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The Politician review: Uneven Netflix satire tackles politics, teen angst

Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Platt star in Ryan Murphy's dramedy that's equal parts political commentary and high school melodrama.

The Politician

Ben Platt in The Politician.

Netflix

The Politician isn't just for political junkies. It's for anyone who likes smart dramedies that tackle current themes. For the new political satire, streaming now on Netflix, uber-producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) captures the tribulations of a group of precocious Generation Z high schoolers. And it's hard to watch it without drawing parallels to present realities.

Payton (Ben Platt) has known he'll be president of the United States since he was 7. And the path to the White House is clear to him: Become student body president at Saint Sebastian High School. Go to Harvard. Make history. But of course, things get complicated. 

He's the adopted younger son of an extravagant millionaire (Bob Balaban) who doesn't much care for him. Payton's mom Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow), on the other hand, loves him more than her other "lesser Picassos," devious twins whose only talent is rocking a perfect tan. Payton's high school girlfriend, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), is laser focused on being first lady. And he has a couple of political advisers, the calculating James (Theo Germaine) and the wearer of colorful pantsuits McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), who'll stop at almost nothing to get him the presidency.

The Politician

James (Theo Germaine), Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss) in The Politician.

Netflix

The diverse characters don't end there. Murphy's muse, Jessica Lange, plays an un-PC grandmother and lover of Shirley Bassey tunes. Her granddaughter (Zoey Deutch) becomes Payton's running mate only because she's "differently abled." Bohemian Rhapsody 's Lucy Boynton is Payton's nemesis. Picture-perfect Dylan McDermott and equally picture-perfect January Jones are her parents. "No sex tonight. I'm still sore from my lipo," Jones says when she's first introduced to viewers.

Former pro tennis player Martina Navratilova has a small part, but Netflix doesn't want me to tell you much about it. Or about Judith Light and Bette Midler's roles, both breaths of fresh air that don't appear early enough. 

Netflix gave me a long list of other subjects/spoilers I shouldn't mention when writing about season 1, so I'll just say the plot thickens over the course of the 8 episodes. There's a campaign, a few suicide attempts, poisonings, medically induced comas, possible abductions, criminal investigations and at least one auction of colorful caftans. This wouldn't be a Murphy show without a lot of twists and turns and some soapiness, after all.

The rich show also tackles gun violence, clinical depression, sexual fluidity, gender non-conformity, midlife crises, class, addiction, partnership, faithfulness and political apathy. The dialogue is fast, witty, sharp and captures the zeitgeist. "I'm obsessed with River. Not in the traditionally non-heteronormative way. But he made me feel things," Payton tells Alice. "Sex has nothing to do with loyalty. We're not our parents," she tells him during another of their conversations.

The Politician does feel like too much sometimes. As much as it pains me to say, I didn't care for Lange's over-the-top plot. Or for the drama surrounding her family. I didn't particularly think Paltrow's character was necessary either. A shorter season with less players and subplots could have gotten similar results without losing the political focus.

The Politician

Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Platt in The Politician.

Netflix

The show is at its best when commenting on things political -- voter suppression, political strategies, statistics, government inaction or how fake news can make voters tick. The parallels between Trump-era politics and high school politics are allegoric and even subtle sometimes, but definitely intrinsic to this show's subtext. Like the fabricated Drake prom concert that can turn voters from one candidate to another. Or the episode narrated from the point of view of an undecided voter who isn't interested in the democratic process but could turn the election around.

But the political references aren't just Trumpian. "John McCain tried that. It was a disaster," screams Payton when his team suggests he look for a running partner among the special ed students. "This is like '08 Hillary tearing up in a cafe in New Hampshire," says James during an especially inspiring moment involving his candidate.

Frequent Murphy collaborators Brad Falchuk (Glee, American Horror Story and Paltrow's real-life husband) and Ian Brennan (Glee, Scream Queens) co-created The Politician. If you're inclined to think of it as Glee meets House of Cards with touches of Veep, you're not mistaken. But you might end up wanting less high school melodrama and more political machinations. But yes, you can enjoy this even if you're not hooked to MSNBC 24/7 and all you know about the American government is thanks to The West Wing.

Like with other Murphy shows, the reality is enhanced here. The world is painted in bright turquoise, fuchsia, amber and coral. Everyone is impeccably dressed. CHVRCHES, Elliott Smith, LCD Soundsystem and Sufjan Stevens offer the soundtrack. And the sun shines brighter than ever in Santa Barbara, where the show is set.

Don't be discouraged by all the operatics, though. Stick to the show until the end of the season and you'll leave thirsty for what looks like a more grown-up season 2.

Originally published Sept. 23.