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What To Watch On Netflix That’s New This Week (Sept. 22-28)

What’s up: In this screwball, political horror/comedy, a high school student has aspirations to win the U.S. presidency someday. Aided by extreme family wealth, a team of student advisers, a bookshelf full of political memoirs, a detailed plan and a white Alfa Romeo (the car company with a logo that famously appears to depict a snake eating a man), this student will stop at nothing to win his school’s student body presidential election. He believes that winning this position will help him get into Harvard University and become the country’s president in the future. In this narrative world, the rich California high school students actually care about this election and the stakes do seem to match the protagonist’s ambitions.

The show begins with a “viewer discretion is advised” screen that has a tone of “sorry if you’re offended by this.” The advisory begins with a statement of purpose: “The Politician is a comedy about moxie, ambition, and getting what you want at all costs.” It then mentions this may not be for those who struggle with mental health. Explaining why the show warns of this would be a spoiler, but it’s not a spoiler to mention that the protagonist does repeatedly wonder if he’s a psychopath. The character feels especially unmoored from human connection, as he was adopted into his rich family and hides the fact he’s gay.

After this advisory, the actual story begins with a black screen and the teen protagonist saying, “It was a waking dream, the kind that arrives in the twilight between sleep and the real world.” This wonderfully sets up the reality-breaking nightmare journey the character is about to go on.

The cast includes Zoey Deutch, Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Platt. Ryan Murphy co-created the show, directed the premiere and co-wrote multiple episodes.

“The Politician” runs for eight episodes of roughly 50 minutes.

Sum up: This show certainly matches the political moment. Netflix couldn’t have predicted that an impeachment inquiry would begin into Donald Trump’s presidency the same week as the debut of the streaming service’s bonkers political comedy about a clownish politician potentially willing to do anything to destroy his rivals and backstab his friends for his own personal gain. But here we are. For what it’s worth, Netflix did have subway advertisements that leaned into the Trump connection. One of these ads featured the tagline, “We promise you all kinds of collusion.”

Even if it didn’t match the spirit of the news, “The Politician” has much to offer in terms of entertainment, with a soap opera-esque plot that doesn’t quite go off the rails, beautiful set design and strong performances from the main cast. At one point in the premiere episode, the Tony award-winning Platt gives the best singing performance I’ve seen on television all year, and that’s not even the climax of the episode. This show constantly moves at full-speed ― sometimes with Platt’s character literally speeding his Alfa Romeo around town ― but never allows itself to cheapen the details that lesser, smaller budget shows would ignore.

The narrative theme is an examination of the human soul and what constitutes faking it. Each character obsesses over this question in their own way. Having such wealthy and ruthless characters fight over power and titles and kingdoms while they don’t even understand why they want these things makes for a show that’s fun in a pulpy, surface-level way, but also one that rises to moments of heart-wrenching poetry.

Heads up: Much of the comedy comes from the despicable actions of the characters. This involves various “cross-the-line” jokes that wink at cancel culture. In the premiere episode, the white male candidates tokenize their running mates in a cheap ploy for electability ― with one enlisting a queer and gender-non-conforming Black as his vice-presidential candidate and the other courting special education students. These decisions are presented as cynical and morally bankrupt, but also, more questionably, play for laughs.

Close-up: The tasteful, yet ridiculous set design matches the maximalist approach of the writing. This perfect pairing blends best during the premiere in a conversation between the ultra-wealthy protagonist and his ultra-wealthy girlfriend. The two share a meal in her dining room, a space that has a giant taxidermy polar bear on its hind legs. The two sit on opposite ends of a long, wooden table with multiple candelabras and myriad flowers in between them. In a wonderful shot, the camera points toward the girlfriend, capturing the near dozen tall candles and flower displays before her and the giant, roaring polar bear towering behind her, as the character says, “This is what love looks like.” So campy, yet still ultra-rich in detail. And in a great, self-aware joke, soon after the “love” line, this wealthy high school character says, “Let’s move on to the fish course,” and hits a miniature gong to signal the help. This show has mastered the portrayal of despicable opulence.

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