Payton Hobart’s (Ben Platt) destiny is becoming President of the United States. The first stage in his ascent is to be elected president of his senior class and go to Harvard. But first he must find a running mate — perhaps sympathetic cancer victim Infinity (Zoey Deutch) — and defeat determined opponent Astrid (Lucy Boynton).
Ryan Murphy’s latest hyper-mannered, hyper-articulate look at the lives of the rich and disgraceful isn’t always as biting as it should be, but when it works it’s glorious. This is a show about the strange emptiness of politics, and the ways that we have all become politicians in an age of social media overexposure and crippling self-awareness. But it’s also a pleasingly ridiculous soap opera and a chance for Gwyneth Paltrow to send herself up. If it becomes a little chaotic in the third act, at least it promises great things for an almost-but-not-quite-anthology show to come.
Our hero(ish) is Ben Platt’s open-faced, angel-voiced and absolutely ambitious Payton Hobart. He has known, definitively, since childhood that he will one day be US President; all that remains is to actually win the election. He has a loyal campaign team and a picture-perfect girlfriend (Julia Schlaepfer), but the first step is to find a running mate in his campaign for high school senior class president. Enter sympathetic Infinity (Zoey Deutch), a peppy cancer patient with terrible judgment and a mercenary streak. Payton’s up against determined opposition too, first from likeable sports star River (David Corenswet) and the more formidable Astrid (Boynton).
Funny, sharp and extremely quotable.
All, it’s fair to say, does not go to plan. There are outrageous betrayals, abuse, self-harm, political gaffes, poison, secret investigations and far more polling than any high school should be subjected to (one episode, focusing on an apathetic voter being driven nearly to madness by the campaign, is an inspired look at how little ordinary people want to think about this stuff). None of that is boring, but it’s a lot soapier than we maybe need. The political satire is good as far as it goes, in examining the tightrope that every candidate must walk to avoid offending in a liberal, intersectional environment like this ritzy California school, and there’s a timely swipe at the US college admissions scandal. Yet there’s little to no attempt to deal with the rise of populism or the existential challenges posed to liberal democracy by that attack. Maybe in Season 2, set up in the final episode here.
Even as the tight, Election-style premise falls apart and Boynton and Deutch are somewhat sidelined, there’s still lots to love. Paltrow is in full Wes Anderson form as Payton’s unhappy mother, sending up her own love of alternative medicine but injecting humour too (“That’s the fourth time someone has jumped out a window when I tried to break up with them,” she sighs). Platt is deeply engaging, shifting smoothly from likeably sincere to horrifically image-conscious. But everyone around him is just as self-aware. All our heroes are trying to make meaningful connections while examining their every word for possible mistakes. It’s no way to live, says the show: being a politician, or even trying to be, will fatally skew your values away from reality and towards disaster. And that rings awfully true right now.
Funny, sharp and extremely quotable, this only falls short of greatness when it seems to lose the thread of its own satire in the second half and move from biting to bullet-riddled.