When the history of our times comes to be written, possibly with burned stick on dried rat skins, the opening message of Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series The Politician will demand a page of the annals to itself.
“The Politician,” it says, “is a comedy about moxie, ambition and getting what you want at all costs. But for those who struggle with their mental health, some elements may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”
It will have to be explained to the citizens of the New Times that the people of the Before Times lived in such an enfeebled state that they could not be sure whether this was tongue-in-cheek commentary or a legitimate warning – an act of love by a creator who had proved his warmth and insight by banging out hit after hit on cultural touchstones of his time, including The People v OJ Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
In the event, it was both – and the perfect introduction to the tale of moneyed teenager Payton Hobart (played by Tony award-winning Ben Platt), who has dreamed since he was seven of becoming president. At his interview for Harvard, the dean notes that it has become an increasingly popular goal now “the air of impossibility has been removed”.
Hobart has done nothing since then that is not in pursuit of his ambition, building on the innate advantage of his rags (born the unwanted child of a cocktail waitress) to riches (adopted by Gwyneth Paltrow’s matriarch of a fabulously wealthy family) story. He has studied the greats, from Ronald Reagan (“the first television president”) onwards, amassed all the extracurricular points he can, read nothing but political power players’ biographies and is now running for student president.
It’s another dazzling Murphy triumph. It has his trademark hurricane of a narrative that sweeps you up and deposits you breathless and agape somewhere else entirely an hour later. He has garnered a set of blistering performances from his actors. The laurels should go to Platt, whose Hobart has layers of sincerity and insincerity he riffles effortlessly through in every scene. But he is surrounded by almost equal brilliance, whether from neophytes like Julia Schlaepfer (channelling young Hillary and Barbara Bush as Hobart’s girlfriend and adviser Alice), Lucy Boynton as the power behind his opponent’s throne (adding a frankly frightening dash of Ivanka to her portrayal) or veterans like Jessica Lange and, still to come, Bette Midler. Lange is on ravishingly monstrous form as the grandmother of Infinity Jackson, a student with leukaemia whom Hobart is determined to recruit as his running mate to get the sympathy vote he lacks.
The Politician is infused with Murphy’s genius for illuminating the macro through the micro. Nothing is quite what it seems, and in the teenagers’ pathologically self-conscious lives we see the world and the politics we have created. We watch as personalities and attitudes are constructed, torn down, flung up again, filtered, adjusted, lit, shadowed, complicated and simplified as needful. The medium is the message, the message is the medium. True distinctions collapse, and meaningless ones are demarcated. When Hobart cries, his tears are as real as they are fake and we can’t even tell if he knows which are which, or if he cares. Are those who affect affectlessness more or less terrifying than those who are really as shallow as they seem. How did we get here? And how do we leave?
This is Murphy’s first product for Netflix since he signed a five-year contract for an estimated $300m (£241m). They have their money’s worth already. Nobody does it better.