is an addictive quality to his work. With a catalogue like Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, The Boys in the Band, and, most recently, Pose, Murphy has not only given the viewers what they want – or at least what they can’t look away from – but he’s given worthy actors a shot at telling their stories.

During the 2019 Emmy Awards as Billy Porter collected his well-deserved award for best actor in a drama series for the role of Pray Tell in Pose, he shouted Ryan Murphy’s name multiple times. While Brittany joked that saying his name that many times in a room full of TV executives means Porter just greenlit four more projects of Murphy’s, there was no denying the impact of that award and that credit is due to Murphy’s creative choices.

The Politician is not going to change the world. But shockingly, it did give two of us something that a recent string of other projects has not: Hope.

The Politician follows Payton Hobart played by the incomparable Ben Platt, who has one goal: he’s going to be President of the United States. The series will follow several campaigns in his life, starting in season 1 at Saint Sebastian High School.

Here we walk through how the age of Ryan Murphy is not over, and how this new chapter may signal a way back to his career for two fans who were on the fence.

‘The Politician’ season 1 review

The Poltician River Payton couple

Natalie: Okay, so as my fellow world-weary follower of this man’s career, talk me through your initial reaction to hearing about this project from Ryan Murphy.

And then seeing the trailer, the cast, the format from Netflix – basically the whole premise of this new Age of Ryan.

Brittany: Initial reaction: No, thank you. Please carry on. His overall deal with Netflix was unsurprising, it makes sense: He’s a hot ticket item and has the charisma and work ethic to get anyone and everyone to bend to his will. But my biggest take away [from his catalog of work] is that it is all flash and you have to do a lot of digging to unearth substance.

That said, once I heard that the was Holy Trinity reuniting (Ryan Murphy, Brad, Falchuck and Ian Brennan), I knew I was done for. Sprinkle in the cast of Dear Evan Hansen, Gwyneth Paltrow (who I think Glee did a great service to), and Jessica Lange who I will worship until the end of time and, of course, I’m all in.

The premise, though was where my actual intrigue comes into play. Mainly because it was a concrete outline for a series and not something like oh… I don’t know… AHS where once he had a couple of seasons under his belt things could (and did) get lost in trying to reconnect them.

Like the opening credits of The Politician, this is a shape of show that he can stuff in whatever he wants and it will still be The Politician.

Were you ready to follow Murphy and Co. back into the wilderness? Especially as someone who has had a bit of break from his work.

The Poltician Ben Platt Gwenyth

Natalie: As you know, Brittany, he exhausts me. He is just so, so tiring in everything about how he chooses to be.

But something about this one got to me – the trailer was excellent, and I would probably follow Ben Platt over a cliff.

I knew I wanted to watch it and see. I think the RIB combo is really fascinating because Glee was initially Ian’s premise. The fact that Brad and Ryan have carried on with other things but that he is back for this does make me wonder about that creator chemistry. There’s certainly a quality to it.

A lot of what Ryan has made since isn’t my thing genre wise, AHS just isn’t my jam, but as someone who unwillingly did keep going – was it a hate watch? Why are you addicted to his pain?

Brittany: The first season of AHS was fantastic, I truly enjoyed it. It was surprising and crazy and fun and scary.

And then, well, season 2 went off the rails. There was too much going on, shock for the sake of shock value and yet, buried deep, deep, deep in the mess, was this beautiful tale of the character Lana Winters played by Murphy sweetheart, Sarah Paulson. Coven followed and I adored Jessica Lange and the witches and the introduction of Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates into the universe, but I can barely recall the actual plot because there was so much going on. The start of Freak Show gave us a brilliant run of four episodes. But then, every season, it deteriorates and becomes exhausting pulling out meaning under the flash.

There is inherent good in everything he produces, but it becomes too much work to find the heart of it and not just talk about Jessica Lange singing the “Name Game” in a mental institution. That’s just one show.

It should be noted that Versace was a masterpiece. There is no denying that and it still on some level surprises me that it was Murphy at all. He does well with focus and structure over freedom. See also, The People v. O. J. Simpson.

So, coming into this, on some level I wanted Platt to have the same shot hitching his star to Murphy’s wagon as Darren Criss did. That’s not to say he isn’t already Broadway’s sweetheart, but he could really show the world something with this.

Natalie: I think what’s clear is that short form is a good thing for him, Ryan that is. Even if people do claim it’s so he can sneak into the mini-series category at awards.

My impression is that he gets bored fast and that public reaction influences him. So, making something short, tight and in a bubble is the best way to channel him. Then moving to Netflix, the added benefit of the whole thing dropping at once and no week-to-week commentary as the season is being shot while the show is airing 22 eps on network.

This totally private contained bubble may be his ideal format.

Brittany: Short form is both good and bad. I am excited to see what he can do with several seasons in one contained storyline, and like you said, without public influence weekly. Though in the case of AHS his seasons are long done before the social commentary begins. I think we’ve moved away from that Murphy for a while.

But in the same vein, unlike AHS, this series sets distinct time periods for the characters each season which I think will work to the characters benefit by allowing the actors to spend time with them and we, as viewers, will get more out of these performers than enlisting someone like Lange to get it right in a small window. It leads, at least to me, to overacting. The problem with AHS is that it feels as if I am watching the same performances out of this cast of actors series in and out.

The Politician will allow this cast to build someone over time. And now, it’s mostly new faces. Murphy can elicit great performances and watching newcomers is always more exciting for me than his band of actors rolling out the same beats season after season. There are plenty of fresh faces here, so it certainly eases my woes about latching on to a new property of his.

Natalie: That can lead us to the premise, which is every season following a new election in the life of presidential hopeful Payton Hobart. Starting with his senior class president at high school and presumably each season progressing through his college and career on the way to the White House.

The Politician season 1 is just this high school story. It’s a premise that has worked for me so far…if it feels okay further on is yet to be seen. It could get repetitive structure wise, or the structure could be the thing that keeps Ryan on the rails.

Brittany: Yeah, the high school election was fine for me also. I think it grounds the series in a place where the story can naturally grow from where these incidents that seems like the end of the world become inconsequential when dealing with things that are the actual end of the world. Which could actually happen by the time Payton earns the presidential nominee.

But at the same time, as in any Murphy and Co production, so much happens all the time. Even in the halls of high school. Especially a privileged one and these events are actually going to linger for quite some time. Maybe not the changes promised on the campaign trail, but the bigger life moments.

Natalie: Or how severe those things could have a knock-on effect – butterfly effect of his experiences. I started spotting after an episode or two the opening credits–which are creepy as hell, but I love–all the things that “build” Payton, are things that are clues to episodes later on

Brittany: Oh yeah, it’s definitely a show where I got mad at the “Skip Intro” button appearing. It’s not one to be missed.

Natalie: I cannot believe Sufjan Stephens gave him that song, it’s really, really amazingly done.

But it’s interesting because some of what happens in high school could be seen as small stuff later, as he gains perspective. And some, like River, likely will affect him forever.

I don’t want to compare this to Glee too much because that way lies insanity but given it’s RIBs first real return to high school, I weirdly found it both more heightened and more grounded then Glee.

Like it had that sort of high speed insanely lush surreality to it, it’s a show of extremes and caricatures but I also found the dialogue and character beats more natural. Is that weird?

Brittany: No, that’s something that I definitely noted as well. Especially, Payton. Look, it’s Payton’s show so of course he is going to get the best bits and Platt is knocking the material out of the park.

There are layers and breaks in every line, he has a way of calculating his movements to match the pace of what’s running through this kid’s head, just slightly on his face with his, to steal a small line, “Disney eyes.” But even the outliers, the people chasing him around (especially Laura Dreyfuss and Theo Germaine) and his opposers, all bring something to the table that doesn’t feel hyperbolized even if the situations do.

Natalie: Okay, here’s a question I was thinking about over the first episodes which later becomes an in-universe question: Do you think Payton is a good person?

Because episode 1, I was like “literally everyone in this show is a sociopath.” But then…then. Hmm.

Brittany: Payton has darkness in him. I don’t think he is a bad person… yet.

There is a spectrum here of characters who are just plain evil and those who are pure innocents from the outset. Payton is a step or two off center.

Natalie: There are moments where I can’t work out if he’s sincere, and moments I think prove that he is.

And moments that make me wonder if he’s so deep in ambition to be a good leader that I don’t know how he feels. Inside.

I want to say that I am wondering if we can look at Payton and his ambition a bit like Hamilton. And how what he achieved could have been a million times more effective if he hadn’t lost the one person who got under his skin more deeply than anyone else to help him, in Laurens.

Brittany: Ah, I see I think that is a completely fair comparison and I would have to agree.

Natalie: But as the season goes on and we see those moments with River, that’s the real heart in my opinion. But on another hand, is it too much? Too many conflicting motivations, too much mess and too much depth? Would you prefer a show like this to have a more clear cut angle on each persons ambition and behavior, or do you enjoy the complex chaos?

Brittany: I am all for complex chaos, if it is explored. I am not for throwing as much stuff as you can at a wall and seeing what sticks. And for the amount of chaos that this show pulls into its orbit, I think there is a good balance so far (through episode 6).

With Payton, beyond his connection to River, I think Payton’s relationship with his mother has been an area where I can see the cracks in him. As an adopted son, his constant questioning of the amount of love he is receiving strikes such a great contrast with the loyalty he is demanding of others. On the outset, the mother-son relationship was flimsy, but I’ve grown to really love it.

Natalie: This is genuinely phenomenal work from Goop. She actually amazes me in how good she is and how presumably unselfaware, yet she must be aware because her husband wrote this part for her. She’s an enigma.

And Georgina is another character I do think is a good, lovely person and who we see question that in herself, if she IS good or if she just acts good.

Gwyneth Paltrow in The Politician

It makes me wonder if the idea of the show is to explore that quality in people–questioning our innate goodness–and proving that that mindset is a fallacy, that action and choices matter.

At some point, the point is made–I don’t know if I’m a good person/does it matter, if you do good things?

And that’s a similar idea that is going around lately, especially with the way millennials and Gen Z are trying to claw back a semblance of hope in the world–that kindness is an act of resistance, etc.

“Good isn’t something you are, it’s something you do.” This idea is present a lot in current times, in media and in life and I do wonder if that is at the heart of this show, or if it’s a colder thing than that.

Brittany: It kind of has to be baked into this. Everything happens so fast and we are all equipped to form opinions, but those opinions are formed so quickly and rashly and shared even faster. Actions are somehow worth more Good Place points.

And this idea also makes the beats of The Politician that are spent behind closed doors, and what is said there, matter more. I’m thinking of one scene in particular in episode 5, but the actions done when no one is looking or listening. Does that somehow boost a person’s moral score even if they instantly go right back into the hallway and rip someone to shreds. Or did they know that someone was in there the whole time?

I do want to ask something about breaking from the weekly format.

Does this show lend itself to a binge? I watched the episodes in rapid succession, however, would this type of show benefit from a weekly drop? I’m all for more shows going back to this model. But I don’t actually think it would work or even matter here. I found myself able to pinpoint these episodes by a moment. They don’t bleed into each other the way I thought they would.

Natalie: I think that the Netflix format works for this one, it allows interesting structural changes that week to week would not.

Like episode 5, as you mentioned – it is a vignette of a different length. Some episodes are an hour, some 40 mins.

Brittany: Episode 5 is exactly what convinced me it works.

Natalie: It’s interesting, more like book chapters, which can be structured and paced “inconsistently” in this way to overall add to the book. Sometimes a short chapter is more impactful in its shortness, and the next in its length.

Dare I say Ryan Murphy and Netflix may be a match made in heaven?

The short format season means that he fires all he has at once, no dragging out the season to a network order and freedom within the structure to go quite insane within it in a variety of ways.

Brittany: I don’t want to jinx it. But if the funds allow Helen Hunt to come in and direct an episode and then later down the line for Judith Light to stop by, I’ll pay homage to whatever it takes to keep this train rolling.

Natalie: Seriously! This is quite prestige TV! Overall I’m kind of mad that it’s so good.

Brittany: Ok, good. Me too.

The Politician supporting cast

Natalie: But I’m also happy that these creators, who are at their core very inventive and addictive and on the right side of history, but who have created a lot of stressful circumstances in entertainment over my life, have found this ideal way to make art. I also appreciate the natural diversity in the cast, and the sheer absurdity in some of the characters.

Brittany: I do have one casting question, which is inconsequential, where did they find the hottest twins on the planet?

Natalie: Oh my God, the brothers are SUCH Ryan Murphy Men. Add them to the list of all the men he is in love with who look the same.

Brittany: Like they came out of the factory of his mind, fully formed, and ready to wear matching pastel polos. And generally, be the absolute worst.

Natalie: But the balance of A-List stars and unknowns is impressive in terms of how he has found really powerful actors who hold their own.

Alice (Julia Schlaepfer)–one of the flat-out weirdest characters I have ever seen and am obsessed and holding onto Laura Dreyfuss after Glee was a great plan, as was reuniting her with Ben, such an absurd and cool character.

Brittany: Benjamin Barrett is a hidden gem.

Natalie: He’s a genius actor.

Brittany: And there is no whiplash, either. It’s not like watching Jessica Lange work a room. It’s Jessica Lange going to bat against these other incredible partners. And not just her, Bob Balaban and Gwyneth have such a great chemistry, Ben and literally anyone he interacts with, it’s all so well matched.

Natalie: There are a couple of things that I’m curious about in terms of whether they’re issues or non-issues, but let’s talk about Infinity for a second. This is my one gripe that makes me wonder if Ryan is a sociopath.

Why does he take these high-profile traumatic news stories and turn them into entertainment?

Not so much in American Crime Story, But like in AHS: Hotel and so on.

THe Poltician Jessica Lange

Brittany: I mean, The Act beat him by a long shot to this one, to be fair. But I agree, this was my biggest eye roll of the entire thing.

Natalie: The Act is a literal biopic though. It was an interesting thing to see turned into slightly farcical drama here.

I wonder how many viewers know the full story? Did knowing it ruin any twists for you? How do you think it was designed to play?

Brittany: I think enough people will be familiar, to the point where I was wondering why they were bothering. I think it is the weakest thread in the narrative. Mainly because, as a viewer, you’re inching along towards something that is not really as big of a bomb as it wants to be. It does, however, provide a nice skeleton for later and a good bit for the characters to play off throughout.

But moving to the end, I think we both enjoyed it, warts and all. If you could sum up what you liked most and least about it–one thing that will keep you coming back and one thing that gives you pause about the future of the series, what would it be?

Natalie: So, my answer there–one thing that would keep me coming back is Ben. He’s one of the greats in the making, and he hasn’t had a chance to develop a character long term. I adore him in theatre and films, but those are both static mediums in a way. A movie is one and done, and for theatre an actor might learn more and more about the character each day, but the play ultimately starts and ends at the same place every time.

We all know that serialized storytelling is the most successful and powerful way to do serious character work and we know that’s why TV is becoming the most deep and rich medium for making stories–creators are leaning into that, and so are actors. We are seeing more and more high profile “movie stars” actually want to take on TV roles, especially in the way streaming shows are developed and budgeted now.

So basically, the chance to see Ben grow a character like Payton would keep me here.

What gives me pause is what we discussed earlier–whether this is an uphill climb or a downward spiral. While I don’t want it to be shiny and stake less–I don’t think it’s a particularly “safe” show and I’m okay with that (it mentions that with a trigger warning before you start episode 1, which I think is well advised)–it’s more interesting to me if the show or the characters, particularly Payton, have a good heart at the end of the day.

The Politician river piano

I don’t like shows that relish in misery or in the worst of people, that get off on “hard truths” to the point of cruelty. At the moment, The Politician isn’t an idealized version of someone who wants to serve–Payton is not a Leslie Knope, he’s personally ambitious and we haven’t discussed WHY he wants the things he wants, if it’s for the greater good or personally and privately an internal goal to be the best.

We do know that he has a moral compass and it’s pointed in the right direction for someone this ambitious. He refuses to buy his way into Harvard, but is that because he genuinely cares about doing things the right way, or is it because he cares what the story looks like? He certainly speaks out a lot about how the story looks, and that makes me think that he does privately care a lot. Otherwise it would be switched around–he would act as though he was sincere, but it came from a place of image, not genuinely wanting to be known for his merit.

The same goes for his friendships, his romances.

I believe fully in his relationship with River, from what we saw, and with his mother.

Every other relationship I can’t work out the truth of, what’s facade, what’s real, how disposable or sincere any of them are. I feel like it’s something that could have many answers in one, like layers of truth, and that’s fine – that’s a cool thing to address, actually, because I think everyone wonders if they’re just going through the motions and I think questioning our own sincerity or motive is actually one of the greatest signs of self-awareness and goodness there is.

Bad people don’t question their own feelings very much.

So, at the end of the day, what would turn me off this show is if it fell down a hole of making these characters or whoever is in Payton’s future, and of course most crucially Payton himself, bad people.

Payton is ruthless, but that word gets a bad rap. You can be ruthless about things with good intentions. It doesn’t make the act of ruthlessness evil or cruel or wrong.

I want to see how he molds himself to fit the world he enters, but I don’t want him to become harder, crueler, or anything like that.

I don’t want him to stop questioning himself or stop having moments that no one sees that prove his heart.

How about you?

Brittany: I agree on the point that it is Ben who is selling an entirely new chapter of Ryan Murphy to me wholesale. I’m going to start with a gripe here because I think that it is a hallmark of what has typically become my reason for exiting projects midway through–stunt casting and writing without substance.

Thus far, the big names here–Judith Light, Bette, etc.– are fine. But there is a tendency to bring in people who, to put it lightly, serve no purpose being there. In a sense my gripe mirrors yours, the downward spiral. When you’ve been burned by a creator so many times, it’s hard to watch without waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under you. I don’t think that is going to go away, but for now I am certainly firmly on the ground with what we’ve seen so far in season 1.

I like your point about not wanting this to turn into a series about bad people. Starting in high school with Payton and his friends at this formidable place in their lives is such a great launching point. Here we see them taking risks and making decisions, but with enough time left in their lives to not only course correct, but, as you say be self-aware enough to realize what they are doing in the moment that will inevitably follow them through adulthood.

Decisions are not going to be any easier and I don’t think we’re going to see squeaky-clean campaigns, but I want decisions to be thought through or at least affecting the parties involved. It’s fine to have bad people on the show, but I don’t want the bad person to be Ben, like you.

As for what will keep me around, beyond Ben, I think there is a way to reflect the headlines without becoming the headlines. So far, the elements that are touched upon in the actual show are not exactly Scandal levels of insane departure, but they are a mirror-verse that is close enough to the timeline that the messages ring at pitch that doesn’t quite get lost in the rest of the landscape. You’re not watching the news is basically what I’m trying to say here.

Whether all of this will hold through the next few seasons is a mystery. But I’ll be there with my Payton 20-whatever button ready to vote.

The Politician season 1 arrives on Netflix September 27.

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