Like Glee before it, The Politician, Ryan Murphy’s first show for Netflix, isn’t trying to recreate the on-the-ground experience of high school. There isn’t usually a resident teen suffering from The Act-style Munchausen by proxy, and rat poison tends to stay out of races for student body president. Also, 17-year-olds don’t usually look like movie stars in their mid-20s (but then, that’s Hollywood).
The Politician’s Saint Sebastian High School may feel as if it sprang completely from a Murphy fever dream, there are elements of the fictional school that more accurate than they initially seem. For better or worse (probably worse), Southern California is littered with idyllic outdoor campuses, Spanish-style architecture, and well-manicured lawns. Pianos really do appear in school cafeterias from time to time. And like their counterparts in New York and D.C., there are definitely students in LA hell-bent on success, convinced that securing a spot in Harvard’s next class is the only viable path forward in life.
Here, a few clues that Murphy based Saint Sebastian on real-life institutions.
The Obsession With East Coast Tradition
Saint Sebastian's buildings, and the vegetation and sunny skies that surround them, are the most recognizably "Californian" thing about the place. Other elements, like the library's leather couches, Payton's polo shirts, and Alice's pearls, are High Classical WASP.
The Politician's school doesn't require uniforms, but many elite LA institutions do—and the design of those outfits speaks to a larger truth about them. "There’s something funny about a school like Marlborough or Westlake, where you send girls to school in flannel kilts... loafers, you know, polo shirts, navy blue sweaters,” recalls one graduate of Marlborough, which is known as the top girls’ school in LA. “The uniforms just don’t make any sense in the climate we were living in. They just don’t go, right?” The students’ uniforms are juxtaposed with “the red tiles and the white stucco,” which “does belong to the climate, in the way that kilts do not.”
Marlborough has been around for 131 years—hardly a pittance, but also a full 260 years less than Collegiate in Manhattan. The graduate's parents, New York imports, had her dress in “a long corduroy jumper that had a plaid peter pan collar” for the interview.
Proximity to Celebrity (and Wealth)
Sure, these communities may have adopted some elite East Coast ideals, but the landscape and proximity to Hollywood couldn’t entirely be ignored. These days, that curious mixture takes the shape of studying hard, collecting extracurriculars for college applications, and rubbing shoulders with celebrities.
“One thing that’s I guess unique to Harvard-Westlake, was growing up, one of our football coaches was Ashton Kutcher,” says an alum of Harvard-Westlake, the most prestigious and infamous (prestigifamous?) private school in LA. “Like you would see him walking to the locker room area.”
The alum sounds entirely unfazed when recounting anecdotes like this. “You kind of don’t realize how crazy it is until you leave it,” she says with a verbal shrug. “So when you move away, people are kind of shocked by what your norm was, like seeing Tom hanks at an event or whatever.”
There are no celebrity cameos in The Politician, but the vast wealth associated with them is hard to ignore—and everyone's father seems to be dripping in cash. The Hobart residence has not only a mansion, filled with goods like the commode Payton's father indebted his Winklevii-like twins with.
Critics scoffed at Murphy's choice to hang a chandelier in the Hobart family stables, but he was vindicated by cold hard facts: “Everyone's like, ‘That doesn't make any sense,’” he told the Hollywood Reporter, “and I'm like, ‘Look at this picture of Ellen DeGeneres' stable!’”
The Intense Pressure
To be fair, if you walked into Harvard-Westlake's library, you'd be unlikely to stumble on a group of students poring over poll numbers, trying to strategize their next political move. But the pressure is real—it just takes a different form.
“The amount of all-nighters I pulled in high school was pretty insane," the Harvard-Westlake grad adds. It's this, above all else, that she wants to impress about her experience. "In a lot of ways I thought it was harder than college, and I went to one of the top colleges in the country," she added.
And this grad wasn’t even considered an overachiever. At Harvard-Westlake and its ilk (Brentwood often comes up as its more moneyed, Hollywood-affiliated cousin; Marlborough its all-girls equivalent; Crossroads the arty, but equally well-known, alternative) this student’s experience is closer to the norm. “If you aren’t the very, very, very top, you’re kind of exceedingly average,” she says, adding that the upper echelon is doing things like “literally curing cancer,” “sending robots to the moon,” or preparing to join a professional sports league.
Case in point? The show's star, Ben Platt, who is himself a Harvard-Westlake grad and won a Tony Award for Dear Evan Hanson. “What happened to the guy who was back-up to Ben Platt, you know?” the alum wonders aloud. “That’s the question.” (One could also ask what the backup to Beanie Feldstein, Platt’s classmate who’d go on to play a studious class president in Booksmart, is up to these days.)
The Relentless Focus on College
The thing about these hyper-focused families? They’re not wrong about the advantages conferred by a diploma from one of these elite schools. According to the Hollywood Reporter, 22% of students from the Harvard-Westlake classes of 2012-2016 got into an Ivy League school or Stanford. That, combined with the connections students make there—such as Ashton Kutcher as your football coach, or considering celebrities “as your friend’s goofy parents”—can set a teenager up for life.
Not that everyone gets there on the merits. When asked if she was surprised by the revelations of this year’s college admissions scandal, the alum nearly laughed. “No,” she said, without a hint of hesitation. “No, of course it happens. Like of course. There were no B+ students going to Harvard, unless your parent was somebody.”
The Politician was in the works well before the college admissions scandal broke—Platt said when the news surfaced, Ryan Murphy was “texting me like, ‘Can you believe that this is what our show is about?’”—and yet, the show managed to hit it on the nose. For those in and around that world, like Spence and Crossroads-bred Gwyneth Paltrow, it was just in the air. As she recently told Elle, “I’m familiar with that world.” (Paltrow and Chris Martin’s kids were at one time enrolled in the tony kindergarten-sixth grade John Thomas Dye School, so she’s seen it from the other side, too.)
But Not So Many Murders
The Politician opens with Payton's dream (or, maybe, his nightmare). He's finally made it across the table from a Harvard admissions officer, in the inner sanctum of academia that is the mahogany-lined office. This is the moment he's been waiting for—literally, dreaming about. All Payton really wants is a "yes" from the nation's most prestigious college. And before he's felled by his own bravado, he very nearly schemes his way in.
When The Politician fails, it fails spectacularly, hitting rock bottom harder than Payton when his Harvard offer is rescinded. Towards the end, when our aspiring President falls victim to his second or third murder attempt, the show becomes practically unwatchable—a mess of ill-explained, twisty-turny plotlines. Its mixed reviews are deserved. And yet, it’s hard to overlook what it gets right.
All the artifice, draped in approximately 17 alternating layers of irony and earnestness, allows The Politician to create a home for stranger-than-fiction truths. Like a chandelier hung in the stables: You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s real.
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