After watching the first season of The Politician, I still can’t tell if I like Payton Hobart (Ben Platt).
I’m obsessed with the rest of the characters in all their conniving, sinister brilliance, who make up one of the more diverse casts currently streaming. But as I sunk deeper into the season and creator Ryan Murphy’s exaggerated world, a more practical sticking point plagued me: Why do these smart, inclusive, and progressive characters resolutely rally behind...a rich, white man? It just seemed so easy, in a fictional world that had no limits, to cast anyone else in the titular role. House of Cards, Scandal, and the less political Succession: All these already have white men in power backed by marginalized intellectuals. For a show that felt so different, the ultimate winner was just another guy.
As a viewer, I couldn’t get past it, even when I acknowledged the meta-ness of it all. So I asked the people closest to said politician to explain.
“We just see something in him that we believe in,” Laura Dreyfuss, who plays McAfee, said, first and foremost, when I sat down with the cast at the Crosby Hotel in New York City ahead of the show’s launch. “I think that [McAfee] genuinely cares about him as a person. I think she has this intense admiration for him. She truly believes in his ability to get there.”
And he did! Sort of. At least before things began to veer wildly off-course in the show’s finale. The season ends with Payton’s former cabinet abandoning their adult lives to once again support a fallen high school presidential candidate, and it’s not immediately clear why. Like Theo Germaine, who plays James, tells me, everyone in Payton’s inner-circle is “super driven" and "ambitious” on their own. (One could argue even more ambitious.) Yet, they choose to live in the shadow of a young, woke, but cripplingly self-absorbed man.
Perhaps the biggest explanation is the fact that the show mirrors actual politics. Germaine read a book written by Barack Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, for the role, and Julia Schlaepfer told me she studied videos of Bill and Hillary Clinton when doing research for her character as Payton’s devoted girlfriend and future First Lady.
“I think for Alice, I think she genuinely loves him,” Schlaepfer said. “I think that's what it comes back to, for her. She just has this like unexplainable love for him and believes in him.”
Hillary Clinton is also an example of how our world is not ready to accept a more diverse option. By building up an army of voices, The Politician calls out the fact that Payton is a palatable conduit for the wants and needs of his progressive student body.
Plus, the behind-the-scenes roles of these characters should not be discounted. Skye Leighton (Rahne Jones) is the most interesting player in this equation. Introduced as St. Sebastian’s first Black, non-binary candidate, Skye begins as Payton’s rival, later switching running mates, only to poison Payton, and then return to his side in the finale.
“It's just showing that marginalized people can hold positions of power,” Jones explained. “And I think that's Skye's overarching goal, to say it doesn't have to be some rich white dude that that has a say in everything. Everyone else has a voice here.”
Not only do their voices make up a president, but they make up a compelling, progressive TV show. And if, one season, they do decide that they’d like to be president, we have posters ready for them.