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Television

Ryan Murphy’s first Netflix series takes on our political circus — and he’s P.T. Barnum

Lucy Boynton, left, Ben Platt and Zoey Deutch star in the new Netflix series “The Politician.”
Lucy Boynton, left, Ben Platt and Zoey Deutch star in the Netflix series “The Politician.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

During a week in which the world of politics has had as many cliffhangers and melodramatic twists as a prime-time soap, it seems almost calculated that “The Politician,” the newest addition to Ryan Murphy’s oeuvre, is making its debut in the midst of it all.

The dark comedy, created by Murphy and his longtime collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, returns the “Glee” and “Scream Queens” masterminds to the halls of high school. The series is set in Santa Barbara and follows wealthy, Machiavellian high-schooler Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) on his ruthless, quest to become the president of the United States.

“I wanted to do something very big and sprawling and ambitious about the political life of a candidate,” Murphy says by phone. “I just love the idea of following the life of this character and his campaigns and telling his life story through the campaigns.”

The series is Murphy’s first at Netflix, where he moved his overall deal from longtime home 20th Century Fox TV in a reported $300-million pact in 2018. (“The Politician,” which was picked up under his previous deal, retains its billing as a Fox-produced project.) Murphy has wasted little time in crafting his Netflix chapter: In the works are “Ratched,” a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” prequel starring Sarah Paulson; the ominous “Hollywood,” which has only been described as a “love letter to the Golden Age of Tinseltown”; “A Chorus Line” miniseries; and a limited drama with Ewan McGregor playing famed designer Halston — just to name a few.

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In “The Politician,” each season will focus on a different election in Payton’s unyielding climb to the top. Available to stream Friday, the eight-episode first season tracks Payton’s precarious effort to become student body president, with the aid of his key strategists — McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), James (Theo Germaine) and his first lady-in training, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) — and get accepted into Harvard.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Platt in a convertible with the top down in “The Politician.”
Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Platt in “The Politician.”
(Netflix)

The cast also includes Gwyneth Paltrow, as Payton’s adoptive mother, Georgina; Jessica Lange as Dusty Jackson, the manipulative grandmother of Payton’s classmate Infinity, played by Zoey Deutch; David Corenswet as a handsome jock with whom Payton had an affair; and Lucy Boynton as Payton’s nemesis, Astrid.

“I think what Ryan has done is use this high school as kind of a microcosm,” Lange says, “an allegory of the toxicity of our political world that we live in and the amount to which it has devolved into this ... circus.”

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The politically timely series is also prescient in its portrait of unchecked privilege and ambition and the questionable parenting that encourages it. When Payton learns midway through the first episode that he’s been wait-listed at Harvard — a crucial stepping stone on his journey to become POTUS — and complains to Paltrow’s Georgina that he wasn’t accepted, but his doltish brothers were, she says, lackadaisically, “Well, your father and I bought their way in.” It might seem like a last-minute ripped-from-the-headlines inclusion, to play off the recent college admissions scandal, but the scene was written nearly a year before those headlines gripped the nation.

“It does feel a little spooky, and I’ve done that a couple of times in my career where I’m interested in something, and then, it blows up, and suddenly, it seems like I’m looking into a crystal ball,” Murphy says. “Brad and Ian and I all have children and, in the writing of this, we were talking about raising children and privilege and access. We did not anticipate that at all, but it’s interesting. I think people are looking to talk about that topic, particularly about white privilege and white access.”

For Platt, the son of producer Marc Platt — who fostered his theater ambitions at L.A.'s Harvard-Westlake School — Payton’s hyper-focused mindset felt familiar.

“I similarly had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do from a very young age,” the “Dear Evan Hansen” star says. “And that sort of drive and one-track mind is something I can definitely relate to. I would say we probably differ in how much of our authenticity and inner-self we’re willing to sacrifice for that ambition.”

That idea of authenticity — whether as a politician or an average person with a social media account — is something Platt, Deutch and Boynton dig into during a June press event for the show in lush Santa Barbara. The first episode of the series has several nods to the idea of truth versus the appearance of truth.

“I think in, this current age, authenticity is sort of like the self-awareness and acceptance of, it’s OK for me to want to present a picture of myself where I look good,” Platt says. “It’s OK for me to want to put my best foot forward and to find that balance of not creating a false vision of who you are while also not trying to pretend that you’re feeling flawless—"

“There is also the want to pull back,” Boynton interjects, “especially in this current climate, where you do feel so exposed. You want to pull back and at least save something for yourself or for the people closest to you. And I think that has become so conflated with what you are presenting as fake and false. And I think, in a lot of cases, that can be the case. It can be two very different versions.”

Deutch adds: “I think the show grapples with that really interestingly — that kids in the show have worked out how to survive in this school, presenting in a very specific way. And that is either coming from projections of pressure from peers or parents, or it’s just kind of this need to survive in that environment and fit in.”

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The actors laud the way the show handles issues important to Generation Z, saying that the show takes young people seriously and shows how their voices are just as important as those older than them — pointing to the way the Parkland survivors became gun-control activists.

“This show talks about voter fraud, gun control and all these other issues, under the tone of satire,” Deutch says. “It’s digestible, and it doesn’t pander, which young adults are more inclined to respond to. We don’t want to see people sitting on their soapbox. We don’t want to see preachy. One of the best qualities of the show is it talks about these really intense subjects in kind of a funny way.”

Reviews for the drama have so far been mixed. Entertainment Weekly’s critic said the show “suffers from a combination of Netflix bloat and Murphy’s own tendency to overreach for the hell of it,” while Variety’s review said the payoff is worth it: “By the end of the season, ‘The Politician’ becomes far more nuanced and complex than its initial few episodes suggest.”

As work begins on the second season, which is expected to be released next summer, Murphy says the writers have been looking at the early stages of the current presidential race.

“We live in a world that’s literally burning,” Murphy says. “I think that although people are well-intentioned, they’re dwelling on and dealing with very small potatoes when they should be thinking bigger and larger. All the great political figures that are legendary did that. Obama did that. Roosevelt did that. Lincoln did that. They had their eyes on a bigger prize. I’m interested in that.”

‘The Politician’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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