Something that I have never done before, this post is an analysis of just one show but discussing many different elements in more depth than I normally do. I have chosen The Politician as my show to explore as I love all the aspects and I have been watching many cast interviews about how the show was made. I will be including spoilers in this analysis so if you have not seen the Politician turn back now.
The Politician debuted on Netflix on 27th September 2019 and was created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. This threesome have made other successful shows together and apart such as Glee (2009-2015); American Horror Story (2011-) Scream Queens (2015-2017); American Crime Story (2016-); Feud (2017-); 9-1-1 (2018-) and Pose (2018-).
One element that ties all of these shows together is that they include characters of many genders, races, sexualities and abilities. As the world has moved forward with growing acceptance of people that are different to the norm, The Politician has made “a liberal, very social, somewhat Utopian world” to quote Ben Platt on the Today Show. No one is rigidly one sexuality or another; gender is not an explicit storyline and no one is bullied for what they are. It’s how most people wish the world could be but the creators show that it’s not perfect. People who are lesser abled are ‘used’ for their disability and the school where the action takes place does not have as much variety in race, for example there is just one Asian student. Deceit and cruelty is still very much around and is perhaps even more alive than in your average American high school.
The show focuses around Payton and his mission to become the Class President of his senior year. He believes that this position will help him to become the President of the United States. He has been carefully tailoring his life with choice of activities and classes and friends to get to this level. He is the Politician. We meet him when he’s at a bit of crossroads. He wants to get into Harvard but only has a conditional offer. He is told he can bribe the university as his family are very wealthy but he wants to get in on merit. In the first episode we see River go against Payton in a debate and reveal a suicide attempt from a year before. River and Payton are friendly and despite dating Astrid, River kisses Payton and gets him to be vulnerable. There is also a threesome mentioned between Payton, Astrid and River but their relationship isn’t really explored.
After River announces his running mate as Skye, who is probably the most diverse student at San Sebastian being black and gay; Payton’s team, McAfee and James tell Payton to get someone more diverse as his running mate. He asks one guy with cerebral palsy but he sees through Payton’s intentions. Infinity Jackson, a naive girl with cancer who acts childish, agrees after Payton promises her grandma to buy them tickets for a Disney cruise. Politics ensue and after River’s tragic suicide that is off-screen but Payton witnessed; Astrid takes over the campaign.
Many secrets come out including Infinity’s fake illness; Georgina’s affair with a female stable handler; James’ affair with Alice; McAfee’s relationship with Skye, Martin and Luther Hobart attempting to murder their father and brother and other attempts on Payton’s life.
Ben Platt as Payton Hobart, wannabee Class President and the protagonist of the show. Payton often has trouble connecting with his feelings and can be very demanding of those around him. He strives for perfection in everything he does and when things don’t go his way, he cannot deal with it.
Gwyneth Paltrow as Georgina Hobart, Payton’s mother and unhappily married yet rich.
Zoey Deutch as Infinity Jackson, an ill classmate of Payton’s that he recruits to win the election.
Jessica Lange as Dusty Jackson, Infinity’s grandma who raises her alone but exploits Infinity’s illness for monetary gain.
Laura Dreyfuss and Theo Germaine as McAfee Westbrook and James Sullivan, Payton’s friends and campaign managers. They are Payton’s right-hand guy and girl yet have lives all of their own.
Julia Schlaepfer as Alice Charles, Payton’s girlfriend who dumps him online to get a pity vote on his campaign.
Rahne Jones as Skye, Payton’s enemy. She is River’s running mate for Class President and is keen on making San Sebastian High more equal for minorities. After River’s death, she becomes Astrid’s number two.
David Corenswet as River, Payton’s friend who runs against him for class president. They meet as River tutors Payton in Mandarin and they share a kiss.
Lucy Boynton as Astrid, River’s girlfriend who takes over his campaign after his suicide. She is rich yet feels trapped in her privileged life.
Trevor and Trey Eason as Martin and Luther Hobart, Payton’s older brothers that set against destroying his life and his father. They resent him as even though he is adopted, their mother loves him more.
Benjamin Barrett as Ricardo, Infinity’s boyfriend who becomes jealous of Payton giving her attention and schemes with Dusty to bring him down.
Bob Balaban as Mr Hobart, Payton’s father. Early in the series as Georgina reveals that she is in an affair and no longer loves him, he jumps out of a window. His sons then try and kill him for the inheritance.
Judith Light and Bette Midler guest star in the last episode as Dede Standish and her Chief of Staff, Hadassah Gold. They will become important rivals for Payton and his group in the next series.
The first thing that jumped out to me were the colours and lighting of the show. The feel is almost like a Wes Anderson film with lots of symmetry and bright bold colour choices for sets and outfits. The world appears much cleaner and brighter than it is in reality and apart from the various scenes in New York City, there is no mess or dirt anywhere. This is because most of the characters are rich apart from Infinity and Dusty yet their house still looks spotless. I think it was done to show the separation from the real world. It isn’t real life, it’s something more heightened; A 4k version of the world. The locations were also amazing. Payton’s home really showed his family dynamic and the disconnect he feels to his father and brothers. Astrid’s house is also so big that she doesn’t have to interact with her parents that much and she can just be herself in her bedroom. The school setting looked rich enough but also had a homely vibe. Kids felt safe there and people less well off were not seen as different by the school. Everyone was seen as worthy of a place there, at least by the on screen characters.
Every outfit was so amazing and spoke volumes about the character wearing them. Not just the bright colours but the nature in which they were worn. Some characters used their wardrobes to show who they are. Payton for example, always dressed sensibly and appropriately as a leader should look. James and McAfee were a little more expressive, particularly McAfee with her block colour pant suits and tinted glasses but still in the realms of smart and business like. Alice is more preppy like she has just come from a country club or afternoon tea. Infinity didn’t really care about style and just wore things that gave her comfort or had nice pictures on. The clothes were another element that raised the show to a heightened reality as most high school students would not put as much effort into their appearance every day.
This show is a satire with comedy elements but the lines are not laugh out loud funny. Sometimes something is funny because it is so spot on to the current political/social climate or that is so outrageous that you cannot help but laugh in almost disbelief. There were also some very sweet and loving moments that really make you think. One of my favourite lines is “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a good person or not, as long as you do good things”. River says this to Payton in a dream sequence when Payton is questioning his own morals. Another line that has stuck in my brain is during a scene where on the day of the election, Georgina tries to help a student who has forgotten her ID so cannot vote. She begs the students on the door to give her a ballot and when they eventually do, the student admits that she is not voting for Georgina’s son. She says something like it doesn’t matter who you vote for as long as you do. I thought that was a really strong line about the importance of voting.
The tone of this show is one that changes as the episodes progress but it is certainly not light and airy. The first episode, for example contains River describing his suicide attempt and then he actually kills himself off screen. This is a heavy plot point to start on but the tone of the show is set in realism and not optimism. If you’re looking to watch something for light relief, the Politician is definitely not going to tick that box. The political satire combined with heightened drama is what makes this show so hard to resist. You start to care for these characters despite their many and varied flaws. By the last episode of the series, after the time jump, the tone has changed to a more hopeful one. Ben Platt himself said in an interview with Queerty “I think it has a hopeful ending and an exciting ending”.
The soundtrack has a mixture of old and new songs with songs by Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield, The Cure, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel and Donna Summer along with Chvrches, Otis Redding, Tame Impala and Ben Platt. A stand out song to me was ‘River’ a Joni Mitchell cover that Payton sang at River’s funeral. Ben Platt has been in several Broadway shows and the Pitch Perfect films so I’m glad they made good use of his voice and his own original music. In the last episode, Payton ends up at a piano bar after discovering his love of singing in the series. He sings a great cover of the Billy Joel song, Vienna.
Politics and Real World Issues: Gun Control, Munchhausen by Proxy, Voter Bias, Election Fraud
While this show is fictional and has fictional characters is is definitely set amongst real world issues. One of Payton’s first policies is to limit gun control in his area and suggests that they hold a campaign to get everyone to donate their guns. This is an issue that is very prevalent in America especially in recent years with the March for Our Lives campaign following the Parkland school shooting. Infinity’s grandmother pretends to everyone including her granddaughter that Infinity is sick with cancer. It is proved by Payton and his friends that she does not have the disease and Dusty Jackson was faking it. Munchhausen by proxy is when someone pretends that someone else is ill. Often it is done for financial gain. Dusty and Infinity go on lots of trips that are paid for because of Infinity’s illness. This condition came into the media with the story of Gypsy Rose whose mother was doing the same to her and Gypsy killed her. Zoey Deutch has said in an interview that Infinity was not based on Gypsy Rose but there are of course, similarities.
In the fifth episode, the Voter, we are shown the work that both sides of the campaign go into to get votes. Elliot is polled by all the candidates and their teams to try and get his view. Another scene shows Georgina complaining to the student election team that a student is not allowed to vote because she forgot her ID. The student reveals that she was not going to vote for Payton, to which Georgina replies that isn’t the point. This shows a flipped point of view as you would think Georgina would fight for someone on her team. Election fraud is also a concept in the show. Astrid drops of the election and so every vote is null and void but Payton is always big on winning fair and square. For example, he wants to get into Harvard on merit and not because of bribery.
The Politician is a show that was created for audiences rather than critics. Rotten Tomatoes, a popular reviewing platform that declares a whether a film is rotten or not with a percentage out of 100 has given the Politician 57% from 86 reviews. However, many fan favourites have recieved rotten ratings on the site in the past. The Guardian’s film critic, Lucy Mangan has said “Ryan Murphy’s student politics is a born winner” So clearly not all reviewers agree.
Final thoughts on The Politician are that it is a vital and entertaining show that has a deep and powerful message for our times. Everyone I know that has watched the series loved it from my generation to the older one. Such a different take on the teen comedy genre but still has flavours you will recognise.
Stay tuned for my countdown to Christmas with the Netflix and cinema releases that are worth watching this holiday season.