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Ben Platt leads ‘The Politician,’ but Gwyneth Paltrow is the star

Gwyneth Paltrow appears in an episode of "The Politician," which premiered on Netflix last week. She plays Georgina Hobart, the mother of a teenager running for class president. (Beth Dubber/Netflix)
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More than a decade has passed since Gwyneth Paltrow founded her lifestyle brand, Goop, which began as a newsletter but expanded into a wellness empire — an oft-mocked one, as the empress’s critics have frequently painted her as more of a court jester. Recall, if you will, the infamous jade eggs.

Paltrow worked steadily in Hollywood throughout those years, but a recent turn on Ryan Murphy’s latest project, “The Politician,” reminds us why anyone paid attention to Goop in the first place: Paltrow is a star. She rises to the top of a television show that relies heavily on the screen presence of Ben Platt, an effective actor but one perhaps better suited for a stage. He plays Payton Hobart, an ambitious high schooler running an aggressive campaign for class president, and Paltrow plays Georgina, his mother and the best character on a show that has more than it knows what to do with.

“The Politician,” a political satire with themes reminiscent of Alexander Payne’s 1999 film, “Election,” plays off established archetypes — and Georgina is no exception. She’s a clever reflection of Paltrow’s own public persona, a character who outwardly seems shallow but whose behavior suggests that there’s more to her than immaculate jewel-toned dresses and a firm belief in the healing power of crystals. (This benevolence makes sense, given that Paltrow’s husband, Brad Falchuk, who co-created the series with Murphy and Ian Brennan, wrote the role with his Oscar-winner wife in mind.)

Review: Ryan Murphy’s ‘The Politician’ is cool and cynical — and difficult to fully endorse

When we first encounter Georgina, she’s sitting on a stool in the Hobart family’s luxurious backyard, painting a watercolor of a Syrian child killed in an airstrike. “It’s for a series I’m doing to raise awareness and money for the Syrian war debt,” she says softly to her boarish twin sons, sighing but maintaining an even-keeled tone. They walk away, picking a fight with their adopted younger brother in the process, after which Georgina comforts Payton.

“You can’t teach kindness. You know? I tried for a long time,” she whispers to him. “Can’t do much with small hearts. Hard hearts, maybe, but not small ones. I love them, don’t get me wrong, I just — the love has edges. It doesn’t go on and on the way my love for you does.”

There’s a lot to unpack about the Goopiness of Georgina’s words — in addition to her questionable painting subjects — and thankfully, the show spends time doing so. Whereas some of “The Politician’s” other supporting characters get the short end of the stick, Georgina’s motivations and sacrifices are laid out for all to see. Early on in the season, for instance, we discover that she has fallen in love with a woman who works at the stables (Martina Navratilova) but chooses to remain in her loveless marriage for the sake of Payton’s financial security. In another particularly moving scene, she tells Payton that she is scared by how far she is willing to go to ensure that he, her favorite son, achieves what he wants.

It’s plot twists galore from there on, but Paltrow’s ability to project Georgina’s measured resolve as well as her ethereal quality remains constant. Critics have drawn parallels between the creative styles of “The Politician” and Wes Anderson’s 2001 film, “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and Paltrow seems to borrow a bit of her past character Margot Tenenbaum’s weariness with the world as well.

As Georgina, Paltrow is as captivating as she’s ever been — such that it’s entirely believable when her character, after telling her husband that she’d like a divorce, wearily observes, “This is the fourth time somebody’s jumped out of a window when I’ve tried to break up with them.”

Clarification: This post previously described Brad Falchuk as an executive producer of “The Politician.” He is also a co-creator.

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Go ahead and hate Goop. Gwyneth Paltrow is having the last laugh.