In the pilot for the satirical new Netflix comedy series “The Politician,” Ben Platt’s Payton sits at a piano and delivers a full performance of Joni Mitchell’s “River” to an auditorium of mourners.
It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees
Putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on …
It is a scene of elegiac grace and beauty, with the Tony Award-winning Platt (“Dear Evan Hansen”) showcasing his extraordinary talents.
It’s also at jarring odds with the overall tone of this farcical, snarky, admittedly creative but at times irritating and off-putting series co-created by the prodigious Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”) and featuring an all-star supporting cast that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange and January Jones.
Season One of “The Politician” (a second season already has been ordered) revolves around Platt’s Payton Hobbard, a wealthy, intense, conniving, duplicitous and relentlessly ambitious high school senior in Santa Barbara, California, who’s already a decade into his plan to become president of the United States. (The 25-year-old Platt, like just about everyone else playing high-schoolers in this series, looks a good half-dozen years too old for the role.)
The first big step: getting elect student body president at Payton’s elite prep school. In the world of “The Politician,” this is a HUGE deal, with the candidates engaging in well-attended debates, holding multiple on-campus rallies and employing sophisticated campaign tactics.
To say Payton is an odd duck would be an understatement. As the brilliant opening-credit sequence illustrates, it’s almost as if Payton is an artificial construct who is less than the sum of his parts. He has an almost sociopathic view of the world, and nearly every step he takes is a calculated, cold-blooded move designed to further his ambition to one day become POTUS.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Payton’s adoptive mother Georgina, who favors Payton over her twin biological sons (Trey and Trevor Eason), identical and equally horrific idiots who comport themselves as if they’ve watched “American Psycho” 100 times and think Patrick Bateman is a hero.
And yet those high-fiving, cheerfully hostile twins aren’t even close to the worst human beings on this show. With rare exceptions, nearly every major character on “The Politician” is an absolutely terrible human being, with some crossing the line into actual and serious criminal behavior.
Lucy Boynton gives one of the most resonant performances in the series as Astrid, an ice princess who promises her boyfriend she’ll work harder at pretending to be real when they’re together but eventually has something of a spiritual awakening. Dylan McDermott eschews subtlety as Astrid’s father, a crude alpha male who tells Astrid her lack of warmth is a strength and should be weaponized to destroy weaker humans.
Theo Germaine plays Payton’s laser-focused campaign manager, who is not to be trusted. Jessica Lange’s Dusty Jackson, who is forever staggering around with a glass in her hand and causing a scene as if she’s starring in a Tennessee Williams play, is fiercely overprotective of her granddaughter Infinity (Zoey Deutch), who has cancer but remains startlingly upbeat.
Rahne Jones delivers fresh and funny work as the sharp-tongued Skye, who has a way of cutting through her fellow classmates’ B.S. and is committed to championing equal rights for all but isn’t above making her own Machiavellian moves.
Laura Dreyfuss is terrific as an earnest and whip-smart Payton loyalist who actually seems to have a heart and a conscience, unlike most of her friends (and their parents).
The all-important campaign is riddled with scandal and tragedy and double-crossing skullduggery, with some tears (and some blood) shed along the way. Once in a while we get a full-blown musical performance, as well as creative and weird flourishes such as re-enactments of the assassination of Abe Lincoln and John Hinckley’s attempt at President Ronald Reagan’s life, with Payton and other characters portraying the principals.
The performances are hit and miss, with some of the lead actors going big and broad and playing to the rafters, as if they’re on stage in a cavernous auditorium. That’s a risky and in more than a few cases not entirely successful choice for the television (aka online) medium.
Granted, it can be great fun watching these audaciously amoral clowns, many of them obscenely rich, stumbling and bumbling about and smugly thinking they’re the smartest people in the room when in fact they’re not, they’re really, really not.
But when there are so many of them, and when the plot grows ever soapier and more outlandish, it’s sometimes difficult not to drift off and consider bailing on the series. By the time Judith Light and Bette Midler parachute in out of nowhere in a finale focused primarily on setting up Season Two, I was already firmly committed to being “undecided” about whether I’ll sign on for another campaign with “The Politician.”