Is The Politician the most annoying TV show of 2019?

Ryan Murphy’s first show in his $300m Netflix deal is overstuffed with irritating excess from a grating Ben Platt performance to a wildly lurching tone

I’ve become fascinated by Netflix’s slow absorption of the world’s biggest showrunners of late. Chances are that, if you’ve gained a track record of hits, sooner or later Netflix will envelop you in an overall deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In the last year or so, Netflix has locked down the services of Shonda Rhimes, Patty Jenkins, the Game of Thrones guys, Marti Noxon and – most notably, given the sheer amount of money flung at him – Ryan Murphy.

But where is the balance of power? On one hand you have a number of talented, well-paid creatives people with strong, clear, popular visions. But on the other, you have a platform so incredibly data-driven that it can predict the popularity of a show, right down to the finest grain, before it’s even made. So who has the power here, the talent or the algorithm?

On the basis of The Politician – the first fruits of Ryan Murphy’s $300m Netflix deal – it looks like we finally have an answer. The showrunners have to be calling the shots. They have to be. Because The Politician is a comedy-drama about a high school student (who looks about 30) who spends his entire life meticulously planning his goal of becoming president (in an age where the actual president just sort of lucked into it as a dare) that lurches from rapid-fire banter to sledgehammer sincerity without warning and feels so mannered and inhuman that you suspect that its own opening titles (where the lead character is carved from wood) were made as a sly piece of self-parody. Plus his best friend is a ghost. Feed that into the Netflix algorithm, and there’s a good chance that the Netflix algorithm would vomit on its shoes and excuse itself for the rest of the day.

What an odd show this is. Even by the standards of Ryan Murphy, whose shows have a tendency to loop off into incomprehensibility in their latter stages, it seems to have a particularly lax sense of self. It revolves around Payton Hobart; a boy who, since the age of seven, has been laser-focused on becoming the president of America. There might be a great, broad, Doogie Howserish sitcom in that premise, but Murphy has bigger plans for it than that. This series is a great big wall, dripping with ideas that have been flung at it without thought. It’s a Rushmore-style satire framed in camp. It’s a State of America Today declaration that feels like a particularly expensive daytime soap opera. It’s an exploration of privilege that’s deeply enamoured with its own privilege. It’s a high school story where all the students are played by adults.


The strange thing is that The Politician shares many traits with Ryan’s older show The Assassination of Gianni Versace. But everything I loved about that show – the intensity, the social comment, the lead’s charismatic sociopathy – I sort of hate here. For example, had Ben Platt played Andrew Cunanan in that show, with the same overcommitted sincerity and the same empty smile, then he would have been utterly fantastic. But here, with all those traits played for laughs to some degree, he grates unbearably. At times it feels like you’ve crossed into a parallel universe where Will from The Inbetweeners is allowed to make prestige drama. There are moments where The Politician will annoy you to the point of madness (it’s his worst-reviewed show since 2012).

Still, my guess is that this will be as bad as it gets. The overarching idea for The Politician is to span the entirety of Hobart’s life, with each new season focused on a different campaign. The season one finale effectively doubles as a pilot for season two; in it, Hobart is older and less obnoxiously precocious, fighting a battle with higher stakes than a school election, and there’s a new cast that includes Judith Light and Bette Midler. It’s leagues better than the seven episodes that preceded it so, when it comes back next year, hopefully it’ll come back in better shape. But who knows?

A recent profile of Ryan Murphy revealed that he currently has 15 different projects in the works. From what he’s already produced, we know that these will vary wildly in tone, from the dumb schlock of American Horror Story to the swaggering heft of American Crime Story; from something that feels as self-consciously important as Pose to something that feels as self-consciously throwaway as Feud. Until now, you’ve always got the sense that each project has reflected a distinct side of Murphy’s personality. But with The Politician it feels like all those tones have been blended into one, and the results are murkier and much less distinct than we’re used to seeing. Like its creator, The Politician is overworked and distracted. A little more focus would pay off in spades.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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