Looking into Netflix’s The Politican

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Netflix and death; the two constants. Stock Catalogue (Flicker)

Murphy’s madness shines in Netflix series, The Politician

By Adeoluwa Atayero

Anyone familiar with Ryan Murphy and his work has definitely noticed his signature style when it comes to creating content for television. From the writers he collaborates with, the archetypes he employs, his ability to incorporate Broadway ballads into almost any scenario (and I mean any scenario) and his storytelling mechanics when it comes to camera work and aesthetics – the list is exhaustive. What is most impressive, however, about Mr. Murphy and his formulaic approach to making television series is how he is able to take these elements and tell a refreshing tale each and every time. Whether it’s taking us inside the campy life of surgeons in FX’s Nip/Tuck, giving us a good scare and retelling history in FX’s American Horror Story and American Crime Story, and giving us no choice but to root for the underdogs in Fox’s Glee and HBO’s Pose, there is clearly a method to Murphy’s madness and it shines through in his latest Netflix series, The Politician.
Worthy of mention is the fact that we are to expect more Murphy Netflix flicks in the near future as the screenwriter has recently signed a landmark sweetheart $300 million deal with the streaming giant. Coming up from Murphy’s stables is a ten-episode adaptation of A Chorus Line, an Andy Warhol docuseries, a Marlene Dietrich collaboration project with Jessica Lange, and a series about Halston. Additionally, Murphy will be simultaneously working on new seasons of Pose, American Horror Story, and American Crime Story. Booked and busy is simply an understatement. In the midst of this project galore, Murphy has still been able to create what Time calls “the ‘Ryan Murphiest Show’ Ryan Murphy has ever made” and sixty seconds into The Politician it’s not hard to see why.

For fans of Murphy’s hit highschool comedy-drama musical show, Glee, there is definitely something familiar about the tone of the show. Apart from the obvious comparisons (highschool drama, young love, comedy, one-liners, musicals, queerness, unlikely villains and deliberately exaggerated fashion), there is something at the core of The Politician which resonates and tugs at heartstrings much like its predecessor. That being said, that is where the Glee comparisons end.

The series follows Payton Hurbert, played by Broadway sensation Ben Platt, who we find at the beginning of the season vying for the office of student body president at his very rich and very white high school, Saint Sebastian High School. The opening sequence, which shows Ben Platt’s character as a wooden mannequin built out of particles and elements of what people have come to see as an ideal president, is also instructive. In short, Payton is just that – an object of everyone’s projection. He is not an actual person with substance but more of an overambitious human robot that only sees a goal and ways he can achieve it. Payton’s character and much of the antics he finds himself engineering is an apparent satire of the spectator mudslinging sport which politics has become in the year of our Lord 2019.

Emily Todd VanDerWerff of Vox said it best when she said that “The Politician is a story about everybody else in America banding together to get some empty-suit white guy through the day.” By doing this, Murphy is able to zero in on a truth which translates hilariously in the over the top way it is presented in the show and is also sadly reflective of the world that we all, especially Americans, live in today.

Although the show does seem to ridicule everything wrong with the American political system and the damaging effects it has on the consciousness of the public, the show is mainly about the struggles of the marginalized people with which Payton is surrounded.

This is the real genius of The Politician. Having the main character of the show be one as overtly ambitious and significantly colourless as Payton makes understanding the lives and struggles of the rest of the show’s ensemble easier and fun. It is a delicate dance but Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan came out swinging by displaying his – disabled, coloured, female – co-stars in a perfectly poised position to pique our interests where Payton’s anodyne archetype consistently leaves it.

Throughout the show, after a series of very drastic and sharp encounters, Payton’s character does evolve. Whether it is watching his best friend commit suicide in front of him, losing his inheritance and regaining it, or forfeiting his acceptance to Harvard University, Payton’s character goes through a constant self re-evaluation to his essence and relevance. It is through this dimension of Payton’s journey that it becomes apparent that Payton’s vapidity itself is a theme.

Vapidity and isolation, in the face of great promise and ambition, is a theme that feels oddly universal and a story Murphy and co have mastered telling. The Politician is a sideshow which features a lot of “wait . . . what?” subplots and extreme scenarios but at its heart, it tells the story of us all through the unfamiliar lives of people we might not consider to be one of us. Our craving for validation and the extents we might go to attain it is told through Payton’s character; our need to hold on to love that we think we deserve at all costs is told through Alice’s character (Julia Schlaepfer); our inclination to be overshadowed by innate darkness when we seem to be leading perfect lives is told through River (David Corenswet) and our inner struggle to fight for the ones we love at the peril of our happiness is told through the character of Georgia (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Much like a majority of Murphy’s best work, The Politician is to be watched with humour in one glass and an occasional bite of consciousness in the other. The only thing crazier than some of the show’s plots are those magical moments when, in the midst of all that theatricality, you see someone familiar staring back at you with new eyes. If you squint just a little more, you’ll find that someone is you.

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