Arts television review

An interview with Ben Platt and Julia Schlaepfer on ‘The Politician’

‘The Politician’ is the latest candidate in Ryan Murphy’s repertoire of hit shows

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Ben Platt and Julia Schlaepfer join a college roundtable interview for the new Netflix comedy-drama series, 'The Politician.'
Courtesy of Patrick Halloran

The Politician
Screenplay by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk, and Ryan Murphy
Starring Ben Platt, Zoey Deutch, Julia Schlaepfer, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange
Available on Netflix

The Politician is the latest candidate in Ryan Murphy’s repertoire of hit shows, including Glee and American Horror Story, and marks his first foray into the realm of Netflix features. Stars Ben Platt and Julia Schlaepfer recently sat down for a college roundtable to provide additional insight into the show.

The show follows the current political atmosphere that it’s “trendy to be politically involved and hopefully fans the flames of that,” said Platt. The series’ protagonist, Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), is a senior at Saint Sebastian High School whose endgame is to become the president of the United States. He already has a steadfastly loyal campaign team comprised of the tenacious McAfee Westbrook (Laura Dreyfuss) and tactical James Sullivan (Theo Germaine) as well as his future first lady, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer). But first, they must emerge victorious with Payton as Saint Sebastian’s student body president and cancer-ridden Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch) as his running mate so that Payton can get into Harvard. Opposing them are the charming but troubled River Barkley (David Corenswet) and his conspiring girlfriend, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynston), who has a longstanding feud with Payton. 

It is a show marked by Wes Anderson aesthetics, wildly exaggerated characters, and bountiful twists and turns. The characters approach the campaign process with such fervor and dedication that one often forgets that this is a campaign for student body president and not a position of higher stakes. It is very easy to draw parallels between the fictional setting of Saint Sebastian and today’s society, with the show’s incorporation of prominent issues such as gun control and mental health. At its core, however, The Politician goes beyond general politics.

[The Politician asks] enough big questions where it can be free from the actual headlines and is more about authenticity versus feigning authenticity,” said Platt. “We all have to be politicians in our lives and in our relationships. [The show] uses hot button issues as a way to make it feel current and youthful, but [they] aren’t the meat of the narrative.”

The characters live in the upper rungs of society and, as a result, are expected to project the personas they think the community wants to see. Schlaepfer talks about how this translates into our own societal standards: “Everyone feels the need to put on this perfection façade that may not be real, especially with social media.” 

The moments that highlight the characters’ vulnerability ground them in a world of satire and are the moments that the actors themselves enjoy and connect with the most. In particular, the heart-to-heart talks between River and Payton help to remind the audience of Payton’s humanity throughout the cutthroat campaign process. “Studying those cracks in our characters when those façades break away was really fascinating because I do it, too,” Schlaepfer said. 

Murphy’s Glee roots come through as he capitalizes on Platt’s theater background, incorporating several musical numbers and the aptly chosen Assassins musical production that the school’s theater department puts on. Though they may not have been necessary nor extremely relevant, these moments grant a gentle reprieve from the typical whirlwind of plot twists that fill the show.

The show continues the Hollywood trope of casting actors in their late twenties as high schoolers, but the cast’s stellar performances more than make up for it. Payton is a vast departure from Platt’s Dear Evan Hansen days, but Platt proves himself more than capable of rising to the occasion of playing the overly ambitious teen, drawing in large part on his own ambitions to succeed as a performer when he was younger. 

“If I pushed all of my other emotions and facets of my personality out of the way and was driven purely by [my ambition], what kind of person would I be?” Platt said. 

Schlaepfer drew upon young Hilary Clinton for her portrayal of Alice, motivated by “[Clinton’s] drive to love and support [Bill during his scandal].” Paltrow and Lange deliver compelling performances as the compassionate trophy wife and overbearing grandmother, respectively. The show does an excellent job in weaving together the different storylines, and although some of the plot decisions seemed a tad unbelievable, even by the show’s ostentatious standards, all the elements ultimately end up working together.

The Politician earns itself a high approval rating and proves itself to be a worthy contender in Netflix’s ever-growing collection of shows.