The trailer of “The Politician” begins with a shining stage light turning on to illuminate Ben Platt right before he introduces his running partner, Payton Hobart, the titular character. The show follows Payton as he tackles his high school’s presidential election with captivating ambition, but the trailer visuals hit a snag for high school or college-aged viewers: All the actors look like they’re in their 20s.
Viewers will know Platt as Benji in the “Pitch Perfect” movies and from his Tony award-winning work as the title character in hit Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” Platt was just the right age to play a college freshman when he was Benji in “Pitch Perfect,” but seven years later at age 25, he’s far removed from high school.
Similarly, Platt’s costar, Zoey Deutch, plays Payton’s running mate, Infinity Jackson, in “The Politician.” Deutch has starred in “Beautiful Creatures,” “Dirty Grandpa” and Netflix’s 2018 rom-com “Set It Up.” Deutch is just one year younger than Platt at 24. The pattern continues as the high school aged-characters are all played by actors in their early to mid-20s, who don’t look like they belong in high school.
For almost as long as high schools have been breeding grounds for drama, they’ve been a popular back drop for shows and movies across genres. From compelling dramas to smile-cracking teen comedies, audiences of all ages have found something to capture them in depictions of average American high schools. Despite the almost global allure of high schoolers and their larger-than-life stories, casting older, long out of high school actors to play them is not only not unheard of, but an industry standard.
The show “Riverdale” is a popular example of age-inappropriate casting. “Riverdale” is a popular show about the lives of the characters from the “Archie” comics, starting the summer after their freshman year of high school. As of 2019, the actors cast as high schoolers range in age from 22 to 31.
Cole Sprouse is one of the biggest names on the cast list for his role as Cody in Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” and the continuation series, “The Suite Life on Deck.” To put things into perspective, at 27, Cole Sprouse was the appropriate age to play a high school sophomore more than 10 years ago.
So “The Politician” is far from alone in its casting choices. Critics of shows like “Riverdale” and “Pretty Little Liars,” another show that made a habit of casting older actors, posit that the inappropriate casting of older actors contributes to teenage feelings of inadequacy, particularly about appearance.
There’s a disconnect between what a real high school sophomore looks like and the high school sophomores depicted on shows like “Riverdale,” and anyone who’s been to a high school recently will say it.
While that’s a valid and necessary conversation to have in order to better serve teenage audiences, “The Politician” definitely stands out in comparison to other high school-centric media, particularly in its goals and purposes.
While the main goal of every piece of non-documentary style media, and some documentaries, is to entertain, “The Politician” is also satirical. The show takes classism and, not just politics, but being a politician, and uses drama to sharpen those topics with the goal of poking the audience with the barbs to start thought and conversation.
Platt’s Payton Hobart exudes stereotypical, preppy, rich kid. His mother, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, positively oozes wealth and prestige. What viewers can see of the show’s sets in the trailer look luxe, to be sure. Every part of “The Politician,” from its star-studded cast to its sets to the accessories, whistles to the tune of big budget. Creator Ryan Murphy sets the perfect back drop for this line of commentary.
Payton is going to be the president of the United States, and his high school’s class presidential race is just the first stop for him. Each season of “The Politician” is meant to follow Payton as he throws himself into another one of his life’s elections as a politician, in the process commenting on what it takes to be a politician and how being a part of the top one percent can get you there easier.
Even before its official drop on Sept. 27, “The Politician” is pulling no punches. Billboards near major universities all over the country marketing the show are stirring the pot. The billboards picture Paltrow’s character and her two older sons, who are Harvard students, with the quote, “I bought their way in, too.”
Many of these billboards are near the University of Southern California, a huge setting place for the infamous college bribery scandal earlier this year, incriminating stars such as Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
The satirical nature of the show will likely make it a more complicated watch than “Riverdale” or “Pretty Little Liars.” Even before the viewers get their eyes on it, though, the satire must have been complicated to write and, most of all, complicated to execute. Perhaps then, “The Politician” is justified in casting actors who not only look older than high school age but are known for their older characters.
Satire is a two-way street. It takes just as much effort from the receiver as it does the creator of satire to make it understandable, and thus good quality. In this case of a satirical show, the satire must be written and delivered to the audience via an actor, and this actor has to deliver it effectively.
If satire is not understood by the audience, it spurs no conversations, causes no self-reflection. Platt’s chops in “Dear Evan Hansen” give him a strong recommendation as a vehicle for Murphy’s broad comments on career politics and class.
Younger actors who can be depended on to deliver the way Platt, Paltrow, Deutch and the other mammoth stars, such as Jessica Lange, can are few and far between. Younger, less experienced actors should be given more chances, but “The Politician” is not necessarily the show for that.
If anything, the older-than-high-school-but-still-youthful actors add to the show’s satirical stance on class dynamics. The rich can afford to look unbelievably good, and there’s something about the 20s that people of all ages covet. Teenagers want to look older but not old, and older people want to look younger but not juvenile.
There’s a trend of teenagers looking a little older than they are because today’s youth have wider access to traditionally adult-centered things, such as makeup. In the sparkling upper-class world depicted in “The Politician,” these teenagers have access to makeup, designer clothes and top dermatologists to keep them looking beautiful and trendy.
Think of the Kardashian-Jenner sisters. They’ve been in the limelight since they were children by association with their mega famous sisters. They’ve had access to dermatologists and estheticians and makeup, and nary a pimple has been spotted on their faces since puberty.
Older actors, while not ideal in their non-adolescence, can serve well enough visually in “The Politician” as they play preppy kids with deep pockets and deliver better performances than inexperienced, younger actors when their roles call for complex ambition, ferocity and vulnerability.
With just one cryptic but visually stunning trailer starring big names, so much about the “The Politician” is only speculation until it is dropped for public audiences on Netflix on Sept. 27. “The Politician” has “promised to promise you everything.” We’ll see if it delivers.