The Politician & Hollywood -- Grade B
Ryan Murphy's up to his old tricks here in his latest Netflix series, and not to the best effect, but as per usual, the female performances save both of these shows.
Hopes were high for Ryan Murphy's series deal at Netflix. Having produced more than a half-dozen series now (American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Pose, Glee, Scream Queens, 911), Murphy and his partners Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan have their formula down pat.
Take a genre, any genre and add a diverse, appealing cast. Then throw in one or two famed Broadway/film divas, some fresh-faced newcomers, at least one musical number, several soap-opera subplots and a few hot-button, zeitgeisty topics, and you got yourself a series. Wrap it all up in a bright, candy-colored bow and give it a happy ending -- even if the characters don't seem to deserve it -- and you've got your Ryan Murphy show in a nutshell.
That said -- Murphy is out and proud and his aesthetic is primarily pro-female, and his wit and social commentary are almost always sharp as a tack. Which is why the show Hollywood was such a letdown.
The limited series, which premiered in May, is an admittedly alternative history of late '40s Tinseltown, featuring a young Black gay writer, a pre-fame Rock Hudson, a Black female star and a half-Filipino director, who're on the verge of getting their movie made at a top studio. Diversity didn't stand a chance back then, but this plucky gang blows down those obstacles with some help from a forward-thinking production exec (played by Broadway actor-director Joe Mantello) and an underground prostitution ring run by a colorful Dylan McDermott (a Murphy regular).
The production values are top-notch, as always, with stunning sets and costumes, but the later episodes rewrite Hollywood history in all-too unconvincing fashion. What saves the series is the all-too-brief appearance of real-life legend Anna May Wong (a gorgeous performance by Michelle Krusiec) dealing with her disappointments as the first Asian movie star.
Femme Critic also enjoyed the wonderful onscreen relationship between Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor -- best friends who've been through the trenches together as the studio head's wife and casting chief. It's lovely to see these women of a certain age portrayed as intelligent, independent and sexual beings. It's definitely the best trope Murphy utilizes here, there and everywhere, and we see it again in the recently released second season of The Politician.
In this case, the two best pals are played by Judith Light and Bette Midler, who blows everyone else off the screen as political operative Hadassah Gold. Hadassah is whip smart, devious, loyal to a fault, hilarious and even touching, as she rediscovers her sexual mojo over the course of the season. It is beyond a treat to see Midler back in her comedy element in a role that fits her like a glove.
The show also checks off the rest of Murphy's boxes quite nicely. Ben Platt stars as Payton Hobart, a smart, wealthy California kid, who's running for New York state senate, after winning the hotly-contested presidency of his fancy prep school in Season One. The Politician is basically a trashy Hollywood version of All the King's Men: Payton struggles with his conscience as he debates whether to pull out all the dirty tricks in order to get elected to office and do good or to run a straight, morally-upright campaign and most likely lose to the longtime incumbent portrayed by Light.
The always delightful Zoey Deutch also co-stars as an old friend of Payton's, an environmental influencer, and Gwyneth Paltrow checks in as Payton's mother, who's running for the governor of California, and is played as a tongue-in-cheek version of the Goop guru herself. Payton runs on a up-to-the-minute climate-change platform, and there are several alternative sexual throuplings on board to play to Murphy's "cutting edge" cultural rep.
The saving grace of this series, aside from Midler, is Episode 5, entitled "The Voters." I love when a show throws in an off-kilter episode that views its regular characters through guest-star lenses, and this one is particularly effective, featuring Robin Weigert (Deadwood) and Susannah Perkins as an uptown mom and daughter on opposite sides of the political divide.
There's another missed note (literally) as Broadway star Ben Platt suddenly gets to show off his pipes, in a very odd tacked-on coda in the last episode, while Bette Midler watches. Let me repeat, BETTE MIDLER WATCHES this guy sing TWO SONGS, and somehow acts as if everything is fine, instead of knocking the little pisser away from the piano and taking over the entertainment portion of the show. A shanda.