When it was first announced that uber LGBTQ producer Ryan Murphy signed a $300 million deal with Netflix last year, everyone was on the edge of their seats waiting for his first piece of original content to debut on the streaming platform. On September 27, the wait was finally over when the man behind Glee, 911 and American Horror Story debuted the 8-episode first season of The Politician, co-created by Murphy and his longtime business partners Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan.
No doubt you’ve seen the advertisements plastered all over the city: the show stars Broadway’s Ben Platt from Dear Evan Hansen as Payton Hobart, a wealthy high school student from Santa Barbara who has known since age 7 that he’s going to be president of the United States. Payton decides that the first step on his journey to the White House is getting elected as class president of Saint Sebastian High School and securing a spot at Harvard, so he enlists his devoted friends, or rather political team, to help reach his goal.
The show takes an unexpected turn in the final episode, but for the first seven, it’s like watching Scandal in a high school setting. Murphy brings one of his strongest themes —the all-American high school experience — and merges that experience with real world heft (“What if a high school political campaign was taken as seriously as a national one?”) The result is fascinating, hilarious and definitely entertaining to watch. Platt isn’t the only big star here, either. The show also features outstanding performances from his longtime collaborator Jessica Lange, as well as Gwyneth Paltrow (who’s married to Falchuk), Dylan McDermott, January Jones, Judith Light and the one and only Bette Midler. Light and Midler only appear in the final episode, when the show takes a small jump into the future and sets itself up for season 2 as Payton prepares a campaign to run for New York State Senate (Deadline reported last year that every season will revolve around a different political race Payton’s character is involved in).
Murphy, an out and proud gay man, has produced television shows specifically about LGBTQ stories, like NBC’s The New Normal in 2012 and FX’s Pose, which just wrapped its second season. But with The Politician and others such as 911 and American Horror Story, he’s doing something equally important: masterfully interweaving LGBTQ storylines into the larger narrative, making shows that are not necessarily about our community but are still nonetheless inclusive. The current season of the campy slasher parody AHS, 1984, does this as well. But Murphy brings inclusivity to a whole new level in The Politician with sexual fluidity of many of the main characters depicted in a natural way that’s not dwelled on.
The most obvious example is main character Payton. By all accounts, he appears heterosexual. He’s in a relationship with his devoted and caring girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), whom he sees as his Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton, the woman behind the man who will help get him to where he wants to be. However, when high school jock River Barkley (David Corenswet) comes into his life as his Mandarin tutor, Payton and River develop strong feelings for each other, which only complicates the situation further when River decides to run against Payton for student body president. Murphy has always done an incredible job of featuring young up and coming hot actors who are not only good looking, but also immensely talented. Corenswet steals almost every scene he’s in and the camera simply loves him.
River is in a relationship with Payton’s cisgender female rival, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton) yet not once is Payton’s or River’s sexuality, or masculinity for that matter, called into question. In fact, Astrid is so accepting that she propositions Payton to join her and River for a ménage à trois. Later, when Payton reveals to Alice that he had feelings for River, she also doesn’t question Payton’s sexuality or masculinity but rather focuses on what it means for her and Payton moving forward. Payton does not become any less attractive to her, and the audience also doesn’t see him as emasculated in any way.
Similarly, the character of Skye Leighton (Rahne Jones) is River’s gender non-conforming running mate. Once again, there is no special episode about Skye’s identity. It’s simply a part of her character that comes up when it’s relevant to the narrative: for example, what benefit or disadvantage can having an LGBTQ running mate be? And as someone who’s gender non-conforming, what are Skye’s motivations for winning the campaign and becoming vice president? Representation that’s relevant to the context of the story, and not just for the sake of being on screen is refreshing to see on TV and a step toward acceptance.
Shows like Pose and other content specifically about the LGBTQ community, are essential because we want our stories told just like everyone else. But once gay people come out, we experience regular day to day life just like straight people. Some of us have had the misfortune of being gay-bashed or been kicked out of our homes or even discharged from the army simply for being trans, but many of us are lucky enough to have regular jobs and lives in which sexuality isn’t on the forefront, it’s just fact. We go out to eat at restaurants, go to the movies, Netflix and chill, and go dancing with our friends, etc. We want to see ourselves represented in these normal, everyday situations too, where the story isn’t necessarily about our trauma or our history. Nevertheless, our identities and sexuality can still impact whatever we’re doing in an organic way. This is exactly what Ryan Murphy and team shows with The Politician, which is amazing to see and definitely the next step on the stairwell towards progress and equal representation.