In a seminar with prominent screenwriting students from across the country, author Kristen Tracy said, “In this life, authors get three, maybe four, obsessions. Muses.”
Screenwriter and director Ryan Murphy (of Glee, Pose, and American Horror Story fame) doesn’t initially seem motivated by obsession. His works span audiences and genres. But Murphy’s latest, a Santa Barbara fantasia and spoof on American politics, may be the key to unlocking his great muse.
The Politician, one of the first shows produced for Murphy’s exclusive new Netflix deal, wears a spiffy suit over what seems to be an arid and empty frame. At first glance, the show is like cotton candy; nice to look at, but not a lot of substance. The premise lies on the shoulders of Ben Platt’s Payton Hobart, a private school adopted teen whose one ambition in life is to become the President of the United States. Each season follows a different campaign run by Payton, the first of which is a strife-ridden race for student body president.
Although The Politician’s protagonist seems single-minded, the show is the opposite and jumps from plot point to plot point with abandon. A Munchausen by proxy subplot, a murderous strain in Payton’s power hungry adoptive siblings (a la Cinderella), and a runaway candidate all cram themselves into a convoluted plot line that feels less thought out and more of a constant “gotcha!”, reminiscent of Hollywood’s current shock value obsession. The entire cycle begins again within the season finale, which acts more as a pilot for the second season set in New York.
But what The Politician seems to lack in consistency it makes up for in complexity. Look a little farther beyond the star studded cast and production budget. The affluent aesthetic and the swooping visuals will give way to the dark inner machinations of Payton’s mind as he struggles with his own identity, his emotions, and the stresses of growing up in an increasingly competitive world.
One constant within the show is the reappearance of River (David Cornswet), a previous high school candidate and Payton’s one true love. After his death, River appears as a white clad apparition within Payton’s mind, reminding Payton (and by proxy, the audience) of the world’s darkening miasma. He serves as a symbol of Payton’s struggle to hide his own queer identity, his crumbling home life, and deteriorating mental state.
Both characters are an example of the mental health problems of today’s teenage America dialed up to eleven – and that’s what makes the show so captivating.
Murphy was attempting to satirize current American politics, but in a world of teenage activists like Greta Thunberg or David Hogg, his ‘empty suit’ caricature falls flat. Instead, Murphy’s created a commentary on the idea of material happiness and how American society is failing it’s children.
Boiled down to it’s bare essentials, The Politician isn’t really about politics at all. It’s about the deeper evil within American society that corrupts our children, our mental state, and yes, our politics.
Erasure. Emptiness. Conformity. These are the themes Murphy pulls from, a direct contradiction to the saccharine American Dream.
It’s white picket fences and 2 perfect children. Endless hills of suburbia. This image of perfection is just like our protagonist’s outward appearance.
But Payton’s polish is precisely the problem. He’s a product of an affluenza afflicted America, a mirror image of today’s teen stressors.
Get good grades. Be admitted to a top college. And for Payton, become President of the United States.
Ambition is the rot that pulls Payton’s core apart, and it pulls directly from the pressure of American society. It then gives way to this incredible emptiness within the population. The country’s citizens jostle for position at the expense of their individuality, and this effect continues all the way to the White House.
Conformity and collapse, emptiness and achievement. The great American Dream is unraveling, and Murphy is pulling the string.
That is Ryan Murphy’s muse, and it cuts through the jumbled plot lines and picture perfect cinematography to create something that has audiences vying for another season.
And if audiences aren’t a fan of the deeper message, if they just want something oddly entertaining to fill that gaping emptiness that serves as the thesis for the show, then the cinematography and acting delivers.
The Politician is currently in production for season two.