In Netflix's The Politician, a high school election satire meets a Pinocchio-like transformation tale

Rohini Nair

Oct 12, 2019 14:04:33 IST

How many are the high school dramas we've seen unfold? Let us count the ways.

Okay, we're not actually going to count considering the vast amount of western (and more specifically, American) pop culture that is devoted to the high school experience.

Thrillers, horror and whodunnits, coming of age narratives, comedy and satire, emotional dramas, makeovers and romances and rivalries, sports sagas, social critiques, musicals and rebooted classics — you name it, and the movie or TV show set in the high school has straddled all these genres and story types.

So what does The Politician — Netflix's latest big ticket show — have to offer that previous high school-based stories don't?

In treatment and form, The Politician belongs to a world where Gossip Girl, Clueless, The Election, Glee, and your favourite Wes Anderson movie merged into one. So you have the music of Glee and the upper crustiness of Gossip Girl, the high school politics of The Election and the style of Clueless, all sprinkled with the eccentric humour of Wes Anderson.

In a space that is also home to Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why, The Politician occupies a (superior) niche of its own.

 In Netflixs The Politician, a high school election satire meets a Pinocchio-like transformation tale

Ben Platt and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Politician | Netflix

Brought to screen by the team of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (Glee, Pose, American Horror Story), The Politician is ostensibly about a high school senior's campaign to be student body president. Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) has one goal: to be the President of the United States. And he has a meticulously charted path to get there; a path that begins with becoming president of his high school, and gaining admittance to Harvard.

He's close to achieving both those steps on his journey, until he isn't.

The cast of characters that surround Payton include —

At home

His adoptive parents Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Keaton (Bob Balaban) Hobart, and twin older brothers

At school

River (David Corenswet): Popular senior, captain of the lacrosse team, Payton's close friend (and lover), competitor in the student body president race, and later, the voice of his conscience

Astrid (Lucy Boynton): River's girlfriend, Payton's nemesis

Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), James (Theo Germaine) and McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss): Payton's girlfriend and future First Lady; his campaign manager and best friend; and his campaign strategist, respectively

Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch): A cancer survivor who becomes Payton's pick for student body vice president; her grandmother Dusty (Jessica Lange)

Most of the season 1 arc is taken up in depicting the mechanics of engineering a winning high school election campaign (and Payton, Alice, James and McAfee treat it as seriously as if it were the US Presidential campaign itself). This is high school politicking, but the stakes are not of an adolescent nature.

Concurrently, there are dramas playing out in the personal lives of the main characters: Astrid's troubling relationship with her cold father (Dylan McDermott), Infinity's discovery that selfless love may not exactly be Dusty's motivation in caring for her, an impending divorce for Georgina and Keaton Hobart, with Payton possibly being disinherited from the family billions as a consequence.

While all of this makes for mostly engaging viewing, there's another theme that runs through The Politician: the Pinocchio-like transformation of Payton.

David Corenswet, Lucy Boynton and Ben Platt in The Politician | Netflix

David Corenswet, Lucy Boynton and Ben Platt in The Politician | Netflix

At the start of the story, Payton struggles with his inability to feel. The title credits depict him as a hollow wooden statuette filled up with all of the object-components of his personality (figurines of his family, books on US Presidents, a little ceramic heart, a ticker tape of thoughts), sanded and buffed and polished and clothed until he looks like "a real, live boy". But like Pinocchio, Payton too must go through a series of misadventures, until he proves that he is "brave and courageous and true", thus fulfilling the conditions for transforming into an actual person rather than a puppet.

The other characters in The Politician also grapple with what is real and authentic versus what isn't, with merely pretending to feel versus actually feeling, with doing good things as opposed to being good. Some learn the difference, others are happy with pretence. Some fake it till they make it. Payton is drawn to River and Infinity because he perceives them as genuine, although only one of them actually is.

River is Payton's opposite: he feels a little too much. His empathy makes him sense the carefully hidden vulnerability in others, and this is what allows him to form connections with them. By the end of the story, Payton too has displayed a similar ability: whatever his ideas regarding his own shortcomings, he is able to reach out to people, and have them believe in him.

The Politician has lots of little nudges and winks to the world outside the show. For instance, in the very first scene, as Payton discusses his dream of becoming the US President with the Harvard dean during his admissions interview, the latter replies: "Yes, that does seem to be the hot job everyone aspires to nowadays. The air of impossibility has been removed." Gwyneth Paltrow's Georgina has shades of the 'Goop goddess' persona the actress is now associated with. David Corenswet's resemblance to Henry Cavill is called out when Payton, angrily listing all the reasons River will win the election, says, "You even look like Superman!"  Gender, sexual and physical diversity are the norm rather than the exception in this show, and the cast turns in pitch-perfect performances.

But —

It also seems to lose direction the further along it gets into the story. The Politician might have been served better with tighter editing and a less indulgent episode count. There are episodes and plot points that bring down the pace, that might have passed unnoticed if released in a traditional weekly format, but contrast poorly in a binge-watch. There may also be a bit of classism: two of the least well-to-do characters are portrayed as dolts.

Like Payton, The Politician has a beautifully varnished exterior, and lots of ambition. It even has its heart in the right place. It just needs a little more finesse and focus, a little more soul-searching, and a little more depth.

Rating: ★★★ and 1/2

The Politician is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —

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Updated Date: Oct 14, 2019 09:11:46 IST