'The Politician,' also starring Ben Platt, Zoey Deutch and Jessica Lange, eviscerates the absurd lengths the .001 ?percent will go to stay on top — and the writers even predicted the college cheating scandal: "It is about the ugliest thing someone of means can do."
Midway through the first episode of Ryan Murphy's debut Netflix series, The Politician, Ben Platt's Tracy Flick-esque character finds out he's been wait-listed at Harvard, his dream school and an essential pit stop on his meticulously plotted journey to the White House. He's venting to his adoptive mom, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who's wearing a bright-red Carolina Herrera gown as she cuts the roses in their sprawling, perfectly manicured California garden, about how unfair it is that his considerably less impressive older brothers got in.
"Well," says Paltrow, matter-of-factly, "your father and I bought their way in."
At first, the line seems like a playful nod to the college admissions cheating scandal, the spectacle of privilege that saw 50 parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, arrested earlier this year for allegedly bribing their kids' way into top-tier universities. But what most viewers won't know when the eight-episode series premieres Sept. 27 is that the scene was written by Murphy and his Politician co-creators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, the trio behind Glee and Scream Queens, eight months before Operation Varsity Blues captivated the nation.
"We lucked into that," says Murphy, tucked into a corner couch in his trailer on the Sunset Gower lot, where he's adapting his Tony-winning Broadway staging of Boys in the Band — among the 12 projects he's juggling — as a movie for Netflix. It's not the first time Murphy has had an eerie premonition in one of his shows, either. It happened with the "Nor'easter" episode in the second season of American Horror Story, which aired two days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, and on a later season of Nip/Tuck, when a line seemingly alluding to a Tiger Woods sex scandal was written well before the golfer's extramarital affairs were public knowledge. Psychics have even told the showrunner that his astrological sign bestows him with prophetic abilities. He's a triple Scorpio, if you're into that sort of thing — which he isn't.
Of the growing list of creators Netflix has poached from traditional studios with jaw-dropping deals (Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris), Murphy is the first to actually launch a Netflix original, albeit one that was picked up under his previous pact and is thus produced by Fox 21 Television Studios. "Ryan likes to move fast," says Netflix vp original content Cindy Holland, who notes that he came in eager to set up a cadre of projects after inking his landmark $300 million deal in February 2018. "I felt an obligation. If you're going to get that kind of deal, I wanted to be like, 'Let's get to it,' " says Murphy. "And I live for the drops," he adds, ticking off Stranger Things and Mindhunter as his most anticipated of the year. "I was like, 'I want to be a part of that.' " There's considerable interest around how The Politician might fare — in terms of viewership numbers (which, given Netflix's tradition of withholding, may never be widely known) as well as its ability to capture the zeitgeist the way Murphy's Fox and FX shows routinely have. Netflix is betting the showrunner's knack for having his finger on the societal pulse will pay off. Says Holland, "I think people are interested in these cultural conversations about class and privilege."
To hear Murphy tell it, The Politician is a class takedown in the vein of such satirical 1970s films as The Candidate and Shampoo — but with a modern, Trumpy twist. "It's wealthy people behaving badly," he says. "All of this has been percolating in the culture, particularly under this president and this idea of Ivanka and Jared [as] the sort of satanic poster boy and girl for privilege and nepotism." In fact, the president's son-in-law's curious acceptance into Harvard was the chief inspiration for the show's storyline. Falchuk, 48, was fascinated by reports that Kushner's real estate developer father had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard before his son was admitted. "This guy was walking around with the pride of being a Harvard graduate, and the reality was that he didn't belong there," recalls Falchuk, who married Paltrow in September. "I said, 'We've got to tell that story.' " It's why the show, which takes place in an affluent, comically liberal area of Santa Barbara, centers on a young man determined to become the president of the United States — on his own merit.
The writers' own brushes with privilege were always in the background, too. While Murphy, Falchuk and Brennan all came to Hollywood with solid educations, none attended Ivy League universities. "We've talked a lot about a group of writers in Hollywood — the Yale guys, the Harvard guys — and we've always been curious about, like, 'What is that like?' " says Murphy, who worked three jobs to put himself through school at Indiana University Bloomington. "We were kind of satirizing that." That all three are dads at various stages of getting their own children into schools only made the scandal more eye-opening. "I want to slap every one of those people because nobody took my SATs for me," says Brennan, 41, of the indicted parents. "It's such a gross thing and it drives me fucking nuts. It is about the ugliest thing that someone of means can do, and it's not a good look for this town."
While Murphy may have had inklings that the growing epidemic of unchecked privilege eventually would give way to a cultural reckoning, what he couldn't predict is that people he knew would become embroiled in the scandal. Though he's never worked with Loughlin or Huffman, he does consider the latter a friend. "It's a sensitive thing," says Murphy, whose two boys with photographer husband David Miller are 4 and 6. "Do I agree with what they did? No. Do I understand what they did? Yes. I think it's all out of a love of your child, and I think that the system has gone so crazy," adds Murphy of Huffman, who pleaded guilty to paying $15,000 to doctor her daughter's SAT scores. "I have always liked her — and I believe in redemption and in second chances." Pervasive internet rumors aside, there are no plans for American Crime Story: College Cheating Scandal. "I will not be doing that," he says flatly.
Unlike his Crime Story anthology, based on real-life events, The Politician isn't designed to be so literal. The plan is for each of the seasons, initially envisioned as five, to follow Platt's fictional character, Payton Hobart, as he runs in a different election, from student government to the presidency. "It's not a show on current U.S. politics. It's more about the phenomenon of what it takes to be a politician and how much of yourself you have to sacrifice to be a good one," says Platt, who is starring in his first series after a Tony-winning role in Broadway's Dear Evan Hansen. Though the name Donald Trump is never uttered, some real-life politicians are infused into Platt's character. Among them: Obama, Nixon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. "Enough with the baby boomers [in American politics]. Like, bye-bye," says Murphy, who at 53 is at the very tail end of that generation and eager for a changing of the guard. "You can see that people get excited by young people like AOC. You may love her, you may hate her, but she is an exciting figure because she is the future," says the showrunner, whose dream 2020 ticket is Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg. "That's what I'm trying to write about."
Murphy had been itching to write something about ambition — his, in particular — for some time. "My ambition has always been …" he pauses, " 'sociopathic' is too strong of a word — but maybe not." The ideal vehicle for the concept, though, was always fuzzy. That is, until he discovered Platt in Dear Evan Hansen in spring 2017. "I had never seen a male actor able to be vulnerable and accessible and neurotic," he says. "Usually it's women who do that brilliantly." Murphy immediately thought of Barbra Streisand, who was actually attached to The Politician at one point. "Ben is that kind of figure. And also, like Barbra, very ambitious." The 25-year-old actor-singer was tired of playing the sweet, nerdy, wallflower-y teen he had been in Hansen, Book of Mormon and Pitch Perfect. He wanted desperately to sink his teeth into someone confident, dark, sexual and, yes, ambitious. "As soon as he told me that, it clocked me into those ideas that I had [for this project]," recalls Murphy.
Platt, who grew up in Beverly Hills as the fourth of film and theater producer Marc Platt's five children, wasn't exactly a stranger to the kind of rarefied world that The Politician skewers. "It's a lot of very privileged wealthy white people, and I think now is the time to take a blackhearted look at that," he says. Paltrow, herself the daughter of Hollywood royalty Blythe Danner and the late director Bruce Paltrow, says the cheating scandal is emblematic of the problems with excess wealth, something her husband has strong views on. "Brad really doesn't believe in accruing generational wealth like that … because he feels like it keeps this vast difference between segments of the population," she says. "He's very progressive like that."
20th shopped the show around town in late 2017, sparking a fierce bidding war. What the competition didn't know was that Netflix execs Ted Sarandos and Holland had a considerable leg up: Not only had they already snagged Murphy's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest prequel, Ratched, starring Sarah Paulson, but they also were in the process of wooing him with a staggering nine-figure overall pact. For Murphy, what ultimately sealed the deal on Politician was a dinner he had around that time with Holland and Brian Wright, the Netflix exec shepherding the streamer's young-adult shows. Wright, who counts Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why among his stable, was regaling Murphy with details of how those programs racked up tens of millions of views and how The Politician, were it on their service, could do the same. After all, high school-set shows with broader themes, according to Holland, tend to resonate strongly with Netflix viewers. Murphy, who wasn't looking to make a niche story, was sold. "It just seemed like [Netflix] really understood what I wanted, which is a big, broad, mainstream hit," says the showrunner. It's why there's very little profanity and almost no nudity in Politician: It's designed to be a family show that kids can watch with their parents. "We're really not doing all that much stuff that you can't do on network," says Brennan, who, like Murphy and Falchuk, also signed an overall deal with the streamer.
It didn't hurt that Netflix offered a rare two-season order and was willing to pony up significant production money, too. "They will pay for talent and they will pay for quality," says Murphy. Given the all-star cast and creative team, it's no surprise that Politician was one of Murphy's more expensive shows — and certainly the most lavish onscreen. But that's not to say Netflix was just signing blank checks. "That's a myth about them that's not true," says Murphy. "They are very responsible." In fact, he's had conversations with execs there who have asked him if he could bring the budget down. And he gets it: "They have a business." For anything Murphy has desperately wanted, he says, they've all sat in a room, rolled up their sleeves and found a way to make it work.
At the top of that list was the need to make the opulent world of the series feel authentic. "The sets are amazing, the locations are expensive," he says. Never is that more apparent than when Paltrow first emerges onscreen in an emerald caftan and $10 million worth of jewelry. "Ryan is always very fixated on how I look," chuckles Paltrow, who worked with her personal stylist, Elizabeth Saltzman, and the show's costume designer, Lou Eyrich, on her character's extravagance. "We had to kick him out of the room a couple times." In fact, Paltrow's jewelry was so costly that a few of the pieces from Harry Winston were delivered to set in armored trucks with bodyguards. Oh, and there's that chandelier Murphy insisted on hanging in the background of a barn. "Everyone's like, 'That doesn't make any sense,' and I'm like, 'Look at this picture of Ellen DeGeneres' stable! Ellen is the most tasteful person I know,' " he says.
Equally important was spending the funds necessary to have sensible hours for cast and crew on set. That meant sticking to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. days as much as possible, in an effort to improve quality of life, even if it resulted in a few extra shoot days. "A lot of us have come up in this world, particularly in television, where you work 14-, 16-hour days and you burn out. I was like, 'I will not do that anymore,' " says Murphy. "I don't want people to be driving home at 4 in the morning."
Escalating the cost of the package also was Streisand's initial interest. Murphy had pitched the multihyphenate — he'd met her at a dinner party at her Malibu home a few years ago with her husband, James Brolin, John Travolta and Kelly Preston, and Lady Gaga (yes, he got the whole tour) — on a role he had in mind specifically for her before there was even a script. She considered it, but talks ultimately never reached deal-point status. "When we got to [that], as it usually is with Barbra, she's like, 'I really don't want to leave Malibu.' She doesn't want to work. She wants to be on her music vibe right now, which I get," says Murphy, who later tosses around the possibility of collaborating with her on a musical special. He swapped one Academy Award winner for another when Jessica Lange stepped in to fill the void, though getting the show's other Oscar winner, Paltrow, wasn't quite as easy.
"It took some convincing," says husband Falchuk. "A lot of convincing." He wrote the part of Georgina, a warm but ultra-privileged woman who utters lines like, "This negative energy is not good for your father's healing," that make you wonder if the couple is playing some kind of thinly veiled joke on viewers by intentionally subverting public perceptions of the Goop CEO. "He said, 'You're my muse for this character,' and I was like, 'Oh, that's very nice,' " recalls Paltrow, whose wellness company has its own series hitting Netflix in early 2020. But when Falchuk initially asked her if she'd actually play the role, her answer was no. "I just was like, 'I can't do any projects right now. I have an immense amount of responsibility at my company,' " says the 46-year-old actress, who'd already gotten to know Sarandos and his wife, Nicole Avant, socially on double dates. But Falchuk, Murphy and Netflix execs were so determined that they were willing to build the production calendar around Paltrow's Goop schedule. (She was never on set for more than a couple days a week, and when she was there, she had a flock of Goop staffers by her side.) "It was like, "If you can't do something, just tell me and I'll rewrite the scene,' " says Falchuk.
Also appealing was Murphy's new practice of giving stars he builds shows around an executive producer credit and "points" in the project, which requires the creators to give up some of theirs. Under Netflix's model, that translates to an additional lump sum of cash up front in lieu of traditional backend payouts down the road. "My philosophy is that they're just as important as the writers or directors, so I believe in paying them," says Murphy, who notes that there used to be only a handful of actors — Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks — who'd get that. The creator first implemented it with Paulson on Ratched and then later on Politician with Platt, Lange and Paltrow — though the latter isn't quite sure about the inner workings of her deal. "I can't remember exactly what it was," she says. "I know I'm an executive producer; I don't know exactly what that means in this context." Platt made use of his credit by becoming intimately involved in finding the show's all-star supporting cast, which includes Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, January Jones, Dylan McDermott and a crop of newcomers. "A lot of times you have actors with executive producer credits and it's a goof, it's not real," says Falchuk, "but Ben was a participant in all of it." Before filming, Platt invited the younger castmembers to his family's Malibu home for a weekend and later planned a cast trip to Disneyland. "Ben is an amazing leader," says Deutch, with Boynton echoing: "He orchestrated [our] getting close very quickly."
Paltrow wasn't looking to be quite so hands-on. "I already have another job, so I wasn't trying to stake my executive producer flag in the ground and start bossing anyone around by any means," she says, though her husband adds that she'd occasionally suggest changes to her character's lines. "She would come to me with, 'This is killing me; please don't make me say all this.' OK —" Falchuk smiles as he mimics scratching out lines in the air — "and I would never do that for anybody else but …" It was, after all, the first time the pair had collaborated professionally since meeting when Paltrow guest-starred on Glee (unless you count the time Falchuk posed with her for the cover of the sex and love issue of Goop's quarterly magazine). Murphy is just relieved to see his longtime friends, for whom he threw "the world's most opulent wedding party" last year, happy. "They're very lovey-dovey, physical and they've found some incredibly rarefied space," he says. "They both went through a lot, and I was with them for a lot of years where it wasn't so great." The show was, for Paltrow, a chance to watch her behind-the-scenes husband step into more of a leadership role. "It's so fun to be working with someone who you're in love with," she says. "I was like, 'Agh! He's so hot, he's so talented, this is so fun.' "
Concerns that Murphy might struggle with the transition from his close-knit community at 20th to Netflix, perceived by some as a soulless Silicon Valley machine, haven't gone unnoticed by the showrunner. "I don't feel like there was a great trauma like I thought there would be and like people in the press speculated," says Murphy, who still works out of his Fox lot offices as he builds his new Netflix workspace two miles southwest of the company's Sunset Boulevard headquarters. "There is a warmth and a family vibe there [at Netflix] that I did not expect. It feels like a group of people that you could go on vacation with." Day-to-day, he works most closely with Wright, Holland and Scott Stuber, Netflix's film head. He's particularly enjoying the latter relationship, as he never had much of one with 20th's film division, something that still perplexes him. Murphy also has a direct line to Sarandos, which he tries not to abuse. "Ted's like Dad," he says. "You [only] call Dad when you need Dad." ("Mom" will always be his former Fox boss and now Disney TV chief Dana Walden, says Murphy, who still speaks with her daily.) He's only had to call Sarandos a few times — mostly with clarifying questions. "It wasn't anything bad," he insists. "It was like, 'Hey, I'm new to this, what about this?' " Sarandos watches Murphy's cuts and was the first person to write him a 3 a.m. email telling him he was "obsessed" with The Politician after bingeing the episodes. "That's what you want," adds Murphy. "You want Dad to love you and to get you."
The prolific showrunner's first three to five projects for Sarandos and company will be "patina'd, star-driven, commercial things," he teases. Just after starting at the streamer, Murphy had lunch with Holland and Wright and pitched them seven ideas: shows he wanted to make, genres he was interested in exploring, stars with whom he hoped to work. "He has big ambitions," says Holland. They jotted them down and came back telling him the three that excited them the most, but made it clear he should eventually do them all. "I have greenlight power on everything," says Murphy. "But I'm never going to make something if they don't want me to make it." A year into his deal, he has yet to cross paths with fellow Netflix showrunners Rhimes or Barris. "I think we're all working on our own stuff," he adds.
Come September, Murphy will experience his first "drop" as a creator. As someone all too familiar with weekly watercooler buzz, he may have a difficult time adjusting to the burn-twice-as-bright-for-half-as-long binge model. "What we have all known as television — an episode drops a week, you promote the shit out of it, you drive down Sunset, there's your billboard," he says, "that's not the future." He's become privy to some of the streamer's proprietary insights, such as that people who view his shows on the platform also tend to watch Bob's Burgers. "Who knew?" he says. "That's millions and millions of people that I never would think."
Of course, Murphy will continue to serve as his own publicity generator (not only through press but via his million-plus social media followers). "There is a lot of P.T. Barnum in Ryan," says Walden. "He's going to be able to teach Netflix a lot because he understands that process very well." Netflix already has been hosting private screenings of The Politician for media and influencers in an effort to drum up a word-of-mouth campaign. Sarandos made the rounds at the L.A. event at San Vicente Bungalows, as Tyra Banks, Rob Lowe and Ed Westwick mingled with the show's cast and creators. Paltrow appeared at one in the Hamptons, where she spends her summers, with her mother. "I'm definitely going to do some promotion," she says. "As little as I can get away with, but still."
As Murphy learns to navigate the Netflix way, one emotionally charged subject he'll inevitably have to come to terms with is his relationship with ratings. That the streamer provided a safe harbor from them was an obvious draw for the showrunner, who calls the daily report card "absolute bullshit." But in the sort of twist you'd expect to find in one of his shows, Netflix has begun releasing metrics for some of its high-profile fare. Holland says they'll let Murphy see the viewership on his projects, should he want to — though he claims he doesn't. "I'm not interested in that," he says. "All I want to hear is let's do more or let's not." (Awards likely wouldn't hurt, either.) It's a peculiar stance for someone who was spellbound by the data-packed presentation Netflix dazzled him with in an early meeting (he still talks about the map with the blinking lights illustrating his global reach). Some of Murphy's closest collaborators, including Falchuk, don't buy it: "He's going to want to know."
Back in the trailer, Murphy's phone buzzes, reminding him he's nearly late to a script meeting for one of his dozen projects. Ratched, Boys, Hollywood and The Prom (which stars Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman) are all in various stages of pre- to postproduction, and The Politician's second season starts up in October. He's also got three documentary projects, plus three other series in development at the streamer — to say nothing of his five 20th shows, most of which have second windows on Netflix. (There's even talk of a "Ryan Murphy" button or row on the platform, though the details have yet to be fleshed out.) What is clear is that for someone who works 18-hour days, relying on the occasional IV vitamin drip to stay healthy, the irony of Murphy's efforts to create more manageable workdays for cast and crew is apparent. "I will always be this person," he says. "I want to be Norman Lear. I want to work when I'm 96 years old."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.