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'The Politician' review: Wildly uneven, but consistently entertaining

Ben Platt as Payton Hobart in season 1

Ben Platt as Payton Hobart in season 1 of Netflix's "The Politician" (2019) Credit: NETFLIX/Adam Rose

SERIES "The Politician"

WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Payton Hobart (Ben Platt, "Dear Evan Hansen) is a blindly ambitious, compulsively self-curating high school student who is determined to become president of his class in Santa Barbara, then on to the big house — the White one. He's even assembled his own presidential exploratory team (His "Hansen" costar Laura Dreyfuss plays a member of the team.) He's got the unconditional support of his adoptive mom, Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow), but faces a stiff challenge for class prez from his former Mandarin tutor and onetime lover (David Corenswet). "The Politician" -- Ryan Murphy's ("Pose") first production for the streaming service -- will track Payton's rocky road to the White House. (A second season has been ordered.) And yes, Platt, who won a Tony for "Hansen," occasionally sings here. 

MY SAY Platt's Payton covers "Vienna" late in the first season, and it's probably redundant to say he covers it beautifully. But you are left to wonder what took so long for character and song to finally get together. It's as if Billy Joel wrote this for someone like Payton, who's too ambitious for a juvenile, and (if he's so smart) then why is he still so afraid? By this point in the evolution, or devolution, of Payton Hobart, he has lost lovers, admittance to cherished Harvard and to an extent his soul. Deep in his cups, he's a piano man working a dingy bar, and … oh wait, Joel wrote a song about that too.

Which all gets to the key and maybe only question worth asking: Who is Payton Hobart and why should you care? Basically, he's a person who feared he would never feel anything, and then discovers he can in fact feel (realizing along the way that "fear" is a fundamental emotion) and that he likes the way he feels, up to and including the pain of loss. To feel makes him human, except that Payton also believes that to run for office means one must un-feel. Remorse, pity, empathy, love and kindness are for losers.

That's Payton's internal conflict, and to an extent of "The Politician." His mother sets up the conflict early on with this nice line: "You can teach kindness [but] you can't do much with small hearts. Hard hearts, maybe." What Payton doesn't know, nor do we, is whether his heart is hard or just grinch-sized.  

 Also left largely unexplored is what Payton actually believes in, if anything. "Himself" hardly seems seem like a satisfying answer. If he's not going to become a Mr.-Smith-goes-to-Washington type, but a guy who will say anything to get elected, that doesn't seem like a satisfying journey either. Besides, the genuinely funny comedy based on that political archetype has already aired and been lavishly rewarded ("Veep," what else?).

Platt is mostly excellent, but he's not a comic actor, which is fine because "The Politician" is not exactly a comedy either. Never one to be bound by labels or genres anyway, Murphy has created a dramedy, satire, tragedy, romance, coming-of-age story and political parody, all of which contribute to viewer whiplash if not exactly ennui. Murphy — reunited here with longtime collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan — couldn't do "ennui" if he tried. "The Politician" may be wildly uneven, but it is consistently entertaining.

 What's ultimately left hanging, like some lonely outlier without focus, resolution or insight, is that "why you should care." Payton and "The Politician" — not to mention us — need that other season to find out why. 

BOTTOM LINE A grab bag of genres and tone, but Platt, as billed, is special indeed. 

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