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TV Review: 'The Politician'


TV producer Ryan Murphy is known for creating shows that capture the zeitgeist, like Fox's "Glee" and FX's "Pose." On Friday, his first original show for Netflix dropped - "The Politician." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans calls it one of Murphy's more personal creations.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Payton Hobart is a rich high school senior with one goal in life, which he reveals to a recruiter for his dream school - Harvard University.


BEN PLATT: (As Payton Hobart) I'm going to be president of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That does those seem to be the hot job everyone aspires to nowadays. The air of impossibility has been removed.

DEGGANS: The Trump joke notwithstanding, Payton actually has a plan for achieving this feat based on studying the lives of past presidents.


PLATT: (As Payton Hobart) Well, I only went back as far as Ronald Reagan because, as far as I'm concerned, he created the modern presidency, the presidency of television and celebrity. Reagan and Bush Sr. were both presidents of their senior classes in high school.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Which I assume you are on your way to accomplishing.

PLATT: (As Payton Hobart) I believe I have the election well in hand, yes.

DEGGANS: But as viewers of "The Politician" will learn, Payton's election isn't quite the sure thing he thinks it is. Similar to his past shows like "Glee," Murphy has created a series with a heightened tone, where a wealthy Santa Barbara High School's election for student body president is treated like an earth-shaking event.

Along the way, Murphy skewers everything from the cold-hearted entitlement of the 1% to the cluelessness of the average voter, the isolating effect of social media and the prison of being trapped in a very specific boundless ambition. Payton's first big problem is his opponent River, a handsome, sensitive athlete who reveals his natural gift for politics during a debate when a teacher asks about sugary drinks in the cafeteria.


DAVID CORENSWET: (As River Barkley) I just feel like it's hardly the most pressing thing that any of us are dealing with. The world is dark, yeah? And I think teenagers nowadays realize that. I tried to kill myself last year. Yeah. I never told anyone that.

DEGGANS: Rivers' speech, which ends with a vow to make sure no student feels alone, seals his popularity. And there's another problem Payton has with River. They have a secret romance - caring for each other and tender private moments.

Payton is played by Ben Platt, who theater fans will recognize as the Tony-winning star of the hit musical "Dear Evan Hansen." Platt gives Payton a much-needed vulnerability to go with his boundless ego and ambition. He even winds up singing Joni Mitchell's song "River" in an emotional moment.


PLATT: (As Payton Hobart, singing) I wish I had a river so long, I would teach my feet to fly.

DEGGANS: Payton is surrounded by oversized characters, from a running mate who might be faking a terminal illness to a team of political consultants who roll out polling data like a subsidiary of Gallup. Payton's mother is played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who first appears as a cartoonish trophy wife but grows more sensitive when asking why he's so obsessed.


GWYNETH PALTROW: (As Georgina Hobart) Why this dream?

PLATT: (As Payton Hobart) Because I'm compelled. I know this is my only path. Why does that make you cry?

PALTROW: (As Georgina Hobart) Because I love you so much. But I know I'm going to do whatever it takes to help you get what you want. And I'm sad for the person that's going to turn me into.

DEGGANS: Ryan Murphy has spoken often about the challenge of growing up gay in Indiana and the ambition that led him to progress from covering Hollywood as a journalist to becoming a top producer. So some dynamics in Murphy's early life seem reflected in "The Politician," which is his first series in a mega-deal with Netflix reportedly worth as much as $300 million.

There are times when "The Politician" seems a bit overstuffed with big personalities and bold plotlines, but the character at the heart of this story, self-centered and struggling with how his ambition is changing him, seems built for today's times. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.