In the face of its rivals, Netflix is betting on its $300-million signing Ryan Murphy to keep its stock high. His first show for them, a high-school satire, is chaotic if enjoyable

Ryan Murphy’s The Politician arrives at a curious point for Netflix. The streaming giant has recently said goodbye to two of its biggest, and earliest shows – the political drama House of Cards bowed out last year, while the prison-based dramedy Orange is the New Black concluded with its seventh season this summer. Meanwhile it has increasingly been cancelling newer, buzzier properties such as American Vandal, Tuca and Bertie and The OA prematurely, despite the fact they’ve been critically acclaimed.

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Gone are the days when Netflix had a reputation for renewing everything – anything – to beef up its gargantuan streaming library. In 2019, the service is no less cautious – and ruthless – than any traditional TV network. And because they only selectively release viewing figures, it’s still hard to figure out what kind of content is latching on. When it comes to original programming, it certainly doesn’t help that the sheer amount of new shows across the TV landscape is going to continue to rise – thanks to ever more rival streaming services launching, including Disney+, Apple TV and HBO Max.

One strategy Netflix seems to be using to try and keep its stock high is roping in the right behind-the-camera talent; producers, writers or directors who have as much of a personal brand as someone starring in a TV show. Star producer Shonda Rhimes signed a nine-figure deal to produce eight shows for Netflix. And Murphy, responsible for shows such as Glee, Nip/Tuck and the American Horror Story anthology series, signed a deal so large The Hollywood Reporter dubbed him ‘TV’s first $300m man.” The Politician is the first of the star signing’s confirmed projects for the streamer, and while it isn’t a flawless debut in any sense, the show’s long-term potential is worth getting excited about.

This first season is too blunt a tool for Murphy to definitively to carve out his space in Netflix’s vast empire

The Politician’s premise is both familiar and unusual, and plays out like a teen reimagining of House of Cards set at a left-of-left liberal high school in Santa Barbara. Peyton Hobart (Ben Platt) is running for school president because it’s part of his audacious, life-long plan to end up as president of the United States. His route to the White House is meticulously crafted; since the age of seven he has studied the lives of former presidents, the better to home in on common experiences and traits so that he can emulate all of their successes and steer clear of their failures. Seven presidents went to Harvard, so he, too, must go to Harvard, or so he says in the opening of the pilot episode.

Throughout its intended run – a second season has already been confirmed, though four to six are expected in total – the show is planning to observe Hobart through key stages of his life as he climbs towards the White House; it’s definitely an exciting premise, which will allow the setting and supporting cast to change each year, echoing the template Murphy established in his other anthology shows American Horror Story and American Crime Story. But unfortunately this first season feels chaotic and messy, too blunt a tool for Murphy definitively to carve out his space in Netflix’s vast empire.

There is still a lot to like; Platt, known primarily for his Broadway work (Book of Mormon, Dear Evan Hansen) and his role in the Pitch Perfect franchise, is the perfect choice to play a charming yet scheming sociopath. Adults adore Hobart; his fellow classmates are terrified of him – and his adoptive mother, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, sincerely tells him “your ambition frightens me.” Paltrow is, sadly, underused and phoning it in through most of the season, as a static matriarch bored of her opulent life. She is supposed to be a zen anchor among the chaos but the role fails to exploit the camp and self-awareness she brought to her brief stint on Murphy’s Glee.

The show’s fantastic credits sequence, a literal expression of the idea that humans are the sum of their experiences, sees diplomas, antidepressants, presidential tomes, a matchbox from a strip club and even an intriguing, Chekhovian smattering of silver bullets assembled into wooden compartments that then join to form Hobart’s body. But unlike the artefacts in its intro, The Politician isn’t capable of wielding all its constituent parts into a cohesive narrative.

Murphy’s trademark dark humour seems curiously tempered; while there are digs at identity politics, and a cancer patient who is Hobart’s running mate is routinely harvested for jokes, the characters’ archly dead-behind-the-eyes delivery just feels flat. The script is also largely devoid of any real feeling: the younger members of the cast all have a lot to do, but rarely does it feel like anything they say is worth caring about.

Bette Midler is a genuinely brilliant bit of casting – though it would be a spoiler to say any more about her role

That’s not to say the show doesn’t have standout moments; one episode deftly adapts the premise of Gone Girl to great effect. Another focuses on an apathetic voter sitting on the fence of the high-school elections and the smothering he endures by Hobart and his opponent as they desperately chase swing voters. Here, Murphy’s use of high-school drama as a tool to examine real world politics – with nods to the 2016 US election, in particular – gives us insight into what he might have been thinking when he made this show in the first place.

Platt gives a densely layered and complex performance, but the rest of the young supporting cast playing his peers – including Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton and Laura Dreyfuss – are far too thinly sketched. One of the most compelling characters is River (David Corenswet), a preppy, statuesque classmate whose intimate relationship with Hobart is when we see the titular politician for who he really is. It’s just a shame he’s used too sparingly as the underlying queerness of their relationship is so potent. Of the older guard, Jessica Lange is striking as the grandmother to Infinity, the aforementioned cancer patient, while January Jones’s brief appearance is fairly unremarkable. Bette Midler, however, is a genuinely brilliant bit of casting – though it would be a spoiler to say any more about her role.

All that said, The Politician is enjoyable, and there’s something in letting a show find its feet. Shows with dynamic, perfectly sculpted debuts often struggle to bear the weight of their acclaim beyond their first series – see Big Little Lies and Killing Eve – but here is one that has adaptability built into its DNA, with new locations, characters and challenges meeting Hobart at every stage of his political career. The finale, which acts as something of an epilogue to season one and a prologue to season two, certainly sets up The Politician as a show that’s worth investing in.

★★★☆☆

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