Ryan Murphy’s first major Netflix production is The Politician. Will his fortune from his partnership with FX extend to Netflix with this comedy series?
For better or for worse, Emmy-winner / current TV god Ryan Murphy looks to be pushing politics even farther in the upcoming year, leading us into the 2020 Presidential election. Murphy has, of course, always been political. Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and most critically Pose all featured politics meshed with social justice in major ways. I was going to say “politics as subtext,” but “subtext” rarely applies in the Murphy world. Nearly every statement is underlined, bold and highlighted for your attention.
And it works for him. Ryan Murphy has started a lot of conversation about topics that many other mainstream shows wouldn’t touch. You could argue he’s something of a modern television era Norman Lear. I realize that statement likely sent many readers into shock, but the argument can be made. Let’s leave it there.
His latest entry – and his first for streaming giant Netflix – is The Politician – a day-glo confection that nearly works and fails in equal measure. It’s a splashy, good looking, and hugely entertaining mess of a series that does too much too well to be considered a failure. The series ultimately emerges as a shining example of how Ryan Murphy’s best and worst instincts are always in competition for dominance. Some careful script editing might have shaved away some of the rough edges to give us something great. Instead, we have a product that soars on occasion, but is it enough for the Television Academy to support it next summer?
The Politician stars Ben Platt as Payton Hobart, a pathologically ambitious high school student with aspirations at the highest office in the land. Planned to follow his political career at multiple stages, the series’ freshman season offers up Payton as he competes for class president. It travels a similar trajectory to 1999’s Election, but where that film had a tight focus on the ill effects of ambition, The Politician layers its central story with 45 other subplots, most of which don’t work at all. Still, the pilot episode is great, and a later episode (“The Voter”) is nearly brilliant in its un-Murphy-like focus. Are moments of greatness enough to overshadow the pieces that don’t work?
In terms of the 2020 Emmy season, you can’t really consider The Politician‘s chances without first understanding the returning series landscape. Of the 2019 nominees, winner Fleabag and Veep will not return. The Good Place‘s final season dropped last week, and Mrs. Maisel returns December 6. Schitt’s Creek also premieres its final season in early January. That leaves Barry and Russian Doll, two series that should premiere new seasons in 2020. Assuming all five return to the Comedy Series race, that leaves two slots available for The Politician.
It’s too early to tell what new or returning series competition may compete for those slots. GLOW‘s recently announced final season may put the series back on the Academy’s radar. Black-ish feels like its time has passed. Modern Family has its final season coming this year. Most likely to give it some tough competition is The Kominsky Method which returns for its second season this fall when it can build upon Season 1’s acting bids.
The strongest, best bet for Emmy attention is Ben Platt. A Tony and Grammy winner for Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, Platt gives a star-making performance. He navigates the mixture of comedy, drama, and yes musical moments as if his life depended on it. He manages to underscore every scene – even those moments where Payton appears to have the upper hand – with a seemingly endless reserve of sadness and desperation. He’s conflicted between appearances and his actual emotions – or at least those emotions we think are his actual emotions. Platt’s is a complicated and accomplished performance, and he should factor into the 2020 Comedy Actor race. Coming first, though, is the Golden Globe season which likely already has Platt’s name engraved on the statue. It’s the kind of performance coming from a young, rising star that they nearly always reward.
Outside of Platt, the best shots at performance nominations come from Murphy regular Jessica Lange and Gwyneth Paltrow in the supporting actress race. Lange has the showier role of the two, a comedy take on Patricia Arquette’s Emmy-winning role in The Act. She’s fine in the part, but it feels well within Lange’s wheelhouse. It doesn’t help, though, that her scenes are generally the ones that work the least. The whole Munchausen by proxy subplot (very fashionable now) smells like Ryan Murphy couldn’t figure out exactly what to do with Jessica Lange, saw The Act on Hulu, and decided it filled a need.
Paltrow’s role as Payton’s adopted mother is actually large enough to potentially merit Lead Actress consideration. I suspect, though, that all other cast members in the series will be campaigned in the supporting races, given Platt the sole lead focus. Paltrow is actually very good in the role even if her character’s justifications and choices don’t always make perfect sense. She may have a leg up in the supporting race because a) she’s an Oscar-winner star who rarely appears on television and b) the role has lead potential.
Overall, I suspect a lot of people will like The Politician. It covers tough, of-the-moment topics in a manner that will appeal to many. But I wouldn’t bet on it for much more than Ben Platt at the moment. We’ll need to see how it features into the upcoming guild season to know if the satire hits or misses with non-critic viewers (who are nearly split down the middle on it).
Ben Platt, Lead Actor
Main Title Design
Gwenyth Paltrow, Supporting Actress
Jessica Lange, Supporting Actress