If you watch Netflix’s “The Politician,” you’ll see how a presidential campaign works. To run for the big office, you need to be massively ambitious, unshakably confident, and, perhaps most important of all, more ruthless than your competitors, willing to do anything — anything — to win. In our current political world, campaign ethics need not trip you up, unless you happen to be burdened with a conscience, in which case you might consider becoming a barista who brings caffeine to the needy masses.
OK, so in “The Politician,” whose eight-episode first season is available on Friday, our candidate, Ben Platt’s mega-wealthy Payton Hobart, is merely running for president of his posh Santa Barbara high school. His big plans have more to do with overhauling the cafeteria menu than with immigration or climate change.
But the new series, from the “Glee” team of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, is a satire of what goes on in real-life federal and state elections, as the precocious Payton and his two consultants — his friends James (Theo Germaine) and McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss) — obsessively calculate how to win the hearts and minds of teen voters. It’s a bit like “Election,” the film based on Tom Perrotta’s novel starring Reese Witherspoon as high school candidate Tracy Flick, but heightened. We watch them closely monitor student sentiment, coolly choosing a running mate for Payton — Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), a sweet girl with a mysterious cancer — solely because she’ll win sympathy votes. We see a bitingly comic reflection of the kind of campaign shenanigans that are playing out in the news right now, along with an episode that focuses on the undecided voters who’ll determine the winner when all is said and done. Ultimately, the single-minded Payton’s aspiration is to become president of the country, and each season of “The Politician” is going to zero in on each of the campaigns in Payton’s journey toward the White House.
With these juicy themes in play, the first season of “The Politician” is nonetheless a mixed bag. It shares a lot — too much, at times — with Murphy’s other teen shows, including “Glee” and “Popular,” as it looks into the cruelties and self-discoveries of the high school social world. There are the mean girls and the lovable outsiders and the handsome jocks, and they’re all overly familiar and one-note. We’ve seen them outside of Murphy’s shows, too, in everything from “Heathers” to “Cruel Intentions.” In terms of the entire series — a second season, which is set up in the first-season finale, has already been ordered — I suppose Murphy and company wanted to start at the beginning, with Payton’s earliest effort to run. But it might have been fresher if they’d begun later on in Payton’s story (Platt is 25, by the way), rather than devoting so many episodes to the school material. One episode might have done the trick.
I don’t mean to say that “The Politician” is dull, as Payton locks horns with his twin brothers or his adversary, Astrid (Lucy Boynton); the show races forward, with some jokes working — Jessica Lange’s over-the-top turn as Infinity’s trashy, manipulative grandmother comes to mind — and others failing and falling by the wayside. Entire characters — Astrid, for example — seem to exist solely to play a token role in Payton’s journey, never developing into fully dimensional people. And yet it’s highly watchable, as Payton’s campaign repeatedly surmounts seemingly insurmountable problems, and, when bits of real feeling make it through all the acid humor, even touching. It’s also beautifully designed, especially when the show leaves the school grounds.
The satire pushes hard when it comes to Payton’s home life, again with mixed results. The Hobarts fall somewhere between the precious, intellectual one-percenters at the center of a stylized Wes Anderson fable and the Addams Family, leaving very little room for any authentic emotional content. His parents are played by Anderson alums Gwyneth Paltrow and Bob Balaban; she is Georgina, a listless matriarch who confesses that she loves Payton, who was adopted, more than her biological twin sons, and he is brainy art collector Keaton. They are dryly amusing, but, again, one-note and hard to care about. The character of Payton could have been as hollow, with his single-mindedness, but Platt brings glimmers of warmth and vulnerability, particularly when he deals with the loss of a friend and lover. You can tell that, underneath the surface, Payton is a bit more than just a politician.
Starring Ben Platt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange, Zoey Deutch, Bob Balaban, January Jones, Lucy Boynton, Dylan McDermott, Laura Dreyfuss, Theo Germaine. On Netflix, season one available Friday