Netflix’s The Politician illustrates with a ludicrously luxurious visual aesthetic the rarified world of the 1 percent – maybe even the 0.01 percent. Starring Ben Platt as a Santa Barbara high school student running for student body president, the series gives its viewers a world most of us have never seen. Grand mansions. Lush gardens. Couture threads. It’s all here and reflects the sunny, wealthy world of Santa Barbara, California. With a twist.
The Politician also has its stylistic roots across the country in another kingdom. When Ryan Murphy approached his below the line design team about creating the series’s look, he pointed to the Kennedy family legend of Camelot as one of its inspirations.
By the time the series hit Netflix, the many sources Murphy and team drew upon finally seemed to have created a new aesthetic all of its own.
“One of the things Ryan liked was that he didn’t want us to know what specific time period the show took place in. It could be any time,” Production Designer Jamie McCall shared. “When I came across (style inspiration Sister Parish), I was really inspired by it. The more research I did on her, I discovered that she actually was the decorator for the Kennedy’s White House. Everything just kind of came together after that. It was my ‘Eureka!’ moment.”
Costumes Reflect Characters’ Inner Passions
Costume designer Claire Parkinson, in a partnership with frequent Ryan Murphy costume designer and collaborator Lou Eyrich, worked with Murphy to create The Politician‘s overall fashion appeal, which was inspired not only by East Coast Camelot roots but also by a 1970s-influenced California / old money / Montecito vibe. From prior experience, Eyrich realized her sensibilities blended perfectly with Parkinson’s design tastes. Due to the demands of other Murphy projects, Eyrich reached out to Parkinson to design the show.
Parkinson ultimately designed the bulk of the costumes for the series with Eyrich keeping two major characters.
Eyrich maintained the design for Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Lange. Lange’s look, in particular, proved tricky for Eyrich. The initial designs for Dusty Jackson were thrown out the window once the team saw Dusty’s great, bouffant wig. Eyrich’s costume design team had to make a hard right turn to adapt to the changing look.
“Ryan’s description showed that she’s probably dressing younger than she should,” Eyrich shared. “The trick was – with the makeup, hair and nails – not to go too overboard and to keep it toned down. He liked the idea of leopard and angora sweaters and things falling off the shoulder. Big jewelry and long nails. She shops at TJ Maxx.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
On the opposite end of that spectrum was Gwyneth Paltrow’s Georgina, adoptive matriarch of the Hobart family. Murphy’s direction for Georgina was that, day or night, she should look like she’s bound for a charity event. Even when gardening, she wears a ball gown in the middle of the day. Georgina probably jets to Paris to buy from the newest collections several times a year, blending Halston and boho chic with a 70s iconic look. She also has that unmistakable Ralph Lauren appeal thanks to her equestrian pastimes.
“I remember Ryan always mentioned Slim Aaron’s photography, which was a general tone for the whole show,” Parkinson remarked. “It really worked with the socialite, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara character that Georgina portrays.”
Parkinson adds that, after meeting with Murphy and Eyrich, she created looks for each character based on the very specific ideas generated by the creative team. Each character’s style matched their personality and career aspirations as outlined by writers Ian Brennan and Brad Fulchuk who provided specific cues in their heavily detailed scripts. Parkinson remembers that the script references Laura Dreyfuss’s McAfee as inspired by Gloria Steinem and Annie Hall.
Platt’s Payton, in particular, holds White House aspirations and dresses the part. That’s where his JFK visits Martha’s Vineyard comes in to play. In addition, Murphy referenced the Robert Redford classic The Candidate as Peyton’s style ancestry. His first lady, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), also holds the goal to get Payton elected. As such, she dresses the part of Jackie O. or Princess Diana.
Production Design Sets the Opulent Scene
Similar to costume design, Jamie McCall’s production design draws on Ryan Murphy’s overall vision and clues written into the scripts for the project. After absorbing all of the written detail, McCall met with Murphy to discuss his overall intentions. She needed to download what was in his brain and make it a real world. A hefty task indeed.
“I started off by putting together pitch boards to show him what I think the world he described looks like,” McCall explained. “After many sleepless nights where I tried to figure out how to combine all the things he mentioned, my first round of pitch boards he really liked. I think from day one we were on the same page, which was great.”
McCall carried the detail outlined in her original pitch board meeting through the rest of the project to ensure she was adhering to their shared vision of the project. With influential designers Sister Parish and Albert Hadley as influences, McCall leveraged the Kennedy’s Camelot to reflect that blend of elite, wealthy politicians referenced by Murphy.
Even the campaign buttons designed by Payton and his campaign team stemmed from Kennedy-era campaign artifacts. The team wanted a classic, iconic look and feel in every aspect, down to the buttons wore on those high dollar lapels.
The Politician‘s first season required extensive location shoots over built sets. Aside from the classroom, New York, and Dusty’s basement scenes, scenes were filmed on location with heavy adjustments to fit the needs of the scene. The series’s Saint Sebastian High School, for example, is a composite of three different locations blended to look vaguely otherworldly. The exterior of the high school holds a Spanish Mission revival look with built interiors designed to look more high end than traditional high schools would.
The golden world of Payton’s family home holds a classic look that intentionally exudes wealth in every aspect. It proved an extensive challenge to find the right elaborate mansion that supported film crews taking it over for a month. Even if it sniffs of a Trump-like aesthetic, the comparisons are strictly coincidental.
“Gold is always such a beautiful highlight that reads on camera so nicely, and it quickly reads as ‘rich,’ ” McCall mentioned. “It definitely wasn’t a call to Trump, per se. It just read rich quickly.”
Showing less much less flash and glamour, Dusty’s home established a sense of the real world. It eschews the other-worldly classic architecture and gold highlights of Payton’s environment. Instead, McCall wanted to illustrate Dusty bringing her West Virginia roots to California. That look was achieved with taxidermy and darker, grainier colors contrasting with the bright, popping colors of other mansions.
It’s a look that’s grounded in reality… even if Dusty herself is not.
“I mean she’s crazy, but she’s grounded in her roots of where she came from,” McCall laughed. “She knew who she was even though she’s driving toward what she thought would be a better life.”
Through both costume design and production design, The Politician completely adheres to Ryan Murphy’s initial vision for the series. Say what you will about the finished product (The Politician received mixed reviews from critics and online reactions), the below the line credits for the series – as with most Ryan Murphy series – hold the viewers’ gaze with their astoundingly elaborate, enviable designs. Emmy-worthy designs.
“The thing I’m most proud of when I watch the show is that it never strayed from the original concept of what he was hoping visually we could come up with his input and direction,” McCall shared. “That’s what I’m really proud of. Sometimes throughout filming, the look can stray a little bit, but I think my team and everybody involved did a great job of keeping to that original concept that Ryan wanted and approved.”
The Politician is now streaming on Netflix. Season 2 drops June 19, 2020.