When Netflix, the streaming entertainment giant, hands you $300 million and says, “Go!,” a sense of vertigo might well be expected. Ryan Murphy, currently one of the hottest producers on television and the recipient of that multi-million dollar challenge, has transferred that dizzying sense to the TV-watching public through the first offering of his Netflix deal: “The Politician.” The new series, which debuts Sept. 27th, is a mash up of high school electioneering, sexual fluidity, homicidal ambition, shameless parenting and large doses of shell-game fakery. In other words, it’s a dark comedy perfect for today’s socio-political climate.
Ben Platt, fresh from newly anointed stardom courtesy of “Dear Evan Hansen,” stars as Payton Hobart, who believes he is destined to become president of the United States. He first has to leapfrog over some formidable candidates in the student body elections of his affluent Santa Barbara, California high school. To say the obstacles lend an increasingly surreal tone to the series is to state the obvious since the show comes from Murphy, the producer who shot to fame writing and directing such over-the-top fare as “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story,” “Pose” and “Feud.”
What follows is a primer on a series that is likely to be among the most talked-about this fall around water coolers, gym classes, and the lounges and (gay) bars of America.
Ryan Murphy, the $300-Million Man
Ryan Murphy is taking no chances for his first gambit on Netflix, assembling an all-star cast and veteran creative team. He started by tapping writers Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, with whom he collaborated on “Glee.” The trio are back on familiar terrain, this time on the campus of St. Sebastian High School rather than the show choir competition setting of “Glee.” Like “American Horror Story,” “The Politician” is an anthology series in which each season follows Platt’s Payton Hobart in a different electoral scenario. While Platt, who is 26, may seem a little old to be playing an 18-year-old senior, he is at a more comfortable age for next season when he encounters Judith Light, as a New York politician, and Bette Midler, as her chief of staff.
Ben Platt, Superstar
Being just an Oscar short of EGOT status, Ben Platt shares with his alter ego, Payton, a headlong rush to achievement. As the son of Marc Platt, the prolific film and theater producer, the young actor attended the elite Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, whose student body did not lack for the kind of hormonal drives satirized in “The Politician.” Reportedly, none of Platt’s teachers there are surprised at his meteoric rise to stardom, which began with featured roles in the “Pitch Perfect” movies and, of course, culminated in “Dear Evan Hansen,” bringing him a Tony, a Grammy (Best Musical Theater Album) and an Emmy (for a “Today Show” appearance). Earlier this year, Platt released his first, co-written album, “Sing to Me Instead,” filled with personal reflections. The song “Ease My Mind” signaled his public coming out as gay. He is currently on a concert tour, which will be highlighted with a sold-out performance at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 29th.
A Supporting Cast of Award-laden Veterans
Ryan Murphy tapped Platt for “The Politician” after seeing him in “Dear Evan Hansen,” both of them finding the jump from tortured self-abasing teen to ruthless Chosen One to be irresistible. The producer then went about filling out the roster with a mix of promising newcomers and veteran actors garlanded with award bling. Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, who is married to Falchuk and picked up an Emmy as a guest star on “Glee,” plays Payton’s adoptive mother, presiding calmly over the chaos of her family from a privileged perch. She is in stark contrast to Jessica Lange’s big-haired, working class Dusty Jackson, who comes into the picture when Payton chooses her granddaughter, Trinity (Zoey Deutch), as his running mate. Lange, an Oscar and Emmy winner, is a Murphy perennial, having starred in his “American Horror Story,” as well as in “Feud.” Among the other adults in “The Politician” are Golden Globe winner Dylan McDermott (“The Practice”), Oscar and Tony-nominated Bob Balaban, Tony- and Emmy-winner Light and Midler, who, like Platt, is an Oscar short of joining the exclusive EGOT club.
Actors on the Rise
Just as Matthew Morrison broke into stardom on “Glee,” it’s highly likely that “The Politician” will be a vehicle for any number of Bright Young Things to shine. Some of those to be on the lookout for include the aforementioned Zoey Deutch, whose character, Trinity, may or may not be as disabled as she appears; David Corenswet, as River, Payton’s handsome and popular chief rival; Lucy Boynton, as Astrid, River’s girlfriend and Payton’s nemesis; and Julia Schlaepfer as Payton’s would-be First Lady. And for pure hunk appeal, there are Payton’s jock brothers, played by real-life twins Trey and Trevor Eason.
Anyone who has seen the racy and profane trailer for “The Politician” knows that the series will be filled with sexual shenanigans that will upend the best laid plans of Twitter-transfixed teens. Early on, a kiss between River and Payton is a prelude to more scandalous conduct. It’s not giving secrets away to note that Paltrow’s Georgina will find herself in an affair with a horse trainer, played by tennis champ Martina Navratilova. Platt told a reporter that “everybody in the show is sort of fluid” when it comes to sex. That’s no surprise since Murphy has been outspoken in his desire to explore the prism of sexual experience that he celebrated most recently in “Pose,” a fabulous look at the underground culture of drag and trans communities.
Dancing in the End Zone of Political Satire
Humorists have recently bemoaned the fact that for satire to succeed, there must be at least a shred of political normalcy. The present dysfunctional climate has the socio-political culture edging into a surreality that makes satire redundant. As Platt told the New York Times, his new series is “…a sort of microcosm of American politics, and it certainly deals with the buzzword of elections and debates and gun control.” That ripped-from-headlines strategy figures in an episode that brushes up against the recent college admissions scandals. More to the point, the series deals with the isolation and alienation of an internet-obsessed generation that promotes bullying and inhibits empathy. In that regard, Payton Hobart is an everyman struggling to feel something authentic. That is brought home in the pilot episode when, at a memorial service, he launches into Joni Mitchell’s “The River.” (If you’ve got Ben Platt, why not let him sing?) While Payton brings the school audience to tears, he wonders what, if any emotion, he can feel. The whiplashing series seems to answer: “Not much — yet.”