In Netflix’s ‘The Politician,’ a new generation’s antihero emerges

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Ryan Murphy is no stranger to bringing sympathetic stories about unsympathetic protagonists to the screen. From the FX drama “Nip/Tuck” to his signature anthology series “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story,” the director, writer and showrunner has established his capacity to bring consistently theatrical yet nuanced character studies to television. 

His newest endeavor, Netflix’s “The Politician,” is the first product of a multimillion-dollar deal that Murphy made with the platform. In many ways, the show takes the best of Murphy’s abilities as a storyteller and adapts them to suit both longtime fans and a new generation of audiences. The show is a prime example of the skill and sensitivity of Murphy and his team of creative collaborators when it comes to portraying complicated antiheroes in our on-screen entertainment.

“American Crime Story” is a prime showcase of Murphy’s recent employment of this format to great success. Each season focuses on exploring major, true crime stories through the perspective of the criminals. Season one of “American Crime Story,” entitled “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” revolved around the O.J. Simpson murder case. Season two, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” centralized the narrative of Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer behind the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace. 

While this particular show is a unique showcase for Murphy and frequent collaborator Brad Falchuk — both of whom serve as executive producers — its notion of the “antihero” is still one focused on the past. It foregrounds the experiences of real-life figures who audiences would otherwise find reprehensible by exploring the underlying humanity behind their personal histories and internal psyches. The audience is not asked to forgive the antihero in “American Crime Story,” as the writers and producers emphasize the historical aspect of the show’s events in each season. As history has closed its doors on the antiheroes of these stories, their cultural legacy has been set — we cannot drastically transform our cultural understanding of them or our individual perception of their personalities and actions.

“The Politician” with its style, campiness and occasional musical number seems to fall more in line with one of Murphy’s creations like “Glee” rather than one of his more serious anthologies. Yet, it manages to carry many of the same ideas as “American Crime Story” with respect to the show’s portrayal of antiheroes. 

In “The Politician,” we’re given a new antihero — one who isn’t based on one real-life figure, and one that isn’t only drawn from historical events. In “The Politician,” we’re given a character with plenty of room to grow.

The show focuses on Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), who is introduced in the first season as a well-to-do high school student who is determined to win the position of student body president in the upcoming school elections. While this seems admirable enough, it’s far from where Payton’s ambitions end. The first scene of the season’s pilot episode sees Payton sitting in the office of the dean of Harvard University, stating his ultimate plan: “I’m going to be president of the United States.”

This is the premise on which the show rests. “The Politician,” which already has a second season in the works, is precisely about Hobart’s journey to become U.S. president someday. If the first season is any indication, he will stop at no lengths to reach that position. The series as a whole begins with a note regarding viewer discretion, as it includes several storylines and themes that deal with characters’ mental health struggles. And yet, the note starts out with a clear setup for the show as a whole, calling it a comedy about “moxie, ambition, and getting what you want at all costs.” 

In the first season alone, Payton vets out a character with an illness to serve as his running mate; he stages a public breakup with his girlfriend and campaign advisor, so they can both focus on his victory; and at least, in the beginning, demonstrates an irritating level of overconfidence regarding his academic success and leadership trajectory. Yet through all of Payton’s blatant flaws and mistakes, and despite the show’s rampant melodrama, “The Politician” goes to great lengths to ensure that Payton is a sympathetic, if deeply unlikable, character.

Spearheaded by a dynamic, heart-wrenching performance by Platt, the character of Payton serves as an antihero for a new generation of television viewers. His relationships with his romantic interests, his friends and his mother all serve as crucial points through which we can gain some insight into his unfettered ambition. He is clear about his path; his loved ones are supportive. Even as the season progresses, and Payton becomes increasingly insecure and reaches a point of nearly dropping his presidential aspirations altogether, it is his support system that props him back toward the pursuit of power.

The show’s visually fascinating theme sequence at the beginning of each episode drives home the character study that is at the heart of this antihero narrative. The hands of an unknown, unnamed third person reach out to construct and mold the ideal politician out of material objects — Payton gradually emerges from this creation. It sums up exactly why the antihero story behind “The Politician” is so different from those of other Murphy creations. Payton is surely a product of society and culture, but in this case, he’s the embodiment of the fragile balance of humanity and cruelty that we so often see in ourselves — a bona fide New Age antihero.

Anagha Komaragiri is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.