Updated: Feb 28, 2020
"This is the reality of American politics. All the recent debates have been aired like sporting events, with promos and hype. Twitter has served as a battleground for relatability, memes, and personal beef. The Politician just plays on this morbid curiosity, testing to see if we yell to avoid the car crash or laugh as we watch it happen." Staff writer Jacob Zeranko talks about misunderstandings, messy high school politics, and the High Comedy of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's The Politician. Spoiler-free!
I'm just gonna say it: I thoroughly enjoyed Netflix’s The Politician. The series was conceived and headed by Ryan Murphy, best known for his shows Glee, American Horror Story, and more. Along with co-writers Ian Brennen and Brad Falchuk, the three men provide a tight and poignant satire of American politics and the upper class. However, compared to most reviewers, I seem to be in the minority. The New York Times, Vulture, The Guardian and Esquire all described The Politician as a “hot mess”; with Vox adding that it’s at least “a meaningful one." Their main critiques seem to be three-fold: the plot is all over the place, the characters are emotionally sporadic and empty; plus, there’s a lack of actual political commentary. But there is a difference between our viewing, as I didn’t find any of this to be true when watching the show. I understand that enjoyment is subjective, but criticism is not. So, I decided to look into each of the reviewers to try and locate where our viewpoints diverged - and I found it.
The Politician finds its roots in theatre, and no reviewer has a real, intensive understanding of the stage. None of them studied theatre. Each reviewer has one or more degrees in film, journalism or creative writing coupled with a long career working with established publications - so I am in no means insinuating that they don’t know what they’re talking about. But The Politician is a special case, as it was written by three people trained in theatre and has a cast consisting mostly of highly trained stage performers (Broadway vet Ben Platt even gives a performance from the musical Assassins in episode 6). While this isn’t inherently unusual in film, the show’s style works in High Comedy. This style is usually taught in theatrical scholarship because it’s a highly technical kind of satire not really seen anymore in the way The Politician utilizes it. So I can’t blame most people for being a little lost or feeling frustrated, because it’s not a style most people are fluent in anymore. It is here that I should mention that my degree is in performance and theatrical study, so I would like to lend that knowledge in response to these critiques and to help The Politician make a little more sense.
The plot is all over the place. This is one of the more consistent critiques that appeared across the board. I feel the problem is less that the plot is unfocused, but that there is just a lot going on. Without spoiling the show, as there are still plenty who haven’t seen it, the show follows Payton (Ben Platt) as he runs for student body president at his high school. Throughout the show, people have affairs, uncover family secrets, played messed up mind games and straight-up die. The soap-opera-like twists and turns can leave many thinking Where did that come from? - and that’s the point. The show is trying to echo what’s happening in America right now which, in itself, is unbelievable. How many times have you heard the news about the latest scandal in Trump’s administration and think There’s no way this is real life, only for it to get even crazier? The plot of The Politician is just like that, except they at least provide answers and some sense of closure that we can’t get in the real world.
The show is trying to echo what’s happening in America right now which, in itself, is unbelievable.
This criticism of real life is one of the core components of High Comedy. Writers choose to highlight the convoluted nature of people and just how quickly their intentions and focus change. It could be on the small scale, like switching emotions startlingly fast, or the big scale, like people dying suddenly or admitting a life-altering revelation. In your own life, think of how many times you have gone from sobbing to hysterically laughing, or vice versa, almost instantly. It may seem unnatural to watch when these things happen so suddenly, and maybe it’s because it hits too close to home. Maybe people want to think their lives and reactions are more controllable or foreseeable than that. Real-life 180-degree turns occur constantly: from climate change to Elon Musk's ridiculous downfall to even Epstein, a sex trafficker, from his connections to The President, his administration, to the Royal Family- even to the mysterious non-suicide suicide in his jail cell. Between my rage and confusion and frustration, sometimes I can only laugh at how horrible and unbelievable everything can be.
Another common critique of The Politician is that characters are sporadic and empty. This may be the most important thing getting in the way of people enjoying this show, because it’s the hardest thing to pull off in High Comedy. Outside of critiquing real life, another tenant of High Comedy includes shallow characters with deep emotional reservoirs. These characters feel their emotions deeply and fully, but the characters themselves have very little substance. Take Payton, for example, whose only character trait can be summed up as “I want to be President." We don’t really know what he truly believes in, other than his own ambitions, but his emotional reservoir is wide and deep. He feels love, despair, grief, and excitement in their fullest forms. The way to utilize these emotions in a way that’s equal-parts meaningful and funny is by following character rule #1 of High-Comedy: characters must be able to turn on an emotional sixpence - going from one emotional extreme to another on the drop of a dime. Almost every character makes emotional transitions like this, especially Ricardo (Benjamin Barrett), the unstable boyfriend of Infinity (Zoey Deutch), Payton’s running mate, who frequently goes from pithy, ridiculous beats of boobs and sex are awesome to being very emotionally vulnerable and insightful.
The way to utilize these emotions in a way that’s equal-parts meaningful and funny is by following character rule #1 of High-Comedy: characters must be able to turn on an emotional sixpence - going from one emotional extreme to another on the drop of a dime.
To the credit of these reviewers, this kind of emotional switching can feel really unnatural and disengaging. Today, we are used to seeing characters that are complicated in their external lives rather than their emotions. Take long TV narratives like that of HBO’s Game of Thrones, where every character has a deep and intricate life that influences their decisions and personalities. But when it comes to emotional or tonal shifts, they occur over the long-term, because they have multiple seasons to take their time. For instance, Jon Snow showed little emotional flexibility outside of grief and anger for the beginning of the show, until he began to find love and brotherhood halfway through Season 2. In theatre, you get 2 hours (if you’re lucky), so characters have to move and grow quickly, which usually occurs within minutes. The Politician utilizes the latter to allow its characters to seem extremely off-the-wall and overdramatic because that’s the point. Comedy lies in the dissonance between expectation and delivery, and one of the best ways to live in that middle ground is emotional instability.
And there’s a lack of actual political commentary. This was my favorite critique, because of course there is little “real-life” political commentary. We have enough of that in the news cycle - and that was never the intention of the show, either. Instead, its purpose is to critique the ideology of politicians themselves. The Politician is showcasing the American political sphere as it is right now: shallow and manipulative. Each and every character in this show is awful, even when they are trying to fight for what feels like the right thing. Skye (Rahne Jones), who becomes a Vice President candidate twice, leads their campaign on drawing attention and support to people of color and in the LGBTQIA+ community. However, they almost extort one character, abandon others, and do not properly research some of the issues they speak to. This goes for Payton as well, who makes empty promises, face-value relationships, and has scandal after affair after scandal. Even more relevant, when Payton is actually given a place of power, he has no idea what to do. The point? Politicians are all talk baby. You aren’t drawn in by their actual beliefs, you’re drawn into the spectacle. This is the reality of American politics. All the recent debates have been aired like sporting events, with promos and hype. Twitter has served as a battleground for relatability, memes, and personal beef. The Politician just plays on this morbid curiosity, testing to see if we yell to avoid the car crash or laugh as we watch it happen.
The Politician is showcasing the American political sphere as it is right now: shallow and manipulative.
In my opinion, the best representation of the show’s political commentary can be found in Episode 8: The Voter. This is the shortest episode in the season and follows Elliot (Russell Posner) throughout his school day as an undecided voter. Thank god the episode is only 28 minutes long, because it really starts to get under your skin. Elliot belongs to the only middle-class family we meet in this show- and, from waking up to going to bed, all he wants to do is jerk off. But as the episode progresses, he is bombarded by uncaring parents, an overly woke little sister and the flashy, can’t-look-away optics of his school’s politics. Both candidates endlessly fight for his attention: cornering him in hallways and courtyards and bathrooms, then at the lunch table before fighting each other. Their campaign managers barrage him with information and follow him around, make him attend rallies and speeches, and keep pressing for his vote until he finally breaks and punches Payton’s campaign manager. At this point, I found myself finally breathing and almost cheering for the kid. The pursuit was relentless, and in the end, I still didn’t know how to feel about either candidate and neither did Elliot. This really cemented for me what this show was about: these people are shallow, inconsiderate, and over the top, yet it feels honest in a way I can only laugh at because I don’t know how else to make it stop.
None of this is to change the mind of people who didn’t enjoy The Politician, because you have every right not to; but the show is far from messy. It’s tight, deliberate, and masterfully written and performed. And look, there are parts I really didn’t like, either. For example, Payton singing “River” at an assembly in Episode 2 really made me roll my eyes because the moment felt shoehorned in. Ben Platt is still riding praise from his Tony-winning performance in Dear Evan Hansen and, as a “theatre kid” myself, I didn’t need a non-musical show putting in an entire musical number for the star. But moments like this come few and far between.
This really cemented for me what this show was about: these people are shallow, inconsiderate, and over the top, yet it feels honest in a way I can only laugh at because I don’t know how else to make it stop.
Hopefully, this bit of context may allow those who haven’t watched the show to have an easier time breaking into its style and forming your own opinions. No matter what, it’s worth a watch because this kind of High Comedy tends to pop up during particularly important shifts in politics. Take Oscar Wilde, who lived at the end of the Victorian Era where the old ways of the English monarchy began its transition towards modern Parliamentary Democracy. Our time, like his, is seeing a political transition that will lead to large change one way or the other. And what better way to deal with sudden and uncomfortable change than with laughter?
The Politician is now streaming on Netflix. ❏
Jacob Zeranko is a playwright and actor from Baltimore, MD, and an alumni of Towson
University. His work has been produced and workshopped at Towson University and the
Williamstown Theatre Festival among others. He is a lover of music, comics, science, coffee, and sustainability; but is not a fan of men’s fashion and closed minds. Jacob is super excited to be working with Haloscope and its amazing writers and contributors! Outside of Haloscope, his plays can be found on New Play Exchange and you can find him on all social media @jacobzeranko.