Show: ‘The Politician’
Release Date: Sept. 27, 2019
This review contains spoilers.
Payton Hobart, played by Ben Platt, is a high school politician who takes "ambitious" to another level. His story begins as he runs for student body president which is just one step in his multi-tiered plan get into Harvard. Payton is starved of control in his life, so his efforts to fulfill his plan are nearly desperate as he finishes his senior year of high school.
River Barkley, portrayed by David Corenswet, appears to be a main character, but abruptly dies by suicide a little more than halfway through the first episode. His suicide is quickly brushed under the rug, and the audience doesn't even have time to react before the story transitions back into Payton’s obsession with becoming student body president. This bulldozes through a sensitive subject that could have easily been used to raise awareness about the prevalence of teen suicide. Instead, his suicide is only used as a tool to mess with Payton’s head. This made River’s character a two-dimensional plot device, rather than an actual character whose death affected those around him.
Visually, the show is appealing. The fictional Saint Sebastian High School strikes resemblance to an Ivy League school, embracing the historical features of all-brick and greenery, which creates a nice aesthetic for an all-American type of show. Payton’s house, a luxurious mansion based on his adoptive family’s wealth, fuels the show’s exaggerated beauty. The title sequence of each episode includes an abstract and poetic scene of Payton’s life with Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” playing in the background. Even the advertisements of the show prior to its release were filled with alluring pastel shades and symmetry. The story itself just did not meet the expectations that were set.
Typically, singing in a non-musical is an unnecessary way to distract from the story, but in Platt’s case, it is one of the only elements that gives the show substance. His sparse performances are a breath of fresh air between a suffocating plot.
Even for a Ryan Murphy production, the show is lifeless. In “Glee,” “Scream Queens” and “American Horror Story,” there is another element to parallel the characters' lack of emotions that always seems to be done purposefully. That element is normally humor, or, in “American Horror Story”'s case, fear. “The Politician” has neither. The show is understandably satire, but a show without emotion drives a disconnect between the show itself and its audience.
It’s not the cast’s fault, either. Platt showed as much emotion as someone who was written as densely as Payton could, and it was clear his portrayal came naturally to him. Actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Lange, who have the ability to steal the show, were essentially drowned out.