Ben Platt in "The Politician"
Ben Platt in "The Politician"

The Netflix Highlight: “The Politician,” Season One.

What’s up: In this screwball, political horror/comedy, a high school student has aspirations to win the U.S. presidency someday. Aided by extreme family wealth, a team of student advisers, a bookshelf full of political memoirs, a detailed plan and a white Alfa Romeo (the car company with a logo that famously appears to depict a snake eating a man), this student will stop at nothing to win his school’s student body presidential election. He believes that winning this position will help him get into Harvard University and become the country’s president in the future. In this narrative world, the rich California high school students actually care about this election and the stakes do seem to match the protagonist’s ambitions.

The show begins with a “viewer discretion is advised” screen that has a tone of “sorry if you’re offended by this.” The advisory begins with a statement of purpose: “The Politician is a comedy about moxie, ambition, and getting what you want at all costs.” It then mentions this may not be for those who struggle with mental health. Explaining why the show warns of this would be a spoiler, but it’s not a spoiler to mention that the protagonist does repeatedly wonder if he’s a psychopath. The character feels especially unmoored from human connection, as he was adopted into his rich family and hides the fact he’s gay.

After this advisory, the actual story begins with a black screen and the teen protagonist saying, “It was a waking dream, the kind that arrives in the twilight between sleep and the real world.” This wonderfully sets up the reality-breaking nightmare journey the character is about to go on.

The cast includes Zoey Deutch, Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Platt. Ryan Murphy co-created the show, directed the premiere and co-wrote multiple episodes.

“The Politician” runs for eight episodes of roughly 50 minutes.

Sum up: This show certainly matches the political moment. Netflix couldn’t have predicted that an impeachment inquiry would begin into Donald Trump’s presidency the same week as the debut of the streaming service’s bonkers political comedy about a clownish politician potentially willing to do anything to destroy his rivals and backstab his friends for his own personal gain. But here we are. For what it’s worth, Netflix did have subway advertisements that leaned into the Trump connection. One of these ads featured the tagline, “We promise you all kinds of collusion.”

Even if it didn’t match the spirit of the news, “The Politician” has much to offer in terms of entertainment, with a soap opera-esque plot that doesn’t quite go off the rails, beautiful set design and strong performances from the main cast. At one point in the premiere episode, the Tony award-winning Platt gives the best singing performance I’ve seen on television all year, and that’s not even the climax of the episode. This show constantly moves at full-speed ― sometimes with Platt’s character literally speeding his Alfa Romeo around town ― but never allows itself to cheapen the details that lesser, smaller budget shows would ignore.

The narrative theme is an examination of the human soul and what constitutes faking it. Each character obsesses over this question in their own way. Having such wealthy and ruthless characters fight over power and titles and kingdoms while they don’t even understand why they want these things makes for a show that’s fun in a pulpy, surface-level way, but also one that rises to moments of heart-wrenching poetry.

Heads up: Much of the comedy comes from the despicable actions of the characters. This involves various “cross-the-line” jokes that wink at cancel culture. In the premiere episode, the white male candidates tokenize their running mates in a cheap ploy for electability ― with one enlisting a queer and gender-non-conforming Black as his vice-presidential candidate and the other courting special education students. These decisions are presented as cynical and morally bankrupt, but also, more questionably, play for laughs.

Close-up: The tasteful, yet ridiculous set design matches the maximalist approach of the writing. This perfect pairing blends best during the premiere in a conversation between the ultra-wealthy protagonist and his ultra-wealthy girlfriend. The two share a meal in her dining room, a space that has a giant taxidermy polar bear on its hind legs. The two sit on opposite ends of a long, wooden table with multiple candelabras and myriad flowers in between them. In a wonderful shot, the camera points toward the girlfriend, capturing the near dozen tall candles and flower displays before her and the giant, roaring polar bear towering behind her, as the character says, “This is what love looks like.” So campy, yet still ultra-rich in detail. And in a great, self-aware joke, soon after the “love” line, this wealthy high school character says, “Let’s move on to the fish course,” and hits a miniature gong to signal the help. This show has mastered the portrayal of despicable opulence.

Ben Platt, Julia Schlaepfer, Theo Germaine and Laura Dreyfuss in "The Politician"
Ben Platt, Julia Schlaepfer, Theo Germaine and Laura Dreyfuss in "The Politician"

History: On Nov. 3, 2000, days before that year’s Election Day, the radio show “This American Life” began an episode with a story about a high school student election that went awry. One of the candidates made an unprecedented campaign decision in buying a television advertisement. This caused a spending spree as other candidates did the same. Although these competitive antics come nowhere close to the storylines in “The Politician,” the episode provides context for how student elections can actually get wild.

Comp: “The Politician” has the maximalist absurdity of other Ryan Murphy projects such as “Scream Queens” and “American Horror Story.” The show also shares many similarities with the 1999 movie “Election,” but with extreme heightening. In many ways, this show resembles the sinful lavishness of millionaire high schoolers stabbing each other in the back that marked “Gossip Girl,” a show I also compared to HBO’s “Succession” this week. (In many ways, “Gossip Girl” is the forebearer of much contemporary prestige television. Forget Tony Soprano, Blair Waldorf is the character that kicked off the golden age of streaming television.)

The Characters and Money: The show features extremely wealthy characters with mansions, fancy cars and the ability to buy spots at Harvard. The only non-rich main character has a mother who pulls various scams to acquire wealth. With the recurring theme that everyone is “faking” their personality, the wealth enables these characters to don various costumes or armor to protect against moments of vulnerability and, subsequently, intimacy.

Bonus: Netflix gave Ryan Murphy a $300 million development deal for five years. “The Politician” is his first project with the company. At the time of the deal, Netflix bought two seasons of this show sight unseen, according to The Hollywood Reporter. And in these initial talks, Murphy tried to get Barbra Streisand to play the part that Jessica Lange ended up getting.

“The Politician” trailer:

Read on for more recommendations and news from the week. And if you want to stay up to date with what to watch on a weekly basis, subscribe to the Streamline newsletter.

What Else Is New This Week On Netflix

In the Shadow of the Moon” (Netflix Film) ― A genre-bending, detective thriller/sci-fi action movie that Michael C. Hall stars in with Cleopatra Coleman, Boyd Holbrook and Bokeem Woodbine.

Abstract: The Art of Design” (Netflix Docuseries) ― Each episode focuses on a different designer in fields that include architecture, illustration and costuming.

A Couple Of Netflix News Stories From This Week

1. “BoJack Horseman” will return for a sixth season on Oct. 25, with the first part of the season airing then and a second part airing on Jan. 31. This will also be the final season of “BoJack,” a fact I don’t want to think about too much as this has been one of my favorite shows of the 2010s. This ending means the “Tuca & Bertie” cancellation is even more frustrating, although the business case makes more sense, as the company didn’t need to keep Lisa Hanawalt (creator of “Tuca & Bertie, production designer of “BoJack”) happily on board for more years of “BoJack.”

2. The full trailer for Netflix’s “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” debuted. The actual movie comes out on Oct. 11, but watch the trailer now:

And here are the shows and movies that joined Netflix throughout the week:

Sept. 23

  • “Team Kaylie” (Netflix Family)

Sept. 24

  • “American Horror Story: Apocalypse”
  • “Jeff Dunham: Beside Himself” (Netflix Original)

Sept. 25

  • “Abstract: The Art of Design” (Season 2, Netflix Original)
  • “Birders” (Netflix Original)
  • “El recluso” (Netflix Original)
  • “Furie”
  • “Glitch” (Season 3, Netflix Original)

Sept. 26

  • “Explained” (Season 2, Netflix Original)
  • “The Grandmaster”

Sept. 27

  • “Bard of Blood” (Netflix Original)
  • “Dragons: Rescue Riders” (Netflix Family)
  • “El marginal” (Season 3, Netflix Original)
  • “In the Shadow of the Moon” (Netflix Film)
  • “Locked Up” (Season 4)
  • “The Politician” (Netflix Original)
  • “Skylines” (Netflix Original)
  • “Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound & Fury” (Netflix Anime)
  • “Vis a vis” (Season 4, Netflix Original)
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