Last week, Netflix debuted producer Ryan Murphy’s new satirical dramedy The Politician, which tells the story of a high schooler named Payton Hobart (Ben Platt from Dear Evan Hansen) who will stop at nothing to win the student government presidency as part of a thirty-year plan to reach the presidency of the United States. Subsequent seasons will chart his progress to the White House. The series produced polarizing reactions, with many major critics arguing that the show is a tonally inconsistent mess anchored by a protagonist whose unlikable, over-mannered persona was unrealistic and off-putting. Willa Paskin of Slate, for example, called Payton not a real person but “a mannered cartoon of one.” TV Guide’s Matt Roush called him “a chilly antihero it's hard to muster much empathy for,” and “more robot than human.” I think that these critics are wrong, and as someone who was basically that person in high school, I can speak to where they err.
First, I want to stipulate that of course The Politician isn’t realistic in a literal sense. I’m not entirely sure why critics would ask that a fantasy dramedy should be grounded in the probable. At some level, every work of fiction is a departure from reality, and The Politician is stylized and heightened past the point of absurdity. This is both the point and beside it. The lack of realism is no more a knock against it than the surreal elements of Waiting for Godot count against that play for failing to realistically portray the experience of sitting under a dead tree. That said, the show is an indulgent, sloppy mess that never quite balances its elements correctly to stay on the razor’s edge between comedy and tragedy. It leans too far into the outrageous and never quite grounds its story in the moments of poignancy that dot its otherwise emotionally distant narrative.
If you have ever seen one of Ryan Murphy’s shows, such as Nip/Tuck, Glee, Scream Queens, or American Horror Story, you already know the style, and its flaws. But underneath the gloss and the candy-colored fantasias, Murphy’s shows aren’t actually about their putative stories. The Politician isn’t really about high school or even politics. Like most of Murphy’s work, underneath the surface is a show about what it meant to be gay in the late twentieth century and the challenges of dealing with a world that demanded you not be if you wanted to be fully a part of it. Murphy is himself gay, and 16 years older than I am.
Across Murphy’s shows, we see repeated themes (projected through queer characters sometimes but grande dame actresses more often) of seeking self-expression against a culture demanding conformity, and the consequences of either succeeding or failing to externalize one’s internal self. Rather than go into detail, I recommend you read Emily VanDerWerff’s excellent analysis making the same point.
Here, though, I will add that the critics of The Politician, almost to a fault, have failed to see the most important element in understanding both the show and its main character. Payton is in love with the sensitive, handsome golden boy jock, River Barkley (David Corenswet). In their urge to be progressive, most critics passed this off as no big deal, and more than a few did not mention River at all, even though he is not only Payton’s true love but also fairly obvious SYMBOLISM. Not only did River run against Payton for president, precipitating the story, but he also committed suicide in front of him after confessing his love, a fact that the show should have treated with greater weight than it did. Symbolically, his death represents the sacrifice of the true self that Payton makes for power. Murphy and his team lampshade this explicitly near the end of the first season, describing Payton’s later visions of River as his conscience, but it is more than that.
Because The Politician is set in the present, it’s less obvious that it is dealing with emotions and ideas that are a few decades out of date, from the time when Ryan Murphy and his colleagues Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan were young men. In those days, to have an ambition for public life meant choosing between being LGBTQ and having a public career. Even today, in many parts of the country, it still does. This election cycle is the first time that an openly gay man is running for the presidential nomination of a major political party and was, however briefly, considered a viable option.
I couldn’t help but feel a little twinge of anger when Roush called Payton a chilly robot and when other critics found him to be an unrealistic cartoon. It’s not entirely untrue, but I won’t pretend that it is unrealistic. For a few years, this was my story, too.
Yes, I know I say that a lot. Buzzfeed recently had a stupid quiz to determine if you went to a TV high school, highlighting the ridiculous things that happen on TV teen dramas. And, yes, I lived through more of them than most. The first high school party I went to really was in a mansion—well, a McMansion—and, yes, it involved hundreds of kids, emotional melodrama, and a dramatic police raid. If you’ve seen Can’t Hardly Wait, you were there. And, yes, many of my friends and I all went off to the same college suspiciously close to our hometown for several disappointing seasons that never quite lived up to the original. There were rapes and murders and bombings and suicides and drugs and booze and petty corruption. Payton in the Politician faces an assassination attempt—two, in fact. In college some kids built a bomb and attached it to my dorm room door, and only their incompetence limited the explosive power. Yes, this kind of stuff happens. When I said a while back that my adolescence was far too close to the later seasons of 13 Reasons Why for comfort, it was not an exaggeration. It all seemed normal at the time, but apparently it was far from it. One incident can stand for them all. In the journal I kept in high school, there is a cute little runner about a girl from a wealthy neighboring town who kept showing up at parties to ask me weird questions and try to date one of my friends. I never really knew her, and she would have been a stock character from a bad comedy, except that one night junior year her father murdered her mother and killed himself so grotesquely that the newspapers wouldn’t report the details. It was all like that, really, tragedy waiting to overtake the comedy and the sweetness. Usually, it did.
But the things that happened mostly happened around me rather than to me, and that was mostly by design. Growing up in a largely rural area in the 1990s, even one that voted Democratic most of the time, meant that it wasn’t possible to be gay and to imagine a future that didn’t end in some kind of tragedy. My tragedy was that I aspired to public life, to do something more than to just get by. Because I was a gifted student—a genius-level IQ, eventually a National Merit Scholar, graduating at the top of my college class in two different majors in two different schools—it was assumed that I would go on to a public life on the national stage. My teachers would tell me that they expected me to be president, or to sit on the Supreme Court. I thought that I would be a network news anchor, back when that job actually meant something. But I always knew that to aspire to such heights was to make an impossible choice.
Even at a personal level, I faced the same unforgivable choice between being and doing. Though my family no longer remember, back then it was not uncommon to hear my father joke with varying degrees of seriousness of how he would disown any son of his who was gay. And I watched my grandparents’ hostility to my lesbian great aunt’s partner even after my great aunt’s death, refusing to acknowledge the obvious. My father isn’t like that anymore, and my grandparents are long dead, but the past was what it was. At school, my high school friends would openly joke about wanting to beat and kill gay people, and I had to pretend not to care. Late one night at college orientation, when the whole group of us from home plus their new athlete friends—my friends were football players then because that’s what happens when you attend a TV high school—were hanging out, one of our random temporary roommates, an arts student who wore a purple beret, announced unbidden to the group that he was bisexual. It ended as you would expect.
Over the course of my youth, I became the person I imagined I had to be, but the cost of doing so was high. I hated my lisp, so I trained myself to speak the way powerful people did. But talking like a newscaster or a politician sounds inauthentic, no matter how smoothly I spoke or how beautiful the words. (To this day, TV producers think I’m pretending, but it is the only voice I have left.) I learned what everyone liked and was the master of the two-minute conversation that sounded enough like I cared to make you feel like I listened. And most never quite noticed that I never said anything about myself. My parents grew up working class and after we had money, I had to learn to act the part. I had no actual sense of style, so I borrowed one. I modeled myself on the preppie, athletic golden boy who sat atop the social pyramid when we were all very young. We were friends for a time before he went off to train full time to be a pro athlete. Like River’s ghost in The Politician, he hovered over my life as a reminder of the path I wasn’t on. His glamorous life in European capitals and on the international stage, eventually with a beautiful wife and smiling kids in tow, showed up in newspaper articles and TV stories, the background noise of my life. I did such a good job of mimicking him that when we saw each other again nearly 20 years later, we were wearing almost identical clothes, from shirt to shoes. Eventually the real and the fake become indistinguishable.
Of course, I was never going to be him, or anything close. But I became the practiced, mannered politician I thought that I had to be. I started out at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, but I trained myself to make friends higher up, and I learned to act the part as needed. By the end of high school, I was a version of the person I wanted to pretend to be. I was friends with all the highest-ranking kids and moved in all the right circles. My closest friend was the captain of the football team, and I had a standing invitation to all the best parties. I spoke fearlessly to power and earned the respect of my peers by not being afraid of the principal, of the mayor, of the congressman. The late Robert Novak, of CNN, was duly impressed when I had an impromptu debate with my local congressman and got the better of him. In college, Ann Curry, then of the Today show, told me that she had never been asked so challenging a question as I asked during a speech, and it made my reputation for the rest of my college career. She also called me a “smartass” when she thought no one was listening. When I look back at the surviving tapes of my journalism projects then, it was no wonder that my professor, one of Barbara Walters’s old producers, thought me a natural news anchor. It wasn’t really a compliment.
I ran for class president senior year of high school, and I thought that all of the work I had done to build myself into a public person would pay off. I knew the right people, counted two-thirds of my class as friends of some kind, and was the best-known person in the school. I performed the role flawlessly, spoke extemporaneously as though from a teleprompter, and did not win. It turns out that the distance that the fake me put between me and everyone else was unbridgeable. One year, my English project was to write an autobiography with “ruthless honesty.” Obviously, I could never do that. So I wrote something that seemed honest, though it was only a simulacrum. I always knew how to sprinkle in just enough mildly embarrassing material to make any story feel real. The teacher wrote on it what he thought was a compliment: “You seem like a benevolent alien sent here to observe us.”
None of them saw, of course, how much it was killing me. Because I forever feared saying the wrong thing or making the smallest mistake, I couldn’t be the person they wanted me to be. I spent a lot of time alone because it was easier than pretending all the time. In both high school and college, my friends were forever angry with me for not being as open and engaged and present as they wanted. I pulled off a high-wire act, but the smallest breeze would have blown me over. It was a horrible choice to offer a child, to have to decide between being who you are and doing what you want to do in life. In that time and that place, one was impossible, so the other had to suffice.
I went to college, or rather the mask did, and when I was good, I was very good. When the public version of me was at the height of his powers, he could move mountains with a word. Celebrities and politicians and administrative flunkies bent to my will because I carefully managed the power I had, punched far above my weight, and wielded an unyielding morality as a weapon. I was the kind of prick who marched into the college president’s office and expected that she would answer me. And she did. I was the kind of arrogant fellow who made an enemy of the dean by refusing to follow restrictive rules meant for lesser mortals and who could force the dean to publicly present me with an award for doing so through gritted teeth simply because I really was better than all the rest of them. Half the network news anchors of the early 2000s knew my name.
But I couldn’t keep it up. It’s exhausting to fabricate a life and to aspire to hollow thrones. I started getting sick, and no one noticed that I was depressed. That’s the trouble with faking it. Eventually you get so good at it that it’s impossible to be anything else. Despite the glossy mask I wore, my heart wasn’t in it. In one journalism class, I sat near girl of maybe twenty made up like Barbara Walters, with a tower of sprayed hair, a dark pantsuit, and heavy makeup. She sat ramrod straight and always seemed to be looking for the right camera angle, though there were no cameras. Every day she woke up and dressed herself up like the host of a TV newsmagazine and pretended. I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be like that. Several classmates went on to local TV careers, reporting on car accidents and giggling about the morning weather report. I did not. I went through the motions, but the sheer amount of fakery that goes into making TV news stories was beyond depressing, and the more I saw how being a TV journalist was just another mask, the worse it made me feel.
I tentatively sought out community with other gay kids sophomore year, and that was even worse. I went to a campus meeting of the LGBTQ group, and I could not imagine a more off-putting introduction to being queer. The group leader’s icebreaker involved having everyone stand up to announce which orifices one had penetrated or had had penetrated. Then they danced to disco music and planned an event where they would share their first sexual experiences over loudspeakers in the center of campus. They, too, were wearing masks. Their performative homosexuality was a mirror image, but one I had no interest in. I never wanted “gay” to be the first word of my obituary, and there was no possible world in which I would shatter what was left of my former self in a public explosion. I’d like to say that this is where just the right person walked in and changed everything, since that’s how movies and TV shows work, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, I got a montage of bad dates straight out of a direct-to-video comedy. Whatever you imagine, it was worse. In that time, and that place, the only people who were openly gay were those who had no choice or who weaponized their identity to political ends.
It all fell apart halfway through college, though no one but me ever noticed. That’s the trouble with always being at arm’s length from your own life. Those around you don’t think about you except when you are performing your part in their lives. You are just a character in a TV show they don’t really watch. The TV professor took a dislike to me because I didn’t feel real to her, and she made clear that I would never work in television. The depression I had felt off and on for years grew worse, and the only way out of it was to give up my ambitions for the public life I wouldn’t have, at least not as I imagined it. No one really noticed that, either, until one day the wunderkind who was going to be on TV or in politics no longer was.
The world, and my life, changed a lot since then, mostly for the better, and it’s no longer necessary to choose which half of a life to lead. But the damage from the toxic culture of that time can’t really be undone. I didn’t get to have those quiet moments of grace that dot the youthful memories of most, and even the happy thoughts of younger days have the aching echo of the impossible distance that separated me from friends and family. It’s been years since I have spoken to most of my old friends, and close to decades since I have spoken to anyone in my family besides my brother and my parents.
If Ryan Murphy’s goals for The Politician remain unmet, it is because he did not lean far enough into the damage that the demand to lead only half a life inflicts on those who are talented enough to need to make that choice but not prepared enough to understand what that choice entails. His show is a bit sterile because it never commits to choosing whether it wants to explore Payton’s identity literally or symbolically, weaving between both in ways that never quite add up. At several points in the show, Payton asks why he can’t feel anything, and he only really experiences emotions when he gives up his ambitions. Critics like Roush read this as the random sputterings of a robot who isn’t quite human, but that’s not the case. To feel was to be disqualified from the life promised to others. Far from being unrealistic, Payton Hobart is all too familiar to me. He was me, at least for a while. And as far as I know, I’m still human.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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